Friday, November 6, 2015

The Sketch Danny Saved by Obliterating

Danny Kaye had a blast helping to destroy this Mikado spoof on a 1964 episode of The Danny Kaye Show, and crack up Imogene Coca and Harvey Korman in the process.
The new Danny Kaye: Legends DVD contains several slick entries of the Danny Kaye Show, but one episode that was so riddled with screw-ups it could have turned into one of the most embarrassing productions Kaye was ever associated with. Instead, thanks to Danny’s ad-libbing, it turned into one of the most fun.

What helped tremendously that week were two of Kaye’s co-stars, guest star Imogene Coca and series regular Harvey Korman. Coca had decades of experience adjusting to mid-performance mishaps. In 1939, she and Danny had appeared in dozens of sketches together live on stage at Camp Tamiment, and in the 1950s she and Sid Caesar had performed countless more sketches on live TV. Kaye’s TV series wasn’t live, but almost. It was shot “live on tape,” meaning it was recorded straight through in real time and then aired on CBS, usually with minimal editing, four nights later.

Series regular Harvey Korman, on the other hand, had much more trouble keeping a straight face when the unexpected came up, as weekly viewers of the Carol Burnett Show know (which Korman signed on for weeks after the last Danny Kaye Show aired). Tim Conway, in particular, knew Harvey’s weakness and would delight in trying to crack him up and get him off script.

Danny wasn’t quite so bad, but would occasionally try to break up Korman to help liven up a so-so sketch. Such was the case on the taping of December 6, 1964. Practically from the start, things started to go wrong. During a quick cold opening astronaut sketch, Danny stumbled on some of his lines and laughed it off—but you can see that he’s amused by Harvey slightly dropping his straight face, just for a millisecond. A dance number and a “perpetually-unemployed Rudy” skit followed, without a hitch. But then came Tony Bennett singing a few songs and one of the camera operators, for some reason, kept shooting the overhead boom mic.

Next up was one of Imogene Coca’s patented routines, a spoof of Swan Lake, with her in a molting swan costume. Although a comedienne, Coca had also spent years studying ballet and would frequently parody it. Swan Lake, too, went off effortlessly, because it was a number built around Coca and one she had performed many times before.

But then the wheels came off the bus. At Tamiment, Kaye and Coca had done a Jewish Mikado. So for the TV episode’s big production number, they’d do a World War II Japanese Mikado, called the Fledermikado.

From the opening scene, the actors started tripping on some of their lines. Korman began losing a little of his composure. Kaye—probably sensing the sketch would otherwise be flat—called him out mercilessly. He also took note of all the other things that kept going wrong—what was supposed to be an avalanche of hats falling from the sky turned into a dribble. Harvey hit his hat on the top of a low doorway. Harvey’s fake beard fell off. Kaye used the fallen beard as a punchline and prop for the remainder of the sketch, at one point even pinning it on Coca’s chin. By the end of the skit, he had the entire dancing troupe in hysterics.

Proof that this disaster was far more hilarious than if they would have stuck to the script is the fact that, as was their custom, the episode was taped in front of a live audience twice, once where the sketch went relatively smoothly, and once where everything went wrong. You can see which version ended up airing the following Wednesday night.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Danny Kaye’s Symphonious Sidekick

Orchestra leader Paul Weston (at far left, on Danny Kaye's right) could be a goofy foil to Danny and was a fine comedian in his own right.
I’m anxious to see next month’s DVD release of a new batch of Danny Kaye Show episodes, containing several I’ve never seen before and most of which have never been rebroadcast since their airing 50 years ago.

Yet from our vantage point, watching the series today is a vastly different experience, apart from the styles in music, comedy, pacing and fashion. Many of Kaye’s once-big-name special guests are now all but forgotten, including one minor celebrity who was there every single week for four years: his orchestra conductor, Paul Weston.

