Singer, Kurt.
The Danny Kaye Story. New York: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1958.
various articles listed as needed throughout the biography

– The Early Years –

David Daniel Kominsky--"Duvidl," as he was called during childhood by his parents--was born on January 18, 1911 in Brooklyn, New York (See the FAQs for more info on Danny's birth date) and grew up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. (The Danny Kaye Story pg 24-25) His parents, Jakob and Clara Kominsky, emigrated from the Ukraine with his two older brothers, Mac and Larry. None of them spoke a word of English when they arrived in the States. (The Danny Kaye Story pg 27) As a child, Danny--as he would later choose to be called--along with his family, spoke Yiddish at home and had preserved all the Russian-Jewish customs. It wasn't until September 1919 that Danny had his "first totally American contact" as he enrolled in school. (The Danny Kaye Story pg 32)

Before Danny's mother passed away in 1927 when he was only fourteen, she was heavily involved in Danny's life. Kurt Singer describes it like this: "[...] his mother never relaxed her vigil. She insisted that her sons listen to her. She told Danny what to wear, supervised his manners and code of behavior and required an accounting of every hour of the day and evening." She was curious about his school work, who he was hanging around with, what he was doing. ‘“Mother was a wise woman,” says Danny Kaye. Mother Kominsky was more interested in Danny’s being a great man, noble, learned, profound, kind and gracious, than in his being a rich man. She saw in Danny a dreamer.” (The Danny Kaye Story pg 34) As for his father, Danny said, “He was a great man who always understood me emotionally and let me grow in my own way. In later years he never opposed my career, which must have often seemed foolish and impractical to him. On the other hand, Dad was a great comic himself, so maybe I’m just a little splinter off a great block.” (The Danny Kaye Story pg 35)

Danny attended Thomas Jefferson High School where he participated in baseball, basketball, and swimming. He “found baseball, basketball and swimming were sports well adapted to his lean, lengthening frame. He worked hard at sports knowing that […] he should make use of every muscle in his body. The hours in the gym and on the field helped him to build sinewy strength, and developed his inordinately fine coordination and sense of timing.” (The Danny Kaye Story pg 38) In one article, Danny explained, “I went out for the football team when I was at school. I could run pretty fast and I weighed 130 lb. The others could run pretty fast, too, and they weighed 170 lb. You know what happens when a fast little guy hits head-on into a fast big guy? Well that was the end of football for me.” (July 20, 1959) Danny never graduated; he dropped out, admitting years later: "I was terrible in school." (March 23, 1966)

Some time after his mother passed away, Danny started looking around for some work, feeling obligated to help the family in some way, to compensate for her death. His first job was working for Dr. Samuel Fine, a dentist in Danny's Brooklyn neighborhood. “The idea of lessening people’s pains appealed to him, and Clara’s desire for him to be a doctor kept swimming through his mind.” (The Danny Kaye Story pg 42) However, Danny was fired after his curiosity got the best of him; he was found using one of the dental drills on some woodwork. (The Danny Kaye Story pg 43) Little did Danny know that Dr. Samuel Fine was to be his future father-in-law.

He had a few other jobs during the teen years. "‘For a time I worked as a soda jerk,’ shudders Danny, ‘a job which I loathed and from which I was soon, shall we say, relieved.’” After that he tried working as an automobile appraiser. He lasted 10 months and lost the company $40,000. (The Danny Kaye Story pg 44)"I misjudged a problem of simple addition," Danny said in an October 8, 1944 article. As a result of that mistake, he was shadowed for two months by some detectives the company had hired. (The Danny Kaye Story pg 44)

– The Thirties –

The Borscht Circuit
          Danny's first real job in entertainment was at White Roe Lake in New York on the "borscht circuit." Danny explained, "Then I became an entertainer in the summer camps of the Catskills near New York. I waited on tables, took part in plays and musicals put on by a stock company. I did this for five seasons, starting at $250 (room and board) and worked up to $1,000. During the winter, I lived, but barely, on what I made in the summer, and spent long hours resting outside production offices." (October 8, 1944) During his fifth season, a dancing duo, Dave Harvey and Kathleen Young, decided they needed a third performer and gave Danny a little dance training. They became The Three Terpsichoreans. (The Danny Kaye Story pg 52) "Dave, Kathleen and I made up an act, tried it out at camp, and it clicked." (October 8, 1944) At one point during a performance “Danny was to twirl to the girl and romantically kiss her hand. Twirl he did, but the gyration ended in a wobble. He caught himself, fell off balance again—and fell flat on the floor.” The audience loved it and broke into laughter and applause. Dave Harvey whispered to him: “They love it—don’t get up.” (The Danny Kaye Story pg 52)

