“A Conversation With Danny Kaye”

Lakeland Ledger – Dec. 23, 1979

Family Weekly

By Mark Goodman

In the movies, he once played the role of Walter Mitty. But in real life, Danny Kaye has acted out most of his dreams. Recently, Kaye talked about his life, his art, and most of all, the kids around the world—whom he has made his extra-special cause.

Let’s talk of Lamarr

that Hedy so fair.

Why does she let Joan Bennett wear

all her old hair?

If you know Bob Hope

then tell me the news.

Is it a fact the Navy

gets all his old shoes . . . ?

Among the earliest and fondest of my childhood memories is the Christmas of 1945, when my father and uncles would finally be coming home from the war. I was so worked up at the prospect that, to occupy me, my mother gave me one of my presents early – a thick album of 78-rpm Danny Kaye records. It worked like a charm. I can still picture myself sitting up in my room, with the traditional Texas Christmas rain spattering against my window, and listening to this marvelous clown tripping madly through “Dina” and “Anatole of Paris” and, of course, “Let’s Not Talk About Love.” Danny Kaye was no substitute for my father, to be sure. But he was the ideal surrogate for those dotty, doting uncles who always showed up at Christmas time to delight us kids.

It is now the Christmas of 1979 and, in the intervening 34 years, Danny Kaye has enjoyed one of the most fabulous careers in the chronicle of show business. I mean that quite literally, since his life, galloping off in all directions at once, has the quality of fable about it. Indeed, he is Walter Mitty incarnate – but Mitty actually living out his dreams. He has made a splendidly zany string of comic films (Up in Arms, The Court Jester, and, yes, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty), as well as guest performances the world over. Though he plays no instrument and cannot read music, he has conducted every major symphony orchestra in the United States and a few abroad – and been lavishly commended by the astonished conductors he replaced.

He is a superb chef (Chinese cuisine is his forte), the only American amateur ever to receive the coveted “Les Meilleurs Ouvriers de France,” that country’s highest culinary award. He is a five-handicap golfer, who once so frustrated his friend Kirk Douglas on the links that the powerful actor exploded, “Listen, you redheaded s.o.b., I’m bigger than you are and stronger than you are and I swing harder than you can. So how come you hit the ball farther?” A slavish childhood baseball fan who grew up near Ebbetts field in Brooklyn, Kaye is now a very active part-owner of the American League’s Seattle Mariners. Any other boyhood fantasies left to fulfill? Why yes, as a matter of fact. Danny Kaye can skillfully fly any known make of aircraft.

Several years ago, he demonstrated that skill, as well as his storied durability, when he flew a private jet to 65 cities in five days on behalf of UNICEF, the United Nation’s international children’s organization. This Christmas as the Year of the Child comes to a close, Kaye is embarked on an equally exhausting world-wide tour of a dozen or more countries for UNICEF, the most enduring obsession of this profoundly obsessive man. For Danny Kaye is still playing surrogate uncle to the children of the world, a grinning, miming Merry Andrew. Surely no entertainer in history has traveled so far to do so much for so many of the globe’s children as Kaye has in his role as UNICEF’s permanent Ambassador at Large of good will.

When he discusses something like UNICEF, and the Year of the Child in particular, Kaye is as quiet and thoughtful as he is madcap when the spotlight is upon him. “I’m sure the Year of the Child idea has helped the world’s children,” he says. “But I admit to having conflicting emotions about the nomenclature. In one sense it seems to designate that once 1979 is over, the year of the child is over. I travel extensively, and everywhere I go I make the point that every year is the year of the child. People must remember that children are our greatest single resource. Some countries have oil, some rivers, some minerals, but without children there simply is no future. At least the year has accentuated that and brought into sharp focus our need to extend more effort toward children.

“I’ve been working with the organization for 25 years now,” he continues. “I go back these days and see children who were 7 or 8 back then who have now taken a responsible place in the community. These were kids who were doomed to die – and they would have, except for UNICEF.”

Kaye is also quick to point out that he is not to be considered Captain Kangaroo to the universe. “I like working with children,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean that I like working with children more than I like working the Palace or doing a TV show. Please keep in mind that I don’t entertain for children – entertaining with them is totally different than entertaining for the. Most children I deal with don’t speak my language. Their culture is different; their environment is different. The only way I can communicate with them is on an emotional level. Kids have a built-in radar – they are basically the same all over the world. They can tell if someone is truly interested in them – or just pretending to be.”

That’s quite a compliment to youthful perception, coming from one of the world’s truly Great Pretenders. Sylvia Fine, the estimable composer and lyricist (who wrote, among other things, “Let’s Not Talk About Love”) with whom Danny will celebrate his 40th wedding anniversary come January 3, says her husband has “very superior equipment, an acuteness of perception that is staggering, an ability to absorb from his eyes, ears and senses that is incredible. Danny can watch somebody walk down the street and immediately walk like that person. He can imitate writers, doctors, anyone.”

Just where little Danny Kaminsky got all that talent is hard to say. The son of an immigrant tailor in Brooklyn, his formal education ended well short of graduation from Thomas Jefferson High School. He found his way to the Catskill Mountain Borscht Belt, where he became a tumbler (Yiddish for clown). In 1940 he met and married Sylvia Fine, who wrote the words and music for so many of his early films and recordings. He became an overnight star when Sam Goldwyn hired him in 1942 to film Up in Arms. Movie fans had never seen so many gorgeous gals (Virginia Mayo, Joan Caulfield, et al) throw themselves at such a hopeless bungler. Thus, Kaye prefigured Woody Allen as film’s classic nebbish-seducer by a full generation.

But his reputation as an eclectic spirit eventually began to exceed his comic acclaim. One night after Kaye had done a brilliant job directing the New York Philharmonic, conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos actually became angry at him at a party. “Here is a man who is not musically trained,” he said loudly, “who cannot even read music, and he gets more out of my orchestra than I ever have. What a waste of talent.”

People who are never physically or psychically in one spot for very long are difficult to pin down, and Kaye is no different from any other workaday Renaissance Man. Hear him, for example, on the subject of his only child, Dena (now a grown-up freelance journalist). “I remember with my daughter many years ago,” he says. “She would come in while I was trying to do something and I would say: ‘I’m sorry, but I do not have time for you now; I’ll play with you later.’ Then once I went to her room, and she said: ‘Sorry, but I do not wish to play with you now; I want to be by myself. I will see you later.’ It established a very honest relationship. You don’t have to demonstrate love for each other every second of your life.”

Does he really mean that? Who knows? As his wife puts it, “I don’t know anyone who knows Danny.” Kaye himself muses, “I’m sure there’s a secret part of me. If I ever find out what it is, I’ll reveal it.”

But if Danny Kaye is among the world’s most complex people, it is the simplest and shiniest facet of himself that he shows to the children for whom he works – and with whom he plays – so extravagantly. “If adults begin to understand the problems of the world’s children,” he says, “then the world may be on its way to understanding itself a little better.”

With that, he is gone, and as I walk out onto the street and hear the tintinnabulation of silver city bells through the sifting snowflakes, I feel a twinge of sweet melancholy for that Christmas of 1945, when I first listened enraptured to the world’s favorite dotty, doting uncle sing of Lamarr, that Hedy so fair.

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