Danny Kaye Biography

David Daniel Kaminski, 18 January 1913, Brooklyn, New York City, New York, USA, d. 3 March 1987, Los Angeles, California, USA. Kaye was an extraordinary entertainer and an apparently inexhaustible comedian, mimic and dancer who seemed to be able to twist his face and body into any shape he wanted. As a singer, he specialized in very fast double talk and tongue twisters, but could present a gentle ballad equally well. He was also an indefatigable ambassador for numerous charities, especially the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (now UNICEF), for which he travelled and worked for many years. A son of Jewish immigrant parents from Russia, Kominsky originally wanted to join the medical profession, but dropped out of high school when he was 14 years old, and hitch-hiked to Florida with his friend, Louis Eilson, where they sang for money. On their return to New York, they formed an act called Red And Blackie, and performed at private functions. During the day, Kominski worked as a soda jerk, and then as an automobile appraiser with an insurance company. The latter job was terminated after he made a mistake which is said to have cost the company some $40, 000. Kominski and Eilson then obtained summer work as ‘toomlers’, creators of tumult or all-round entertainers, in the Borscht Circuit summer hotels and camps in the Catskill Mountains. After five years, Kominski was earning $1, 000 per season.

In 1933, he joined David Harvey and Kathleen Young on the vaudeville circuit in their dancing act, the Three Terpsichoreans, and was billed for the first time as Danny Kaye. An early onstage accident in which he split his trousers, elicited much laughter from the audience and was incorporated into the act. Signed by producer A.B. Marcus, the group toured the USA for five months in the revue La Vie Paree, before sailing for the Orient in February 1934. It is often said that this period of playing to non-English speaking audiences in Japan, China and Malaya, was when Kaye first developed his face-making and pantomiming techniques, and his ‘gibberish’ singing with the occasional recognized word. Back in the USA in 1936, Kaye worked with comedian Nick Long Jnr. and toured with Abe Lyman’s Band, before being booked by impresario Henry Sherek, to appear in cabaret at London’s Dorchester Hotel. The engagement, in 1938, was not a success. Kaye commented: ‘I was too loud for the joint’. (Ten years later in London, it would be an entirely different story.) While appearing in Max Liebman’s Sunday Night Varieties in New York, Kaye met pianist-songwriter Sylvia Fine (b. 29 August 1913, New York, USA, d. 28 October 1991, New York, USA), who had been raised in the same Brooklyn neighbourhood, and majored in music at Brooklyn College. She became a powerful influence throughout his career, as his director, coach and critic.

Working with Liebman’s Saturday night revues at Camp Taimiment in the Pennsylvania Hills, during the summer of 1939, they started their collaboration, with Fine accompanying Kaye on the piano, and writing special material that included three of his most famous numbers, ‘Stanislavsky’, ‘Pavlova’ and the story of the unstable chapeau designer, ‘Anatole Of Paris’. The best of the material was assembled in The Straw Hat Revue in which Kaye appeared with Imogene Coca, and which opened on Broadway in September 1939. The show also featured a young dancer named Jerome Robbins. After Fine and Kaye were married in January 1940, Kaye appeared in a smash hit engagement at La Martinique nightclub in New York, which led to a part in Lady In The Dark, starring Gertrude Lawrence. On the first night, Kaye stopped the show with the Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin tongue-twister ‘Tchaikovsky’, in which he reeled off the names of 50 real, or imagined, Russian composers in 38 seconds. After playing a return engagement at La Martinique, and a five-week stint at the Paramount Theatre, Kaye appeared again on Broadway, starring in the Cole Porter musical Let’s Face It!, which opened in October 1941. Porter allowed Sylvia Fine and Max Liebman to interpolate some special material for Kaye, which included a ‘jabberwocky of song, dance, illustration and double-talk’ called ‘Melody In 4-F’. Kaye had to leave the show early in 1942, suffering from nervous exhaustion, but having recovered, he toured on behalf of the war effort and is said to have sold a million dollars’ worth of government bonds in six months. Rejected by the US Army because of a back ailment, he entertained troops with his two-hour shows in many theatres of operations including the South Pacific.