Those unfamiliar with Weston may look back on his playful exchanges with Danny or his occasional appearances in songs or sketches, and assume he was some sort of “Ed McMahon” character, over whose jolly, diminutive head many of Kaye’s jokes would sail. In fact, in addition to being an accomplished conductor, arranger, composer and pianist, Paul was also an veteran comedian. For decades, he and his wife, singer Jo Stafford, created a series of comedy albums, in which they played an unconventional lounge act, Jonathan and Darlene Edwards.

But what most of the Danny Kaye Show crew I interviewed for my book Danny Kaye: King of Jesters remembered was just how beloved Weston was.

As production assistant Maggie Warren Scott recalled in her unpublished memoirs “When It Was Fun”:

We all loved Paul Weston, the orchestra conductor. What a great, great guy, and what a sense of humor. Danny loved to sing and I think he thought he knew more than he did about music.

One evening during musical rehearsal, Paul was conducting and Danny gave him one of his “looks” and said, “The tempo’s slowing up.”

Paul, without losing a beat, looked over his shoulder and said, “Not over here, it ain’t!” Paul just kept going.

Another tempo problem one day, Danny gave Paul the glare and Paul was sitting on his stool watching Danny. The song had already been prerecorded.

There was one time that Danny got back at Paul, big time. The audience was in and the orchestra guys were in their seats. Paul hadn’t come in yet. Danny went over to the orchestra and whispered something to them.

We always opened Danny’s show with him making an entrance and then he would go into his opening number. Paul entered, went to his podium, got the cue from the booth, raised his baton, and started. The musicians just sat there. Paul tried again and nothing. Finally, off stage, Danny was in hysterics and Paul knew he had been had, BIG TIME!

We all had out own “areas,” as we called them. When you got into someone else’s area, it was, “Stay in your own area!” Paul would leave the bandstand and run over with his comments about a sketch, a prop, or anything he felt was wrong, and we would say, “Stay in your own area!”

Someone got a piece of carpet and put it under Paul’s stool and music stand, so that every time he’d start to move, it was, “Get back on your carpet and stay in your own area!”

Paul had now named the City Slicker (a bar near CBS studios), the “Chicken Room.” After every show we would invade the “Chicken Room.” Every Saturday night, the phone would ring and it would be Jo Stafford, one of the all-time great singers and Paul’s wife. She would ask, “Has Paul left yet?”

The anwer, “Oh, yeah, he just left.” You want to bet?

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

What to Expect on the New Danny Kaye Show DVD

Christmas is coming early again this year, with the October 15, 2015, release of another batch of six great Danny Kaye Show episodes.

This third collection, called “Danny Kaye – Legends,” features Kaye swinging with A List guests, like Lucille Ball, Louis Armstrong, and George Burns.

The two previous releases included one disc with black-and-white episodes from the series’ sketch-centric first two seasons, and a second disc with color episodes from the music-heavy third and fourth seasons. As a bigger fan of the early shows, I’m not crazy about the idea of this time offering just two Season Two shows and four from the latter years, but completely understand the decision, since the bigger musical stars and the full color do make those shows seem much more contemporary.

Here’s what to expect:

The Lucille Ball Show. Including this disc was a no-brainer. Danny and Lucy work great together, from the balloon dance opening to the quick-change sketch finale. This episode has been viewable in pieces on YouTube for several years, but it will be great to see it cleaned up and reassembled. (Episode 42, originally aired 11-4-64)

The Tony Bennett Show. The crooner may be the reason for including this episode, but Danny reuniting with Imogene Coca, his Camp Tamiment co-star, from the 1930s, in spoofs of Swan Lake and the Mikado, will be my main reason for watching. (Episode 47, 12-9-64)

The Shirley Jones Show. This episode may have been “love-themed,” but taping it was anything but, as recalled director Steve Binder (who would be fired after the next episode). On the plus (and perhaps more accurate) side, the Righteous Brothers perform “Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.” (Episode 68, 9-29-65)