At one performance the trio was approached by A. B. Marcus, owner and manager of a traveling road show. He offered to take Dave and Kathleen to China with his show, but Marcus wasn’t offering for Danny to come. He didn’t think Danny was funny. (Even after Danny reached fame, he didn't think he was funny.) Dave and Kathleen refused to go anywhere without Danny. “Up to this day it has meant a lot to know such loyalty,” Danny said. The three joined Marcus' show as members of his “La Vie Paree, a troupe of about seventy-five people.” Danny received about 40 dollars a week. First they performed across America. Then on Feb 8, 1934, they sailed for Asia. (The Danny Kaye Show pg 53) Danny recalled, "We left San Francisco in February, 1934, and played Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Canton, Singapore, Bangkok, and Osaka. Mostly it was good in Tokyo, what with Jap musicians who couldn’t speak a word of English, but swung out like Benny Goodman. My most vivid memory of Japan is a typhoon, when a man flew past my hotel window on a bicycle, still pedaling furiously." (October 8, 1944)

It was in Japan, where the audiences did not understand English, that Danny started telling stories in pantomime, making faces, and launching “into scat-singing which sounded almost Oriental in its gibberish.” (The Danny Kaye Story pg 55) He also started using his hands more in Japan. “[…] he practiced the exquisite finger movements he had watched in the Siamese Temple dances […]” At the end of the tour Marcus refused to renew Danny’s contract claiming that he couldn’t sing, dance, and his jokes were terrible. (The Danny Kaye Story pg 57)

Struggling to Find Work
         Once again unemployed Danny struggled to find work. Kurt Singer said, “Danny lost weight because of his anxieties. His temper was short; his voice rasped. He was an unhappy youngster overly plagued with dreams and underequipped with patience.” He “hounded” agents and received sporadic one-night stands or substitute positions or short appearances. (
The Danny Kaye Story pg 60) He appeared in some shorts. He toured briefly with Sally Rand, a famous strip-tease dancer, and was at one point given the job of holding fans in front of her. (The Danny Kaye Story pg 63) "I toured with Sally Rand and still have an autographed fan to prove it," Danny said. (October 8, 1944) He toured with Nick Long as his stooge and appeared in London at the Dorchester House. Danny sang such solos as “Dinah” and “Minnie the Moocher” but the audience was unimpressed. “‘I died the death,’ was Danny’s only comment.” (The Danny Kaye Story pg 64) "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." (October 8, 1944)

Meeting Sylvia
          During the early months of 1939, Danny met up with Nat Lichtman, whom he had known from working the borscht circuit. What follows are two different takes on the next events.

According to Kurt Singer's The Danny Kaye Story, Danny wanted Lichtman to view some new routines he had been working on. Lichtman told him he was on his way to see Max Liebman, who was casting for a new show, Sunday Night Revue, and he invited Danny to join him. Max Liebman had seen Danny before when he was scouting for entertainers at a “fifth rate” night club. He had been amused by Danny’s antics and had made a mental note that maybe he could use this guy later. Seeing Danny suddenly appear with Nat Lichtman, Liebman thought he could squeeze Danny into the Sunday Night Revue. He hired him on the spot and also hired a young woman, Sylvia Fine, as his pianist and song writer. (pg 65-68)

On the other hand, according to author David Koenig's detailed research and interviews, Danny was one of the actors that Nat Lichtman had gathered for his revue, Sunday Night Varieties. A young lady by the name of Sylvia Fine met with Lichtman to personally audition some of her material. He loved it and added her to the revue. It was here that Danny and Sylvia first met. Lichtman's revue did not last very long, but one thing had been accomplished: Danny Kaye and Sylvia Fine had met. Sylvia called up Max Liebman, whom she had worked with previously, and told him about Danny's talent. (Danny Kaye: King of Jesters pg 38-41)

In any case, it was during Sunday Night Varieties that Danny first met Sylvia, his future wife.

For the complete story on how Danny and Sylvia met, please go to Their Story.

