Brooklyn Boro

Danny Kaye: The king of Brooklyn

August 31, 2022 William A. Gralnick
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If he just wanted to be a crooner, he would have been one of the best. Had he only wanted to be a dancer the likes of Gene Kelly, he would have been. Had he chosen comedy as his calling, he’d have been listed with the greats of his day. If actor were to be his one and only effort, he would have been a star. He loved being an orchestra conductor and could have made it his life’s calling. A storyteller? None better. But he wanted to be all those things and therefore was recognized as one of the greatest talents of his generation. Such was the professional life of one Daniel Kaminsky, aka Danny Kaye.

Danny was a Brooklyn boy through and through. He went to elementary school in East New York, PS 149, later named after him, and attended Thomas Jefferson High. Hard times and the call to find himself led to an exit before graduation. He grew up in a Yiddish-speaking household, the only American-born child of Ukrainian parents. The year was 1911. Unlike most immigrant parents who pushed their male children mercilessly to pick a life’s direction and follow it, Kaye’s father let Danny find his own way. Like it is for most young entertainers, the early years were rough.

One could say Kaye’s career as an entertainer began in school, where he was the class clown and the school clown, entertaining students and teachers alike with improvised routines and jokes. He and a friend ran away to Florida to try their skills, but they were kids. They didn’t have backing or know-how. Undaunted but also unemployed, they returned home. Danny needed money, so he tried his hand at the work-a-day world. He held a succession of jobs after leaving school. He was a soda jerk, auto insurance investigator, and office clerk. Most ended with him being fired. He lost the insurance job when he made an error that cost the insurance company $40,000 ($600,000 plus in today’s money.) A dentist who hired him to look after his office over lunch and run errands fired him when he found Kaye using his dental drill on the office woodwork. In 1939, Kaye met the same dentist’s daughter, Sylvia Fine at an audition, and in 1940 they eloped. He learned his trade in his teenage years in the Catskills as a tummler in the Borscht Belt. (wiki) A tummler could be likened to the Court Jester for the unfamiliar. The tummler was everywhere and anywhere, getting a chuckle or groan. It might be the card room, the dining room, out amongst those relaxing in the Adirondack chairs, or warming up the crowd before the main act was to come on. 

Professional life began to come together when Kaye teamed up with a vaudeville dance group called the Terpsicorians. With them, he began to see the world, and new talents emerged. His daughter Deena told the story of her dad trying to explain to a Chinese-speaking waiter that her father wanted chicken. Frustrated, he got up and began to flap his arms like a chicken and cluck. The waiter brought him eggs. A new element of his work emerged, pantomime. He also decided to become a chef. That became a lifelong hobby.

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Kaye’s imagination was in constant motion. His wife Sylvia wrote some of his material, but most of it just popped out of his brain. She said he invented a character that was primarily for family entertainment. His name was Kaplan, no first name, just Kaplan. Kaplan was an obnoxious blow-hard who boasted about his philanthropy. Sylvia said if someone was visiting, like Jack Benny, and asked about Kaplan, Kaye either passed on it or if he felt like it could reel off two straight hours of ad lib monologue right out of his imagination. 

To write a full description of the life and times of Danny Kaye would take up the whole edition of this paper. Let me list for you a fist full of his associations and accomplishments. Let’s start with Sally Rand, the most famous exotic dancer of her day. She worked with giant Ostrich feathers and famously dropped one. Young Kaye was hired to be “Johnny on the spot and make sure it never happened again. As time went on, the gigs got much better. He was cast by Moss Hart, worked with Gertrude Lawrence, and sang songs by Ira Gershwin, one of which featured a string of names of Russian composers that he reeled off at the speed of sound. That talent became a staple of his act.

To describe the career of this entertainment machine would take up the whole of this edition of the Eagle. So let’s go with some highlights.

He worked with the best of the best, Bob Hope, Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, The Andrews Sisters.

He made 17 movies. Among his most beloved classic films were Wonder Man,” (1945) “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (1947), “The Inspector General” (1949), “Hans Christian Andersen” (1952), and “The Court Jester” (1956). Throw in too The 5 Penny’s about jazz musician Red Nichols, Hans Christian Anderson, and the iconic White Christmas. Yet music critic Jason Ankeny said, ‘Of all his work, none was greater than his philanthropy. At the top of the list was UNICEF, for which he became an ambassador. When UNICEF won the Noble Peace Prize, Kaye was tapped to accept it. He also was awarded the French Legion of Honor.

Kaye received 19 honors and awards.

His CBS Radio Show was a big hit in the ’40s as was his TV show of the same name in the 60’s. It won four Emmys and a Peabody.

When Disneyland celebrated its 25th anniversary, Kaye sang, and later the Disney people chose him to host the opening celebration of Epcot.

Performing for the Royal Family in England, it was reported that he even made the Queen laugh.

He had a recording contract and recorded LP’s (of which I have one), and 45’s.

He conducted the world’s most famous orchestras, and he learned the scores by ear because he didn’t read music!

In closing, this says it all. One of his 19 awards was this one, “The King of Brooklyn.” Not too shabby, I’d say.

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