Danny Kaye: The king of Brooklyn
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.