The Danny Kaye Story

A four-part article series from Glasgow's Evening Times.

Part I      Part 2      Part 3      Part 4

Part 1

“The Fabulous Story Of…Danny Kaye”

He wanted to be a doctor, but started work as a soda jerk!

Evening Times – May 28, 1951

By: Michael Thomas

For those ardent boys in the Kremlin backroom who prove so positivelyl that Russian genius gave the world its telephones, its television, its washing machines, and ever other boon Mr. Danny Kaye must be an acute embarrassment.

Mr. Kaye is undoubtedly a boon, a rare and unique gift to mankind, and therefore fair game. Is Russia to claim that she invented him too? Regretfully the notion is put aside; this particular bounty hardly fits in with the Politiburo’s ideas on science and culture—like Picasso’s paintings, which may not be exhibited in the Soviet Union through Pablo has proved such a good comrade in other respects. Mr. Kaye goes into the “decadent” class. And he is a capitalist to boot.

The lads of the Kremlin may sigh for here is a case where, if they did make the claim, they would be more truthful than normally they know how to be. For the flesh and blood Danny Kaye is as Russian as Molotov and Gromyko and more Russian than Joe Stalin himself, who is a Georgian and consequently almost a Minor Asiatic.

Perhaps Moscow’s file marked “Kaye, D.” was dusted off hopefully when, a year or two back, the Californian Un-American Activities Committee rashly named him a Communist sympathizer. But I don’t doubt it was re-pigeon-holed with a bang when Mr. Kaye pronounced that particular activity of the Activities Committee “a lot of hooey” so forcibly that it felt sorry it had spoken.

Inspired Loon

Danny Kaye’s parents and his elder brothers were born in Russia. His father, Jacob Kaminsky, was a horse trader in Ekaterinoslav, in the Ukraine, a town the Soviets now call Dniepropetrovsk (now, maybe, you can see where Danny gets all that “rat de riddle, giddle de up” stuff from).

However, Mr. Kaminsky and family emigrated to the New World and little David Daniel Kaminsky came into it with wisps of reddish hair at Bradford Street, Brooklyn, on January 18, 1913. He grew up among relations and acquaintances who spoke Hyman Kaplan’s brand of English, but in the way of first generation Americans he rapidly became as typical of the United States as the green back of a dollar bill.

Nowadays Danny Kaye has gone a bit further. He is the template for millions of young Americans, one specialized type of the Amercian ideal. Quite what he is nobody has been able to explain satisfactorily. He is a star overflowing with talent and he is one of the audience. He is the inspired loon.

“What are you? A singer?” asked a Broadway agent in Danny’s lean days.

“Well, no, I’m not exactly a singer,” replied Danny, who had once wanted to sing like Bing Crosby.

“A dancer?”

“No,” said Danny, who had been the weak member of a song and dance trio.

“A comedian?”

Danny never tells a joke on the stage. What could he say?

He wasn’t hired.

Boy Wonder

Bradford Street, Brooklyn, then known as East New York, was no haunt of the halcyon in Danny’s young days. It was a teeming neighborhood uncomfortably shared between hoodlums and decent, hard-working folk, mostly from Eastern Europe.

Jacob Kaminsky went into the garment business, and though the family never had enough money to do more than exist, it existed happily and gregariously.

Young David, as Danny was called at home, did all the things expected of an American lad. He was a baseball addict, an expert pole jumper, and he played in elementary school theatricals.

There are today in Brooklyn a few people who were privileged to roll in the aisles at positively the first performance by the Wonder Boy. It happened when he was in standard I. and tripped on to the stage as a coon; he had omitted to cover his lurid mop of hair, and to black his Gable-like ears.

Danny was the comedian of the block, the clown who behaved as through he couldn’t help being funny. But his wackiness was a cover for a shy nature. He had no success with girls. “I was the feller who stood behind the feller who whistled at them,” he says.

If anybody suggested that he should go on the stage, the idea was not entertained; it was a doctor he wanted to be. But came the depression and the Kaminskys had to make one dime do the work of two. Danny left high school and took a job as a soda jerk.

