From the Archives: Danny Kaye, 74, Dies; World Was His Stage

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Danny Kaye, the rubbery-faced, gibberish-spouting comedian who was one of the world’s most successful entertainers of the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s, died early Tuesday.

He was 74 and died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles where he had been admitted Sunday in critical condition.

Kaye’s physician, Dr. Charles Kivowitz, said Kaye had contracted “non-A non-B hepatitis” from a blood transfusion during quadruple bypass surgery at Cedars-Sinai four years ago.


With him when he died were his wife, Sylvia Fine Kaye, and their daughter, Dena.

Propelled to Stardom

Kaye’s silly patter, funny walks and air of innocence and likability propelled him from the Catskill borscht circuit to stardom on the Broadway stage, in New York and London nightclubs and then on to Hollywood, where he became known to countless millions around the world.

Although the demand for his talents slackened in the 1970s, Kaye remained busy, doing semi-serious stints as a guest conductor of major symphony orchestras, appearances and tours for the United Nations International Children’s Fund, doubling as a chef for exotic Chinese dinners for friends at his Beverly Hills home and, generally, slowing down hardly at all after the 1983 bypass surgery.

In Washington, President Reagan remembered the red-headed clown as a man who “could light up a room just by smiling. . . . Even though he was just acting, his genuine love for people came through. Children especially felt his warmth and humanity. . . .”

Kaye’s 50-year show business career included roles in films such as “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” in 1946 and “White Christmas” in 1954. He received a special Academy Award in 1954 for service to the film industry, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award Oscar in 1982 and, in 1964, an Emmy for his long-running “Danny Kaye Show” on television.

For more than a quarter-century, Kaye was ambassador at large for UNICEF, and seemed to have a special rapport with children; he entertained hundreds of thousands of them over the years in villages and slums in South America, Africa and India.


Beat Drums for UNICEF

In polio wards, jungle villages and desert oases, Kaye beat the drums for UNICEF, warming up the kids with songs and mugging while doctors and nurses lined them up for vaccinations. His family is asking donations to UNICEF, in care of the United Nations, New York, N.Y.

Kaye was born David Daniel Kominsky on Jan. 18, 1913, in Brooklyn, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants. His father was a tailor and the family was barely a step up from poverty.

Yiddish was the language of the Kominsky home and it was not until elementary school that young David began to learn English. Performing, though, was something that came naturally, in any language.

The pale little boy entertained his kindergarten classmates with songs, and as he grew into a teen-ager, worked at Brooklyn social clubs singing and telling jokes.

Worked as “Toomler”


He became bored with school and took off for Florida with a partner, singing for pennies at resorts. He never returned to school, going instead to the Catskills borscht belt and working as a “toomler”— a prat-falling, low-paid entertainer whose job it was to keep hotel guests smiling between card games and nature walks.

For four summers, he was waiter, singer, actor, comic and all-around fool, often falling into the swimming pool—fully clothed, straw hat and all—to amuse the paying customers. In winter, he worked odd jobs as a soda jerk and an auto insurance appraiser.

Finally, in 1933, the young entertainer got a real break. A boy-and-girl vaudeville dancing act picked him up and he opened in Utica, N.Y., as one of “The Three Terpsichoreans.” David Kominsky chose Danny Kaye as his stage name.

He toured the country for a time and then the act signed for a series of performances in the Orient. Kaye, who was singing, dancing, doing monologues and playing the straight man for others, found himself suddenly having to entertain non-English speaking audiences.

Faced with that problem, Kaye began to develop the techniques that would make him famous—his mugging, pantomime and scat singing—in Kaye’s case, mostly gibberish with an occasional recognizable word.

Orders by Miming


His daughter recalled that once in a restaurant in China Kaye tried to order chicken by flapping his arms and making clucking noises.

The waiter nodded and returned with two eggs.

Kaye returned to the United States in 1936 and his life for a time was mostly a frustrating search for bookings. Jobs were hard to come by and Kaye was still not the performer he was to become a few years later.

One job came after stripper Sally Rand dropped a fan when she was bothered by a large fly. Kaye was pressed into service. His job was to hold her fans strategically in front of her.

Kaye was hired by Henry Sherek, the owner of London’s chic nightclub, the Dorchester, but bombed miserably. He returned to the United States and after a role in a Broadway variety show that closed after one night’s performance, found himself working summer stock in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania.

It was there Kaye met pianist-composer Sylvia Fine, whom he married several years later. Fine’s sophisticated comedy and satire were perfect for Kaye. Fine and her partner, Max Liebman, wrote such popular Kaye musical ditties as “Stravinsky,” and “Anatole of Paris.”

Fine-Tunes His Act


But Fine was much more to Kaye than an accompanist and composer. A strong-willed, deeply determined woman, she honed and fine- tuned Kaye’s act into stardom. She was for years his manager, director, coach and critic.

