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Danny Kaye – The Man Who Could Make America Laugh

By Felice Prager
As a child, I have a vague memory of listening to and watching Danny Kaye as he performed his tongue-tying, mouth-twisting songs, monologues, and routines in his movies, on his TV specials, and on his TV show from 1963 until 1967. To me, he seemed like the happy uncle who could always make me giggle – and he magically got this closeness across through a TV set and on the big screen in a movie theater.

David Daniel Kaminski was born on January 18, 1913, in Brooklyn, New York. His parents and two older brothers had emigrated from the Ukraine in 1910. He was their only child born in the USA. David Daniel Kaminski left school at the age of thirteen. He got his first taste of show business in the Catskill Mountains of New York, also known as the Borscht Belt. He held jobs in and out of show business until 1939 when he made his Broadway debut in Straw Hat Revue, but it wasn't until he was in Lady in the Dark in 1940 that he was noticed by agents. Coincidentally, in 1940 he married Sylvia Fine who became his manager. He was married to her for 47 years until his death in 1987. They had one daughter named Dena. Sylvia Fine was responsible for helping create Danny Kaye's routines and gags. She also wrote most of his original music that he performed. Though he could sing and dance like others trying to break into the entertainment profession, his fame came from his ability to perform tongue-twisting songs and monologues.

With his new successes, Samuel Goldwyn had been trying to get Danny Kaye to sign a movie contract. Kaye finally signed and starred in a series of musicals in Technicolor. His red hair was enhanced by the new technology, as it was later during his TV career. The first movie was Up in Arms in 1944. With that success, he continued to make hit movies such as The Secret Life of Walter Mitty in 1947 and The Inspector General in 1949. In 1952, he was in the film, Hans Christian Anderson, for which he received $200,000, a very large salary at that time. From 1945 until 1946, he was the star of CBS Radio's The Danny Kaye Show. In 1953, he received a special Tony Award for heading a Broadway variety show at the Palace Theater. He also toured Australia in a pantomime version of Cinderella where he played Cinderella's friend, Buttons. He was originally considered for the leads in It Should Happen to You in 1954 and the Broadway musical, The Music Man. In 1954, he performed with Bing Crosby in White Christmas, and in 1955, he performed what some call his best comedy, The Court Jester. This musical had a famous speech in it referred to as the "pellet with the poison" routine. According to his daughter, throughout his life, whenever he was recognized in public, someone would run up to him and recite the speech for him. 

My personal favorite of all of Kaye's films was The Five Pennies in 1959. It was one of the first films I was taken to when I was a young girl. In brief, it is the story of a cornet player (Loring "Red" Nichols) who gives up a music career playing Dixieland jazz when his daughter develops polio so he can move to a climate that is better suited for his daughter. As his daughter, played by Tuesday Weld, becomes a young teen, she learns of her father's musical past, and he is persuaded to open a small nightclub. The nightclub fails until some noted names from his past played by Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, and Jimmy Dorsey, to name a few, come to help their old friend. There was a time when this film surfaced regularly and I could hear my favorite "…the music goes round and round…" but it is no longer a staple on old movie stations. The music was written by Sylvia Fine, Danny Kaye's wife, and though Kaye tried to learn cornet to play the role, the actual music was played by Red Nichols himself.

In 1960, Kaye began his TV career by doing specials that led to his own series, The Danny Kaye Show from 1963 until 1967.

Later in life, he worked tirelessly for UNICEF as its Goodwill Ambassador. He was also one of the original owners of the Seattle Mariners. He was an excellent pilot and had a passion for Chinese cooking. He loved cooking so much that he built himself a special kitchen in his home where he could show off his talents to other celebrities including Shirley MacLaine, Michael Caine, Cary Grant, John Denver, and Itzhak Perlman.

In 1986, he was honored with the title "King of Brooklyn" at the Welcome Back to Brooklyn Festival. 

On March 3, 1987, he died from hepatitis and internal bleeding. This was a result of a tainted blood transfusion he received with contaminated blood during bypass heart surgery in 1983. 

Danny Kaye was a wonderful American entertainer with a huge creative range in dance, song, complicated verse, impersonations, and improvisation. Blended together, he was a performer with a one-of-a-kind style. He paved the way for other unique performers, but none has come close to the level of entertainment he gave to America and the world.

more articles by Felice Prager


Danny Kaye

Danny Kaye

Danny Kaye

Danny Kaye


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