American entertainer Danny Kaye (1913-1987) was a versatile performer with strong roots in the vaudeville tradition. While his trademark was his stunning ability to spit out musical patter at incredible speed, Kaye also endeared himself to audiences with his enviable talents as dancer, singer, and actor. Off the stage and screen, Kaye was a Renaissance man whose interests included classical conducting, exotic cooking, and piloting airplanes. And at least as important as the joy he brought audiences, was the hope he brought children through his tireless efforts for the United Nations International Children's Fund (UNICEF).
Kaye was born David Daniel Kaminsky, on January 18, 1913, in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. He was the youngest of three sons born to Clara Nemerovsky and Jacob Kaminsky, both immigrants from the Ukraine. His father, who had been a horse trader, turned to the tailoring trade in New York. Kaye had bigger dreams, however. He dropped out of Brooklyn's Thomas Jefferson High School to pursue a show-business career with a guitar-playing friend, but the duo only lasted a short time on the road before heading back home.
Brooklyn to Broadway
For a while after Kaye's return to Brooklyn, he worked at a series of uninspired positions. These included soda jerk, office boy, and insurance appraiser. While none of the jobs lasted, he did have some rather spectacular failures, including being fired from his insurance job as a result of math errors that allowed a claimant a tidy $36,000 extra in payout benefits. Happily, Kaye was destined for other things.
Kaye found a better reception for his talents in the summer resorts of the Catskill Mountains. He began seasonal work at the White Roe Lake resort as a tummler, or general entertainer, in 1929. There, he was rewarded for cavorting and making people laugh, and he began to shine. In 1933, Kaye hooked up with the Three Terpsichoreans, a vaudeville song-and-dance act, and toured with them in Asia. Around that time, he also adopted the name Danny Kaye, changing it legally it 1943. During the Asian tour, audiences that did not speak English forced Kaye to explore such techniques as nonsense dialects and exaggerated physicality, techniques that would later become fundamental to his comic style.
Kaye continued his striving for recognition throughout the 1930s. One of the undoubted turning points in his career was his collaboration with composer/lyricist Sylvia Fine. Fine had a keen insight into Kaye's unique gifts, along with the skill to highlight them through her talent for song writing. Indeed, Kaye's long-sought-after Broadway debut, 1939's The Straw Hat Revue, was largely made up of Fine's material, and the show drew some favorable notice. Also romantically involved, the couple married on January 3, 1940, and a long, profitable, and tumultuous partnership was born.
After a successful nightclub run in 1940 at New York City's La Martinique, Kaye finally made a real mark on Broadway in the Moss Hart/Kurt Weill/Ira Gershwin musical, Lady in the Dark, in 1941. He stopped the show—and supposedly enraged its star, Gertrude Lawrence—with "Tchaikovsky," a Fine composition that required Kaye to spit out 50 names of Russian composers in under 40 seconds. Next up was a starring role opposite Eve Arden in Cole Porter's Let's Face It, in which he delighted audiences with another Fine tongue twister, "Melody in Four-F."
1941 was also the year that the United States entered World War II. Unable to serve in the military because of a back problem, Kaye spent much of the early 1940s performing both at home and abroad in support of the troops. In 1943, he moved to Hollywood in order to kick-start his movie career. Already hugely popular, he was received with open arms and put under contract to producer Samuel Goldwyn.
Kaye began his Hollywood career with 1944's Up in Arms, going on to appear in a total of 17 movies, at the rate of nearly one per year until 1969. Although many felt that his energy and distinctive talents were best appreciated in person, he became one of the big screen's brightest stars for at least a decade. His early films included Wonder Man (1945), The Kid from Brooklyn (1946), and a signature performance in 1947's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Kaye's comedies were often complex and required his playing more than one part (as Walter Mitty, for instance, he had seven roles). Others, such as Hans Christian Andersen, became classics for children, while White Christmas became a holiday classic. Still others, such as the 1956 film The Court Jester, showcased the vocal virtuosity that made Kaye a star. In that movie, his most famous line was, "The pellet with the poison's in the vessel with the pestle, the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true." Kaye's last feature film was 1969's The Madwoman of Chaillot, where he played opposite Katharine Hepburn. He garnered his first Academy Award, for "service to the Academy, the motion picture industry, and the American people," in 1954.
In addition to his success in the cinema, Kaye remained quite a hit on stage. In 1948, he took his one-man show to the London Palladium and the crowds went wild. The show broke all attendance records, and made history as the Royal Family actually left the royal box in favor of the first row to better enjoy the actor's performance.