It didn’t last long, for Danny, ever a kind-hearted lad, felt strongly about the way the Wall Street crash had hit his teenage friends. He stood them more sodas than he or his boss could afford and collected his cards.

40,000-dollar blunder

His next attempt to earn his daily hamburger confirmed that hew as not the ideal employee. An insurance company engaged him as an average adjuster—an accountant of sorts—but he adjusted with a heavy hand and committed a mathematical error that cost the firm $40,000.

The company weren’t sure that anybody could be so dumb as to do a thing like that in all innocence, and hired detectives to find out where Danny cached the 40 grand., They trailed him for weeks.

“We kind of got chummy, and when they got tired of loafing round the pool rooms they used to take me to a movie,” Danny said.

Years later, when Danny’s income was beginning to look like the company’s annual turnover the president wrote to Danny—“I saw your act and enjoyed it. When you cost us that $40,000 I thought you were a thief or a nitwit. It didn’t occur to me that you were a comedian!”

Part 2

“Faith, hope and chewing gum”

Evening Times – May 29, 1951

By: Michael Thomas

Danny Kaye met Mr. Churchill after a show at the London Palladium, and the ex-Prime Minister said—“Young fellow, it is a good thing you are not a politician. You have a tremendous grip on a crowd and you would make a formidable adversary in politics.”

Let’s turn back the calendar less than 20 years and see whether Danny was showing any signs of becoming the prodigy whose millions fans include royal princesses and great statesmen.

Alas, in those days he hadn’t even got a grip on himself.

When commerce decided it could ride the great American depression without his help, the young man was mortified. He roamed Brooklyn nursing an acute sense of frustration. But our Danny was not the lad to wear it on a placard: he covered it up by giving vent to his natural flair for mimicry and fooling in the drug stores he frequented.

One day his audience included a big-hearted old vaudeville actor who straight away placed Danny in a company of semi-pros who specialized in entertaining guests at holiday camps in the Catskill Mountains. So it was as the transatiantio equivalent of the British pierrot that Danny made his entry into show business.

He played the camps for four seasons, earning his keep and £50 in the first and his keep and £250 in the last. In winter he lived on faith, hope, and chewing gum.

Danny Kaye’s early contribution to entertainment was a brand of tomfoolery that kept the cash customers from fleeing out of the exits, but interested none of those gentlemen who control the money bags of the variety trade. But Danny did impress Dave Harvey and Kathleen Young, a dance team who were appearing in one of the camp shows.

Dave and Kathleen saw incipient genius where the caliphs of Broadway had seen only a red-headed, blue-eyed, six-footer. They taught him to dance and added him to the act. The trio joined a revue, “La Vie Paree,” for a tour of the Far East.

Honorable hit in Japan

In Japan in 1933 Danny faced up to the toughest job in his life—bar one (the toughest was yet to come—in post-war London). Inscrutable audiences sat through his solo performance as a comic without so much as wrinkling their faces. Danny was worried. He just had to make them laugh.

At least it occurred to him that few Japanese can understand English. He substituted gibberish and a few words of Japanese. Maybe the audiences didn’t understand his Japanese, but his gibberish certainly rang the bell. He was an honorable hit.

So by accident there emerged in the raw state the Danny Kaye technique we know today.

Git gat giddle, giddle giddle do up, giddle de Tommy idle de hiddle de rump.

Guaranteed no two lines alike.

Nothing to it is there? All right, try it yourself. Pick up your own tune, and keep it up spontaneously. No, it’s not so easy. Only Mr. Kaye has the necessary fecund imagination and acrobatic vocal cords.

“Don’t you ever use the same words for the same song?” somebody asked.

“No,” replied Danny. “I can never remember them. Can you?”

At Danny Kaye’s home is a room known as the Chamber of Horrors. One of its exhibits is a picture, taken on the Far East tour, which shows Danny flaunting a straw hat, with three chorus girls on each arm. It is, he avows, a reminder of his criminal record.

It happened this way. In Toyko, the entire cast of “La Vie Paree” was arrested for giving an “indecent performance.”

“We had no idea that in Japan at that time it was an offense for men and women to appear on the stage together. We were sentenced to 30 days, but instead of throwing us in the lock-up they jailed our pictures instead. So I’m very grateful to this photograph for serving my time for me.”

