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Danny Kaye, A Mentsh for All Seasons

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Danny Kaye

by Joe Dorinson

“My father took me on his knee and said: ‘Kolya, my little gypsy. It is time you vent out into the verid and learen the facts of life.’ So, I packed my little karzink, wandered over hill and dale, small villages and pretty cities. Then I saw her–my first womansk. She was gorgeous and sassionately beautifuly. And her voice–was the voice of angel. SOFT AND MELLOW! Deenah! Is there anyone feener in the state of Caroleena? If there is and you know her, please show her to me! Kack de byerna sertzer”
Nestled in the hallways of our low-income housing project, my friends and I slid up and down the scat scale in emulation of our idol. Danny Kaye. We loved the slow build-up, oozing shmaltz, the mad riffs and the blast off into stratospheric heights. Kaye represented the triumph of energy over matter–the fantasy triumph of every spirited kid. It is hard to believe that this elemental comic force no longer graces our world. To be sure, Kaye aficionados have various films to sustain them–but these Hollywood vehicles do not convey Danny Kaye at his best.
Born David Daniel Kaminsky on January 18, 1913, he was the last of three sons and the first born in America–in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, where he entertained his peers at P.S. 149. During his senior year at Thomas Jefferson High School, he ran away to Florida where he “busked,” i.e., sang in the streets for money.
Bitten by the show biz bug, he assumed a new moniker, Danny Kaye, and headed for the Catskills. A born-again toomier (tumult-maker, social director), the novice comic found a summer vocation which paid for the idle winters that followed. Venturing to the Orient in 1934, Danny learned to sing, dance, monologue, mug, mime and scat professionally.
But Kaye was just another hard-luck Brooklyn boy on the make–his London debut was upstaged by Chamberlain’s sellout at Munich–until he teamed up, professionally and nuptially, with Sylvia Fine. They met in 1938 at Camp Tamiment in the Poconos, grounds consecrated to Jewish socialism. Fine wrote sophisticated patter songs that suited Kaye’s styles; out of this glorious summer came “Anatole of Paris,” “Stanislavsky,” “Pavlova” and other goodies.
Under Fine’s direction, Kaye’s career took off. While strutting his stuff at La Martinique, a trendy nightclub, he was spotted by Moss Hart, who cast him in Lady in the Dark. Kaye’s recitation of fifty Russian composers in thirty-eight seconds led to a $500 weekly salary and billing on the marquee.
Consequently, Kaye vaulted into a lead role in Let’s Face It, a show about army life with a score by Cole Porter, Herbert and Dorothy Fields and Sylvia Fine. One critic heaped praise on Kaye for “crack-brained double talk, mobile face, quicksilver hands and plastic body.” Kaye’s “Melody in 4F” stopped the show and launched his movie career.
That master of malaprop, Samuel Goldwyn., wanted Danny for his cinema productions, but demanded first that Kaye alter his looks, perhaps to follow the example of Milton Berle, who “cut off his nose to spite his race to create a thing of beauty and goy forever”? When Kaye refused to bob his nose, Goldwyn offered a counter proposal: “Bleach your hair blonde.” Realizing that blondes had more fun anyway, Kaye acquiesced. Soon Danny was Up In Arms (1944), a Wonder Man (1945), The Kid From Brooklyn (1946). More Goldwyn vehicles followed: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947) and A Song is Born (1948).
To where were these vehicles taking him? A number of critics have labeled, perhaps libeled, Kaye an underachiever in comedy. He did spread his talents thin in a variety of pursuits: gourmet Chinese cook., licensed pilot, baseball franchise owner, symphony orchestra conductor, children’s advocate, ambassador of goodwill to the world. Like other Jewish entertainers in America, Kaye wanted unconditional love. But a true comic must take risks: clearly the Kaye packaged by Goldwyn preferred sugar and spice and everything nice.
Politically, too, Kaye played it safe. Inclined towards the left, he protested House Un-American Activities Committee harassment of progressive Hollywood artists. But when the Hearst press went after Danny¹s group, The Committee for the First Amendment, which included Gene Kelley, Humphrey Bogart and Dore Schary, as a “pinko commie front,” Danny quickly retreated.
Koshered politically and bankable economically, he proceeded to turn out a proliferation of cinematic potboilers, starting with The Inspector General (1949), loosely based on Gogol’s masterpiece. These films allowed Kaye to lampoon a variety of characters: the arrogant Prussian, the elegant Frenchman, the brusque Briton, the bewildered yokel–all heavily salted with Yiddish sensibility, a Jewish sense of mockery towards the pretentious and opposition to the powerful. In Court Jester (1956), Kaye played a rebel member of a movement to restore a rightful, infant king to power. To this end, he impersonates Giacomo, King of Jesters and Jester of Kings, who utters the crucial line: “The pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle; the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true!” Other films followed but failed to measure up to Kaye’s high standards in low comedy.
Blessed with a handsome, sensitive face that could metamorphose, like Lon Chaney’s, into a thousand other faces, Kaye would play the matinee idol in one scene and plunge into frenetic parody in another. As a comic–his primary metier- he had enormous range. “But,” as Raymond Argnat acidly points out, “his fancy was rarely free and outside his git-gat-gabble musical numbers, he was hampered, either by the spies-and-gangsters plots or by a milky goodwill which smothered his comic attack.”
This became painfully evident in Kaye’s television years, 1963-67. Invariably with a child perched on his knee, he would bill and coo in cutesy business. Yet in his labor of love for UNICEF, we also see the mentsh that was Danny Kaye. While Lenny Bruce sang, “Hello, young lepers, wherever you are,” Danny Kaye danced with them. Motivated by the ancestral imperative of tsedakah, Kaye put his creativity where his heart was: with the world’s children. As United Nations Secretary General Javier Perez de Cueller said at the October 27, 1987 tribute to Danny, he was the man who first “heightened global awareness of the plight of unfortunate children throughout the world.”
In this age of star-studded famine-relief spectaculars, let us not forget our roots: the milk carton pushkas that we or our younger siblings toted in lieu of candy bags for UNICEF on Halloween–and our cheerleader, head goblin and mentsh for all seasons, Danny Kaye.