Beginning in the 1960s, Kaye started branching out to include television on his resume. His variety program The Danny Kaye Show ran from 1963 to 1967 and won him an Emmy Award in its first year on the air. He picked up another Emmy in 1975 for Danny Kaye's Look-in at the Metropolitan Opera, and guest starred and performed in many specials and series. Most notable among these later performances was Kaye's critically acclaimed portrayal of a Holocaust survivor in the 1981 television movie, Skokie. For all his accolades and contributions to the stage, screen, and concert hall, Kaye had a great deal more to offer the world.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a man with such whimsical wit and boyish charm, Kaye had a deep love and respect for children. That interest led him to be the first celebrity spokesperson for the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF), and he served as that organization's goodwill ambassador from 1954 until his death in 1987. As UNICEF spokesman, he traveled thousands of miles in his relentless efforts to raise money for the fund. Most famous was Kaye's 1975 trip, in which he flew to 65 cities in five days. To him, it was all worthwhile. UNICEF.com quoted Kaye as once saying, "I believe deeply that children are more powerful than oil, more beautiful than rivers, more precious than any other natural resource a country can have. I feel that the most rewarding thing I have ever done in my life is to be associated with UNICEF."
In 1965, Kaye was asked to accept the Nobel Peace Prize on UNICEF's behalf. His humanitarian efforts for children also received notice from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences again in 1982, when he received that organization's Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. Even the Danish government recognized Kaye's unstinting labors for the cause, awarding him knighthood in 1983. For Kaye, however, it was all about the kids. His daughter, Dena, quoted her father's thoughts on the appeal of children many years later in Town & Country. "'Children,' he said, 'instinctively recognize what is true and what is not."'
Some found Kaye a thorny man, demanding and temperamental. He was, for instance, famously particular about punctuality, believing that being late indicated a lack of respect for the other person's time. His relationship with his wife was allegedly turbulent as well, although Fine met that supposition with wry wit in a 1953 New York Herald Tribune interview, cited by William A. Henry III of Time. "I can't say what Danny Kaye is like in private life," she reportedly quipped. "There are too many of him." Yet another perspective was given to Kaye's daughter in the Town & Country article, when Kaye's longtime personal assistant, Suzanne Hertfelder noted, "People said [Kaye] was difficult. What is difficult about expecting 100 percent if you give 100 percent?" Whatever his foibles, faults, or virtues, few could deny Kaye's zest for life and ability to find creative outlets.
In the early 1960s, despite his inability to read music, Kaye began conducting symphonies at the behest of noted conductor Eugene Ormandy. He went on to pick up the baton for more than 50 orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic. While he could not help but incorporate some wacky antics, such as conducting "The Flight of the Bumblebee" with a flyswatter, Kaye gained the respect of such luminaries as violinists Zubin Mehta and Itzhak Perlman, along with raising money for various charitable causes.
Kaye also was licensed as a commercial pilot, starting with small planes and graduating to 747s, and he often flew his UNICEF missions himself. Among his other avocations were Chinese cooking expert, baseball enthusiast/investor—he had a financial stake in the Seattle Mariners from 1977 to 1981—golf aficionado, and ping pong whiz. Echoing his childhood dream of being a doctor, he also nursed a lifelong interest in medicine, often donning a mask and gown to observe surgeons in the operating theater. It all intensely interested him. As his daughter quoted him in Town & Country, "I'm crazy about what I do. When I'm conducting, I think that's my favorite; when I fly an airplane, that's what I like best; and when I travel for UNICEF, that satisfies me the most."
For all his absorbing outside activities and pastimes, Kaye's greatest legacy was as a performer. His ability to connect with an audience and bring people into his world was unparalleled. Not coincidentally, his sense of responsibility to the public was equally great. One example of this was his return to Broadway in the 1970 Richard Rogers musical, Two by Two. Although he injured himself during the show's run, he carried on with his performance for ten months, using either crutches or a wheelchair. Although some found it disruptive, it was the kind of dedication that professionals of Kaye's ilk would admire and understand.
One of the most beloved and admired entertainers of his time, Kaye died in Los Angeles, California on March 3, 1987, with his wife and daughter at his side. His daughter later recalled Harry Belafonte's thoughts on her dad in Town & Country: "Danny accepted no boundaries. That's the highest form of creative energy." The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts put it another way, noting on its Website: "As a youngster, David Daniel Kaminsky wanted to be a doctor. He has become one, using what is considered the best medicine."
Contemporary Heroes and Heroines, Volume 4, Gale Group, 2000.
Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, Volume 2: 1986-1990, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1999.
Seattle Times, December 23, 1996.