In 1944, Kaye made his feature film debut in Up In Arms, the first in a series of five pictures for Samuel Goldwyn at RKO. His performance as a hypochondriac elevator boy, involving yet another memorable Fine-Liebman piece, ‘Manic Depressive Pictures Presents: Lobby Number’, moved one critic to hail his introduction as ‘the most exciting since Garbo’s’. Goldwyn was criticized, however for having Kaye’s red hair dyed blonde. His remaining films for the studio included Wonder Man, in which he gave his impression of a sneezing Russian baritone with ‘Orchi Tchornya’. This was the first of several films in which he played more than one character; The Kid From Brooklyn (1946), which featured ‘Pavlova’, The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty (1947), one of his best-remembered roles (six of them), and A Song Is Born (1948), one of his least remembered. In 1945, Kaye appeared for a year on his own CBS radio show with Harry James and Eve Arden, and during the following year the Kayes’ daughter, Dena, was born. When Kaye recorded the old standard ‘Dinah’, he changed some of the ‘i’ sounds to ‘e’, so that the song ran: ‘Denah, is there anyone fener? In the State of Carolena...’, etc. His other hit songs included ‘Tubby The Tuba’, ‘Minnie The Moocher’, ‘Ballin’ The Jack’, ‘Bloop Bleep’, ‘Civilization’ and ‘The Woody Woodpecker Song’, both with the Andrews Sisters; ‘C’est Si Bon’; and ‘Blackstrap Molasses’, recorded with Jimmy Durante, Jane Wyman and Groucho Marx. In 1948, Kaye returned to England to appear at the London Palladium.

His enormously successful record-breaking performances began an affectionate and enduring relationship with the British public. He is said to have received over 100, 000 letters in a week. His shows were attended by the Royal Family; he met both Winston Churchill and George Bernard Shaw, and was cast in wax for London’s Madame Tussaud’s Museum. He returned in 1949 for the first of several Royal Command Performances, and also toured provincial music-halls throughout 1952. He endeared himself to the British by singing some of their parochial songs such as the novelty ‘I’ve Got A Lovely Bunch Of Coconuts’ and ‘Maybe It’s Because I’m A Londoner’. During one performance at the Palladium, when a member of the audience enquired after the state of Kaye’s ribs following a car accident, he ordered the lights to be lowered while he displayed the actual X-ray plates! Kaye went to Canada in 1950 and became the first solo performer to star at the Canadian National Exhibition, where he sold out the 24, 000-seater stadium for each of his 14 performances.

He returned to his multiple roles in films such as The Inspector General (1949) and On The Riviera (1951), before embarking on the somewhat controversial Hans Christian Andersen (1952). After 16 different screenplays over a period of 15 years, and protests in the Danish press about the choice of Kaye to play their national hero, the film, with a final screenplay by Moss Hart, became a huge money-spinner. Frank Loesser’s score produced several appealing songs, including ‘No Two People’, ‘Anywhere I Wander’, ‘Inchworm’, ‘Thumbelina’, ‘The Ugly Duckling’ and ‘Wonderful Copenhagen’, the latter reaching the UK Top 5. Kaye’s other films during the 50s and early 60s included Knock On Wood (1954), said to be his favourite, in which he sang two more Fine numbers, the title song, and ‘All About Me’, White Christmas (1954), co-starring with Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen, The Court Jester (1956), Me And The Colonel (1958), Merry Andrew (1958), The Five Pennies (1959), a biopic of 20s cornet player Red Nichols (including a rousing version of ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’ with Louis Armstrong), On The Double (1961) and The Man From The Diners’ Club (1963). After a break, he came back for The Madwoman Of Challiot (1969), and the following year, returned to Broadway in the role of Noah, in the Richard Rodgers and Martin Charnin musical Two By Two. Shortly after the show opened, Kaye tore a ligament in his leg during a performance, and subsequently appeared on crutches or in a wheelchair, in which he tried to run down the other actors, adapting the show to his injury, much to the distaste of producer and composer Richard Rodgers.

During the 70s and 80s, Kaye conducted classical orchestras and appeared on several television shows including Peter Pan, Pinocchio and Danny Kaye’s Look At The Metropolitan Opera. He also played dramatic roles on television in Skokie and The Twilight Zone, but concentrated mainly on his charity work. He had started his association with UNICEF in the early 50s, and in 1955 made a 20-minute documentary, Assignment Children. He eventually became the organization’s ambassador-at-large for 34 years, travelling worldwide on their behalf, and entering the Guinness Book Of Records by visiting 65 US and Canadian cities in five days, piloting himself in his own jet plane. During his career he received many awards including the French Légion d’Honneur, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, and the Knight’s Cross of the First Class of the Order of Danneborg, given by the Danish Government. Other awards included a special Academy Award in 1954, along with Tony Awards for his stage performances, plus Emmys for his successful 60s television series. He died in 1987, following a heart attack.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.