Singing-actor, dancer, comedian, writer and all-round entertainer David Daniel Kaminsky was born in Brooklyn,NY, on 18 January 1913. His Ukrainian Jewish immigrant parents had ambitions for their son to join the medical profession, but an innate talent for buffoonery and the quick-fire retort apparent from David’s earliest years prevailed until, more inclined to the stage, he dropped out of high school and in 1929 hit the road to Florida with his stage-partner Louis Eilson. Returning to New York the duo, now dubbed Red & Blackie, performed at select evening functions whilst maintaining their ‘dayjobs’: Danny worked variously as barman, waiter and inspector for a motor insurance company. Later, the duo worked summer seasons at holiday camps on the ‘Borscht Circuit’ in the Catskill Mountains, until 1933, when Danny joined vaudeville dancers David Harvey and Kathleen Young, to form The Three Terpsichoreans. After a five-month US tour the trio sailed for the Far East, and there Kaye truly learned his trade, performing to non-English-speaking Chinese, Japanese and Malayan audiences.
Returning to the USA in 1936, Danny teamed with Nick Long Jr and toured with Abe Lyman and his band and made some ‘unpromising two-reelers’. His first London appearance, at the Dorchester Hotel in 1938 was a virtual failure. How curious that this then unknown would a decade later enjoy lasting popularity in Britain. In 1940 he married a girl from his native Brooklyn, the pianist-composer Sylvia Fine (1913-1991), who coached and promoted him (‘I am a wife-made man’, he would quip in later years) and furnished him with the first of a long succession of tailor-made novelty showstoppers, which he interpolated into Straw Hat Revue. By the following year an established figure on Broadway, Danny next appeared to unequivocal critical acclaim (alongside Victor Mature, Bert Lytell and Gertrude Lawrence) in the Kurt Weill–Ira Gershwin musical Lady In The Dark.
During 1941 he also made his first recordings for Columbia, in addition to further appearances on Broadway, in Cole Porter’s Let’s Face It. His real breakthrough, however, came in 1944 via the silver screen and a five-year contract from Sam Goldwyn.
The period of Danny Kaye’s greatest popularity was bolstered considerably by his debut in Up In Arms (1944) and, launched upon a prestigious film career, he went on to make (also for Goldwyn) Wonder Man (1945), the quasi-autobiographical Kid From Brooklyn (1946) and The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty (scored by David Raksin and including Sylvia Fine’s “The Little Fiddle” (subtitled ‘Symphony for unstrung tongue’)). The latter was one of Danny’s most endearing and enduring characterisations as the reticent daydreamer, and proved his first major screen milestone.
Between 1945 and 1946 his own CBS radio show, featuring Harry James and Danny’s sometime lover Eve Arden, became an eagerly awaited weekly attraction.
In 1948 he scored a hit with a season at the London Palladium and remained ever after a favourite with British audiences, returning in 1949 for the first of many Royal Command Performances and in 1952 for a provincial tour.
In Canada, in 1950, he gave 14 consecutive shows at the 24,000-seat National Exhibition Stadium which were all sellouts and in 1951 he made the first of many appearances as a ‘send-up’ conductor with the New York Philharmonic.
Among his later films (made freelance for Warners, Paramount and Columbia) best remembered are On The Riviera (1951), the ‘controversial’ children’s epic Hans Christian Andersen (a 1952 money-spinner, this, with a No.1 bestselling soundtrack album), Knock On Wood (1953, reputedly Kaye’s own favourite) and, for TV, Peter Pan (1975) and Pinocchio (1976), Merry Andrew (1958), The Five Pennies (1959) and On The Double (1961).
Danny Kaye had his own American TV show from 1963 to 1967, and his work in that genre and on screen continued until the late 1970s. In all he appeared in more than twenty films.
In 1970 he returned to Broadway as Noah in the ill-fated Richard Rodgers–Martin Charnin musical collaboration Two By Two and during the next two decades he carved himself a new niche as a classical orchestral conductor and presented such TV shows as Peter Pan, Pinocchio and Danny Kaye’s Look At The Metropolitan Opera.
As a kind of ambassador for UNICEF from the mid-1950s onwards he traveled far and wide around the world, working tirelessly on behalf of children’s charities, often piloting his own jet for the sake of convenience. Awarded a Special Academy Award in 1954 ‘for his unique talents, his service to the Industry and the American people’ and various Tonies for his stage work, he was also decorated with the Croix de la Légion d’Honneur, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award and the Danish Knight’s Cross of the Order of Danneborg.
Danny Kaye died in Los Angeles, California, on 3 March 1987.
Role: Classical Artist