Sunday Times (London, England), January 8, 1995.
Time, March 16, 1987.
Times (London, England), March 4, 1987.
Town & Country, August, 2003.
UN Chronicle, June, 1983.
"Danny Kaye," UNICEF Web site, http://www.unicef.org/people/people–danny–kaye.html (December 20, 2004).
John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Web site, http://www.kennedy-center.org/calendar/index.cfm?fuse action=showIndividual&entitY;–id=3748&source;–type=A (December 20, 2004).
Nationality: American. Born: David Daniel Kominski (some sources say Kaminski) in Brooklyn, New York, 18 January 1913. Education: Attended Thomas Jefferson High School, Brooklyn. Family: Married Sylvia Fine, 1940, one daughter. Career: Singer and comic after leaving school: worked on radio station WBBC, Brooklyn, and on the Borscht Circuit in the Catskill Mountains, New York; 1933–39—toured with dancing act of Dave Harvey and Kathleen Young, and later as a single act, with material often written by Sylvia Fine; 1939—Broadway debut in The Straw Hat Revue; 1940—nightclub act at La Martinique, New York; 1940–41—parts in Lady in the Dark and Let's Face It on Broadway; performed for war bond rallies, and in camps and hospitals overseas during World War II; 1944—feature film debut in Up in Arms for Samuel Goldwyn; 1945—inaugurated popular radio show; 1948—began regular seasons at London Palladium; 1953—co-founder, with Sylvia Fine, Dena Productions; 1954—started his work for the United Nations Children's Fund; 1960—formed Belmont Television Company, and appeared on The Danny Kaye Show, 1963–67. Awards: Special Academy Award, 1954; Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, 1982; Member of French Legion of Honor, 1986. Died: Of a heart attack, in Los Angeles, 3 March 1987.
Films as Actor:
Dime a Dance (Christie—short)
Getting an Eyeful (Christie—short); Cupid Takes a Holiday (Watson—short); Money on Your Life (Watson—short)
Night Shift (Kanin—short)
Up in Arms (Nugent) (as Danny Weems); The Birth of a Star (The Danny Kaye Story) (Pollard—compilation of Kaye's shorts)
Wonder Man (Humberstone) (as Buzzy Bellew/Edwin Dingle)
The Kid from Brooklyn (McLeod) (as Burleigh Sullivan)
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (McLeod) (title role); A Song Is Born (Hawks) (as Professor Hobart Frisbee); Bob Hope Reports to the Nation (USO short) (appearance)
It's a Great Feeling (Butler) (as guest); The Inspector General (Koster) (as Georgi)
Bernard Shaw's Village (Frieze—short); On the Riviera (Walter Lang) (as Henri Duran/Jack Martin)
Hans Christian Andersen (Charles Vidor) (title role)
Knock on Wood (Panama and Frank) (as Jerry); Hula from Hollywood (Staub—short); White Christmas (Curtiz) (as Phil Davis); Assignment Children (short for UNICEF)
The Court Jester (Panama and Frank) (as Hawkins)
Merry Andrew (Kidd) (as Andrew Larabee); Me and the Colonel (Glenville) (as S. I. Jacobowsky)
The Five Pennies (Shavelson) (as Red Nichols)
On the Double (Shavelson) (as Pfc. Ernest Williams/Gen. Sir Lawrence Mackenzie-Smith)
The Man from the Diners' Club (Tashlin) (as Ernie Klenk)
The Madwoman of Chaillot (Forbes) (as Ragpicker)
Pied Piper (short for UNICEF)
Skokie (Wise—for TV) (as Max Feldman)
On KAYE: books—
Freedland, Michael, The Secret Life of Danny Kaye, London, 1985.
Gottfried, Martin, Nobody's Fool: The Lives of Danny Kaye, New York, 1994.
On KAYE: articles—
Current Biography 1952, New York, 1952.
Baker, P., "Kaye Dreams Are Hard to Capture on Film," in Films and Filming (London), December 1955.
Buckley, M., "Danny Kaye," in Films in Review (New York), May 1973.
Ecran (Paris), April 1979.
Obituary, in Variety (New York), 4 March 1987.
Obituary, in Films and Filming (London), April 1987.
Stars (Mariembourg), Summer 1995.
* * *
The films of Danny Kaye comprise only one aspect of his overall career as a comedian. Kaye's initial rise to fame came on the stage, in various revues and on Broadway. He also was extremely successful on the New York nightclub circuit. Reportedly, it was in one of these nightclubs that Sam Goldwyn caught Kaye's act and offered him a film contract. This was not his first contact with the motion picture business. In the late 1930s he appeared in a few two-reelers for Educational Pictures which were not particularly entertaining or successful. In 1941 he turned down an MGM contract, choosing instead to continue working before live audiences. By the time Kaye decided to accept Sam Goldwyn's offer, he already had established himself as one of the hottest young comedians in New York, and he came to Hollywood as a star before he made his first feature.