Asked by a reporter years later what he attributed his success to, Kaye replied simply, “I am a wife-made man,” and those who knew Kaye and Fine never doubted it.

Fine and Liebman put most of their best songs into a Broadway show, “The Straw Hat Revue,” which had a successful 10-week run in 1939. Its lead was Imogene Coca, but the show made comedian Danny Kaye a star.

He packed a then-popular New York City nightclub, La Martinique, for months, and playwright Moss Hart wrote a part for him in the Gertrude Lawrence vehicle, “Lady in the Dark.” Kaye was a hit with “Stravinsky,” in which he rattled off the names, sing-song, of 50 Russians in 38 seconds. It went:

“There’s Malichevsky, Rubenstein,

Arensky and Tschaikowsky,

Sapelnikoff, Dimitrieff, Tscherepnin,


Godowsky, Arteiboucheff, Moniuszko,


Solovieff, Prokofieff, Tiomkin,

Korestchenko . . . “

And on and on and on.

While performing in “Lady in the Dark,” Kaye continued at La Martinique and was so popular that the management raised his pay from $250 a week to $2,000. If you wanted a stage-side table you had to tip the maitre d’ $50.

Kaye’s double talk and personality attracted the attention of movie magnate Samuel Goldwyn and, in 1944, Kaye, rejected for wartime military service because of a back problem, was cast in his first feature film, “Up in Arms.” Several others soon followed, including James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” in which the comedian played the meek commuter and the six varied heroes of his daydreams.


In 1945, Kaye started a highly successful radio program, and continued with appearances in films—1952’s “Hans Christian Andersen,” and “Mitty” are perhaps his most enduring works—and on stage and in theaters. Although he had bombed in London a decade earlier, Kaye returned and wowed Palladium audiences in 1948 and 1949, and made a personal appearance at Buckingham Palace.

Special Oscar

In 1954, Kaye was awarded a special Oscar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science “for his unique talents, his service to the academy, the motion picture industry, and the American people.” But his popularity seemed to decrease in the late 1950s as he began to devote more and more of his time to UNICEF.

From 1960 on, his performances in film were relatively sporadic, though Kaye insisted that it was mostly by choice.

“When I stopped making films, they were getting on to the more realistic films and the explicit films and all,” he said in a 1981 interview in the New York Times. “For a long time they really weren’t making entertaining movies. They were depicting life as it is and some of it was unpleasant. I gradually moved away from that.”


Kaye did not need to worry about work. The poor boy from Brownsville, aided by his tough-minded wife and manager, was making between $500,000 and $1 million a year in the late 1940s and 1950s, according to biographer Kurt Singer in “The Danny Kaye Story.”

And he earned even more money when, between 1963 and 1967, he starred in the hourlong TV variety program, “The Danny Kaye Show,” which won both Emmy and Peabody awards.

In 1970, Kaye returned to Broadway in the musical “Two by Two,” and 10 years later was well received by critics for his role as a concentration camp survivor who opposes a Nazi march in the television film “Skokie.”

Baseball Team Owner

He was an active baseball owner for a time, holding stock in the Seattle Mariners before selling out, and continued as an orchestra guest conductor, although he admitted to Martin Bernheimer, the Los Angeles Times music critic, that he could not read a single note. Musicologists said he simply had an innate feel for the podium.

One of his final concerts, a September, 1985, appearance at the Hollywood Bowl, was quintessential Kaye. He announced a Max Strauss selection in Teutonic tones that would have done justice to a Prussian general, added his own choreography to Ravel’s “Bolero,” mocked other conductors and alternately chastised and praised his musicians.


But most of all he gushed over himself, the orchestra and the audience. And the audience in return responded with waves of cheers and loving applause.

Whatever his musical talents or lack of them, he raised more than $10 million for musicians’ pension funds through his guest conducting stints.

Kaye, who asked that there be no funeral service, was also a chef of some note, and on occasion combined his interest in Chinese cuisine with his philanthropic activities, participating, for example, as one of 12 celebrity chefs in a benefit dinner for the University of California’s San Diego Cancer Center in 1982.

‘A Controlled Zany’

On Tuesday, writer-comedian-director Carl Reiner remembered him as “a controlled zany. He was the epitome of grace and zaniness. . . . His limbs and his brain and his mouth all worked as one beautiful instrument.”

The heart surgery may have slowed Kaye down, but his interest in UNICEF never flagged.

Hollywood rewarded him for it—in 1982, the academy presented Kaye the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. And in 1983, Queen Margrethe of Denmark knighted him for his portrayal of Hans Christian Andersen, calling him “the Pied Piper to the children of the world.”


But what was perhaps his greatest reward—other than the smiles and laughs of children he entertained—came in a letter from a Catholic priest who had witnessed a Kaye performance for UNICEF.

The show, wrote the priest, had given him a “renewal of spirit.”

“Any fool can be solemn,” he wrote, “but only a saintly person can be a fool—in the medieval sense. I think of the Juggler of God whenever I see you.”


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