Booked for London

At the close of the Oriental tour Danny returned to the United States and the round of agents’ offices.

At this period producers were beginning to recognize that the lad had something, but they considered his talents too diversified, too thinly spread. However, the engaging Kaye was well liked by fellow-troupers, and it was another of them, Nick Long, jun., a dancer with a booking at a New York night club, who gave him his second break.

Danny stooged for Nick at the Casa Manana and the pair were seen by Henry Sherek, the London impresario, who was in New York seeking new acts for the Dorchester Hotel cabaret.

It has been recorded that Sherek wanted to engage Danny without Nick, but that Danny insisted his senior partner should go along too. That was not the case: Danny was the one the Impressario could not have cared less about, and it was Nick who spoke the “me and my pal shall not be parted” line.

The pair sailed for London in 1938.

Part 3

“Danny Kaye Was Once An Awful Flop In London”

Evening Times – May 31, 1951

By: Michael Thomas

He says, “I played at a saloon called The Dorchester,” and continues in a voice carefully edge with rue as genuine as a Soho-manufactured banknote, “I was too loud for the joint!”

There is no rancour, though this initial attempt to amuse the British proved joyless. Danny was the “and partner” end of the Nick Long act imported from New York for the hotel’s 1938 season. His primary function was stooging for Nick, but he also stood up there all alone and sang “Minnie the Moocher” and “Deenah.” These solo numbers were just two too many for West-End audiences. The applause was of the polite kind that falls worse than silence on the ears of entertainer and management alike.

Danny knew he had flopped, and he sat like a broody hen in the little hotel, the rooms of which were a lot cheaper than the Dorchester’s. He didn’t go out and see the Tower of London, nor the Changing of the Guard, nor any other bit of the local scene. If there was one man in those pre-war days who, more than Hitler, loathed London and its inhabitants it was David Daniel Kaminsky, professionally unknown as Danny Kaye.

“I died the death,” he swears.

His £40 a week contract was not renewed. Danny puts it more succinctly, “I was fired.” He packed his bag and spent a month in Paris getting the bad taste out of his mouth, then went back to the big village of New York.

Nowadays, Danny Kaye feels at home in Britain. “It’s a shame that Americans grow up feeling that the average Briton is cold and aloof. I don’t think a more warmhearted race exists,” he says.

There is no need for me to cite proof that this is not just another visiting star spouting a line prepared by his publicity agent. Everybody who has ever seen and heard Danny Kaye in a British theatre knows just how much he is one of us.

One other American of our time has so closely identified himself with the British—former Ambassador Lew Douglas. And of Danny Kaye Mr. Douglas has declared: “He is a better ambassador of good will to Britain than all the sedate personalities of officials.”

And what about those numbers so ill received in 1938? If I had a shilling for every time Danny Kaye’s “Deenah” has been requested of the Family Favourites people at the BBC I should be happy indeed. And “Minnie the Moocher?”

On that remarkable occasion when the royal family broke with tradition and sat in the stalls at the Palladium “Minnie” went over very, very stupendously.

After the show the Queen and Princess Margaret chatted with folk in the theatre, and the Queen nodded towards her daughter and said, “She’ll be doing it in my room in the morning.”

Fine Girl

In New York once more, Danny was busily attracting the attention of nobody but Fate, who, presumably, felt it about time the 25-year-old redhead got snarled up romantically, and so threw a girl named Sylvia Fine across his path.

Miss Fine, the dark-haired daughter of a Brooklyn dentist, spent part of her life submitting lyrics to publishers. Another part was devoted to demonstrating soup in a grocery store at £3 10s week.

One day a man named Lichtman asked her to write some comedy numbers for “The Straw Hat,” a revue he was producing. Miss Fine let the soup sell itself and went along to Broadway.

Then another day the man named Lichtman came into the theatre with a man named Danny Kaye he’d met on the side-walk. Well, the show, with Danny in it, opened and closed in 10 weeks, and it began to look as though Fate had gone to a lot of trouble for nothing. Sylvia and Danny hadn’t hit it off. Sylvia went home to Brooklyn and Danny moved to Miami, Florida.