Because of Kaye's success on the stage, Goldwyn spared no expense in launching his film career. His early films were lavish in their settings and featured extravagant musical numbers. Kaye's own routines were tailor-written for him by his wife and creative partner, Sylvia Fine. With their complicated patter and witty lyrics, her songs complemented his style of comedy. Kaye had become famous for his verbal acrobatics and foreign double-talk. He specialized in such tongue twisters and rhymes as "The pellet with the poison's in the vessel with the pestle, the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true," from The Court Jester. Other examples include "The Lobby Number" in Kay's feature debut, Up in Arms, in which he sings to a crowd in a theater lobby; and Wonder Man, in which he uses an opera to sing out the clues of a murder.
In many of his films Kaye was cast in dual roles, sometimes playing twins or lookalikes (as in Wonder Man and On the Double). Other times he played characters with multiple personalities (as in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty). Generally speaking, one side of Kaye's character would be weak and helpless while the other would be strong and resourceful. During the course of the film, Kaye would learn to blend the two personalities in order to become a better individual.
In 1953 Kaye and his wife formed their own production company, Dena Productions. Together with the writers Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, they produced three pictures. One of these, The Court Jester, is not only Kaye's finest film but one of the all-time-classic screen comedies. Its $4-million budget made it the most expensive comedy up to that time. Kaye also was capable of playing the graceful romantic, as he so capably did in White Christmas, where his soft singing voice was utilized so effectively. It is a shame that he was not allowed to play such roles more often.
Kaye also proved to be an equally fine dramatic actor. In the television movie Skokie, he offered a powerful performance as a concentration camp survivor who has settled in Middle America, and who sets out to thwart an attempt by neo-Nazis to hold a street demonstration. Earlier, in The Five Pennies, he was effective in the role of jazz musician Red Nichols.
Kaye also was noted for his many offstage and offscreen charitable endeavors, most specifically his varied activities on behalf of UNICEF.
—Linda Obalil, updated by Audrey E. Kupferberg
KAYE, DANNY (David Daniel Kaminsky ; 1913–1987), U.S. actor and entertainer. The son of a tailor, Kaye was born and brought up in Brooklyn, New York. He turned to entertaining after a brief career as an insurance agent and, starting in the Catskill Mountains, was a great success on the "Borscht Circuit." In 1939 he played ten weeks on Broadway in The Straw Hat Revue, a show partly devised by Sylvia Fine, whom he married and who continued to write material for him. His spectacular rise to stardom began in 1941, when Moss *Hart saw him at a New York night club and decided to write a part for him in the musical Lady in the Dark, in which Kaye scored an immediate success. His other Broadway performances were in Let's Face It (1941–43); Danny Kaye Revue (Tony Award, 1953 and 1963); and, later in his career, Two by Two (1970).
He became a favorite on both sides of the Atlantic, with appearances on stage and screen. His versatile gifts were fully displayed in the film version of James Thurber's short story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947). His other films includeThe Kid from Brooklyn (1946), A Song Is Born (1948), The Inspector General (1949), On the Riviera (Golden Globe for Best Actor, 1951), Hans Christian Andersen (1952), White Christmas (1954), The Court Jester (1956), Merry Andrew (1958), Me and the Colonel (Golden Globe for Best Actor, 1958), The Five Pennies (1959), On the Double (1961), and The Madwoman of Chaillot (1969).
Kaye developed a highly individual style that relied on mime, song, irony, and a sunny personality. His specialty was reciting tongue-twisting songs and monologues. Those powers were perhaps seen at their best in the theater, where he could hold an audience with an hour-long act of song and patter.
In 1960, he began doing specials on television, which led to his own tv series, The Danny Kaye Show (1963 to 1967). He won an Emmy for his variety show in 1964. In 1955 he won an honorary Academy Award for his unique talents, and in 1982 he was honored with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.
He retired from show business in 1967, serving as ambassador-at-large for the United Nations International Children's Fund (unicef) and conducting symphony orchestras in fund-raising concerts. He was a frequent visitor to Israel and wrote Around the World Story Book (1960).
M. Gottfried, Nobody's Fool: The Lives of Danny Kaye (1994); M. Freedland, The Secret Life of Danny Kaye (1985).
[Jo Ranson /
Ruth Beloff (2nd ed.)]