Sunday Night Revue folded quickly, but it brought Danny and Sylvia together. They joined Max Liebman at Camp Tamiment in Pennsylvania where they worked on a new material, which would eventually be taken to Broadway in the form of Straw Hat Revue. It was in Straw Hat Revue that "Anatole of Paris" was first performed by Danny. The show was a success at Camp Tamiment and moved to Broadway in the fall for a ten-week engagement. (The Danny Kaye Story pg 69-71; Danny Kaye: King of Jesters pg 44) After the show closed, Danny took off to Florida. After some time he called Sylvia and asked her to marry him. She didn't come right away, instead writing him a letter. But after coming down with an illness, the doctor advised her to head to Florida, and the rest--as they say--is history. They were married on January 3, 1940.

– The Forties –

La Martinique
         The catalyst for Danny's big break was his appearance at a New York night club, La Martinique, where he was signed on for $250 a week. With the last of their money, Danny purchased a new tuxedo. "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." (May 31, 1951) The manager refused arguing the next audience would be different, too much money had been spent on this already, and there was no one to replace Danny for the midnight show. For the next hour, the manager, the night club's publicity manager Eddie Dukoff, and Sylvia gave Danny a pep talk and encouraged him to go out for the next show. They were right. The next audience was different, and Danny was a hit. (The Danny Kaye Story pg 76-77) "He impromptued gibberish to the band’s conga rhythm and gave birth to the now famous Conga Song." (May 31, 1951)

Tschaikowsky and "Lady in the Dark"
         Moss Hart first saw Danny at La Martinique and was so impressed that he wrote a part for Danny in Kurt Weill's Broadway show Lady in the Dark starring Gertrude Lawrence. (May 31, 1951, The Danny Kaye Story pg 79) The show-stopping number was "Tschaikowsky," a list of roughly 50 Russian composers rattled off in about 40 seconds. Amazingly, Danny learned the song in only one afternoon! (The Danny Kaye Story pg 80, March 11, 1946) Later in a December 1941 article, Danny said "he could sing the song even faster, but he has to project his voice to the balcony and that requires lots of effort." (In fact, Danny could sing "Tschaikowsky" in approximately 31 seconds, which he did on Musical Comedy Tonight II) Danny's part within Lady in the Dark was a small one, but after he finished singing "Tschaikowsky," the audience went wild! Columnist Billy Rose describes it like this: "The lyrics of “Tschaikowsky” were too hot to be cooled off, and Kaye had too much of what it takes not to give. When he finished the funny tongue-twister, the crowd applauded for two solid minutes—practically a lifetime in the theater. The distressed Danny tried to shush the audience, but this was mistaken by the customers for modesty and they clapped all the louder." (February 27, 1948) “I was still bowing and smiling when the awful realization hit me! The great Gertrude Lawrence was on stage waiting to sing a number called ‘Jenny.’” Danny knew that one of the worst crimes in show business was to keeping a star waiting when it was their turn to perform. He wanted nothing more than to “bow out,” as he put it. (The Danny Kaye Story pg 80) “She wasn’t upset by my diverting the audience; she merely met my success by winning greater triumph from those people who sat out front.” (The Danny Kaye Story pg 81)

There developed an unwanted competition between the two songs, which left an unpleasant situation. It placed “a great strain on our nerves,” as Danny put it. (The Danny Kaye Story pg 81) One particular night, while Danny was singing, he noticed the audience’s attention was not entirely on him. He glanced over his shoulder and found Gertrude Lawrence nonchalantly waving her big red scarf. “It was a good-natured theater ‘incident,’ and in turn I plotted my equally good-natured revenge,” Danny said. When she got up to sing “Jenny” the audience let out some unexpected laughs because Danny, standing in the background, was making faces. (The Danny Kaye Story pg 81) On Danny’s appearance on Musical Comedy Tonight II (hosted and produced by his wife, Sylvia) Danny spoke of what happened that particular night. “She finished the number, got back on the swing. And she looked at me, and I bowed to her, and she bowed to me. She never did the red handkerchief again.” The way Martin Gottfried writes about this incident in Nobody’s Fool, one is left with a much more negative feel of this entire competition, as if there was much more to it. Whether or not the competition was great or small, in The Danny Kaye Story Gertrude Lawrence is quoted as saying, “Off the stage we were great friends. After the ‘incident’ I gave him an earring as a souvenir and a token of assurance that I held no grudge. And now the rascal pesters me every time we meet by asking for the other one!” (pg 81)

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