On yet another day Miss Fine received a phone call from the Florida lotus eater. Above the background static she heard quite plainly—“Come on down here and marry me.”

Sylvia wasn’t being rushed by anybody. By letter she advised Mr. Kaye to stay out of the sun. But true love will always bulldoze a way. A month later, by one of those unbelievable seventh-reel coincidences, Sylvia found herself in Miami, convalescing from an illness. They married.

Sylvia Fine is one of those dark-haired women with laughter lines around the eyes who radiate good humour and more than their share of the horse-power that makes the world go round. When she wears high heels her eyes come level with the knot in Danny’s necktie, but he rates her stature a few cubits higher—“She is the head on my shoulders.”

She is the girl who took a firm hold on his bootstraps and hoisted him to the stars. When they married in 1940 Sylvia’s capital amounted to $30, her assets a few lyrics and a grim determination to condense Mr. Kaye’s unbounded talents into a marketable article—to put Niagra into a test tube. Danny wasn’t certain whether he had or owned $40.

They were engaged as entertainer and accompanist at a New York club, La Martinique, at £60 a week. It sounded like heaven at last and Danny went in with a brand new tuxedo round his ribs. Then the awful thing happened. The customers showed clearly that they were not amused. For Danny this was the final flop that bruised his soul; he sought the easy way out and asked the management to release him.

But our Sylvia was a realist who knew that love was no real substitute for the groceries £60 a week could buy. She turned tough and so did Ed Dukoff, the club’s publicity man, who is now Mr. Kaye’s manager. They talked at him. At the midnight show Danny took the floor again, scared of the patrons, but a dam’ sight more scared of Sylvia and Ed.

New rave-man

Danny put over one of Sylvia’s numbers, “Anatole de Paris”—the loony one about the hat designer whose mother was frightened by a runaway saloon. He impromptued gibberish to the band’s conga rhythm and gave birth to the now famous Conga Song.

A little after midnight on that memorable occasion the first thin scream of a the first Danny Kaye fan rent the air, and was taken up crescendo.

He was a wow.

Moss Hart grabbed the new rave-man and wrote a part for him in “Lady in the Dark,” starring Gertrude Lawrence, and Mr. Kaye stopped the show right in front of a Gertrude Lawrence number. Miss Lawrence forgave him nicely, Miss Fine’s husband had arrived.

When Mrs. Kaye first met Danny he was just a teeny weeny little bit “flash.” His hair grew long, and when he walked across a room he seemed to dance. His suit was pinched at the waist and the ties he wore were bow-shaped and only an iota quieter than a fire alarm. Mrs. Kaye likes medium-length hair-do’s for men and loose-fitting suits and sober ties.

And nowadays so does Danny. His off-stage neckties are narrow, plain, and usually of knitted silk, and his gait is that of an eager athlete. And in deference to Danny’s views on feminine adornment, Sylvia wears neither veils nor earrings.

They have a three-year-old daughter, Dena (named after the Deenah song).

When Sam Goldwyn signed up Kaye for his first film contract (“Up in Arms,” etc) Sylvia went to Hollywood too and there were moments when the great Goldwyn wished she had been included out. Such as the time when Sylvia stubbornly tried to fit a new idea into a picture.

“It isn’t a new idea,” Goldwyn fumed. “I turned it down years ago, and the picture that didn’t use it was a hit.”

Miss Fine countered in a low voice. “Perhaps if you’d used it the picture would have been better.”

Britain owes a debt to Goldwyn, who took a risk when he engaged Danny. There was no guarantee that the zany who sent the sophisticated Manhattan crowds into shrieks would do the same to movie-goers in Little Rock, Ark. Or Roanoke, V. or London, Eng.

But it was early the films like “Up in Arms” and “Wonder Man” that put the red-polled jester on the map in the United Kingdom. They were so well received here that Danny decided to join the great post-war trek of American artists to the London that had cold-shouldered him several years before.

Part 4

"Serenaded by Glasgow Fans"

Evening Times – June 1, 1951

By: Michael Thomas

There were lighter hearts than Danny Kaye’s the day he reached London in 1948. The outlook, that January day, was none too hopeful, and there was no Sylvia around. Mr. and Mrs. Kaye had parted.

“Sure, you’ll raise a laugh from the British once in a while. They’re polite,” somebody had said back in New York. He knew that; polite British audiences had sent him all asquirm at the Dorchester 10 years before. And post-war London, it was reported, was a bit curdled about precious Hollywood stars who’d been topping the West End theatre bills.

Danny Kaye walked on the stage of the Palladium on the evening of February 2. His first words were—“I’m shaking like a leaf.” And, by Jiminy he was.

The orchestra had to strike up “God Save the King” before the second house audience would let Danny go. At midnight crowds were still milling round the theatre, hoping for just one more glimpse of the lad from Brooklyn. The critics were back in Fleet Street surprised that they could be writing such laudatory phrases.

London took Kaye to its ample bosom. Six weeks later, his last audience refused to go home, even after the trains and buses had stopped running. It sang “For he’s a jolly good fellow,” and “Auld Lang Syne,” while Danny stood there beyond the footlights weeping . . . weeping so happily.

Sir Harry went to meet him

Danny came to Britain once more that year—for the royal variety performance, and Sylvia was with him. He was with us again in the following spring.

He entertained royalty in his dressing room. He became a very firm crony of Sid Field, of Flanagan and Allen, and other British comics who might easily have gone about with their noses out of joint. He was inducted into the Grand Order of Water Rats and made honorary president of the Students’ Union of the London School of Economics.

Scotland Yard unbent and showed him its fingerprint bureau. Miss Jean Divall, of Kensington, queued 36 hours for standing space to see him. His effigy was exhibited at Madame Tussaud’s, and the same establishment produced a bronze copy of his hands—those surgeon’s hands that are so expressive. He took tea with Bernard Shaw.

Kaye’s British progress has been regal, but it has also been tough on the lad’s emotions, and never more so than when he was in Scotland. Danny’s big heart welled up almost more than he could stand during his visit to Sir Harry Lauder.

“That fine old man actually came down to the station to meet me,” he says in all humility.

And when the Laird of Lauder Ha’ gave him the famous black-thorn stick, that was the supreme accolade.

In Glasgow, the Glasswegians sang outside his hotel “Well ye no come back again?” and Danny was torn in little pieces.

He is a highly emotional creature, which is to say he is not an abnormal specimen of humanity. He is, though, less frequently down than up.

The low troughs occur before the first nights of new shows. Then Danny has what he calls periods of “manic-depression.” He stalks about jumpily, as nervous as a kitten, as silent as an auditorium at 4 a.m.

The high spots occupy the intervening time, which may average about 90 per cent.

A preposterous menace!

Before I met or knew much about Danny Kaye I wondered whether he got any fun out of being a funny man. I know now that he is an instinctive comedian who gets a huge kick out of his job.

His antics are not purely professional. Ring up Danny Kaye and the chances are that if he is there to answer the phone he will convince you he is a Lancastrian who knows nowt about a chap o’ that name or that he is Mr. Kaye’s fictitious Oriental servant swearing honour blight that Mr. Kaye was taken into custody at Bow Street last night.

On the film set he can be a preposterous menace. He uses the make-up and wardrobe departments in a way that is not called for by his contract, and suitably disguised he will ring the doorbell of an acquaintance and insist that he is the plumber the Health Department have sent round to deal with odorous drains or that he is a long-lost relative recently escaped from behind the Iron Curtain.

But Danny Kaye does not rely on ad lib fooling for his living. He is a perfectionist, and if genius is still reckoned to be an infinite capacity for taking pains he is a genius (though he shies like a startled feal whenever he hears the word).

He will spend a couple of solid hours getting a number just so, going over the routine time and again until the saxophones and the trombones come in at exactly the right time and in the right key, listening attentively to any stage-hand who has a worthwhile suggestion to make.

Well, agreed that Danny Kaye is the biggest aspidistra in the comics’ world, what else is he?

I can safely say, on behalf of every reasonable person who has ever had dealings with him, that he is a thoroughly human, co-operative, kind-hearted, nice young fellow whose size in hats hasn’t altered any this past decade.

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