The Liberace Show. I’m really looking forward to this one, Liberace notwithstanding. It features Danny in one of his James Blonde spoofs, in a Giovanni sketch, and teaming with two lovely frequent guest stars (Victoria Meyerink and Vikki Carr) in the song Billy Barnes wrote for them, “Vickie.” (Episode 106, 1-11-67)

The Satchmo Show. Louis Armstrong actually taped two episodes of The Danny Kaye Show a month apart in late 1966. Whichever one the DVD’s producers choose, whether the one with the Salute to St. Louis medley and Danny’s Paul Revere number or the one with “The Five Pennies Saints” and Kaye’s Spanish fairy tale “Jose and the Beanstalk,” they can’t go wrong. (Episode 104, 11-16-66, or Episode 107, 1-4-67)

The George Burns Show. Burns’ wife and longtime comedy partner Gracie Allen died just a couple of years before this episode was taped, so it will be great to see the master back performing. He works flawlessly with Kaye, in a medley of old standards and in a Jerome sketch. (Episode 113, 3-1-67)

My thanks to DVD producer MVD Visual for continuing to make these shows available and for picking out another group of winners. Keep releasing them, and we’ll keep buying them.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Danny Kaye’s Two Sets of Screen Tests

Producer Sam Goldwyn wanted to make sure Danny (and one particular Goldwyn Girl) were ready for their close-ups before filming started on Up in Arms.

Soon after signing his five-picture deal with Sam Goldwyn to come to Hollywood, Danny Kaye agreed to report to the studio a year early—in August 1942, during the summer hiatus of his hit Broadway show, Let’s Face It—to make a series of screen tests. Those tests, which resulted in Goldwyn bleaching Danny’s hair blond and almost forcing him to undergo plastic surgery on his nose, are covered in my book, Danny Kaye: King of Jesters.

But what I did not mention is that Goldwyn later had Kaye undergo a second series of screen tests before he would allow the cameras to officially begin rolling on his first movie, Up in Arms.

After Let’s Face It closed in the spring of 1943, Kaye relocated to Hollywood to begin preparing for his first feature film role. He was originally supposed to star alongside a Broadway revue performer, Virginia Mayo, but Kaye’s wife, Sylvia, protested. Goldwyn agreed to consider casting another unknown, Constance Dowling, in her place and relegating Mayo, for this one picture, to featured “Goldwyn Girl.” Mayo then would be promoted to co-star for Danny’s four remaining films.

Goldwyn insisted, however, that Mayo be included in the stars’ color tests, which were filmed to sync the Technicolor and to make sure all the leads looked and sounded perfect.

Principal photography was set to begin June 21, 1943. On May 10, the studio produced Color Test A with Kaye, Mayo, Dowling, Dinah Shore, and Dana Andrews running through lines inside a hospital room.

On May 20, under the supervision of director Elliott Nugent, they filmed Test B on the dock and inside Dr. Hamiliton’s office. This time, only Kaye, Mayo and Andrews were needed. No Dowling.

And on June 14, Color Test C featured Kaye, Mayo, Dowling, Shore and Lenore Aubert.

The next several days included make-up tests, wardrobe tests, dialogue rehearsals, and posing for color stills. For all of them, Goldwyn made sure Kaye was joined by Mayo—providing her with perhaps one of the most exhaustive preparations for a bit part in movie history.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Danny Kaye Biographies His Wife Almost Wrote

Danny Kaye and his private life were almost the topic of at least three biographies by his wife, Sylvia Fine.
The other existing biographies of Danny Kaye (unlike the incomparable Danny Kaye: King of Jesters) will tell you that two separate times—once in the 1940s and again in the late 1980s—his wife, Sylvia Fine, attempted to write her own biography of her famous husband. The Kayes’ personal papers at the Library of Congress tell a slightly different story.

Sylvia’s first attempt at a Danny Kaye book started in March 1946. She thought it would be great for prestige and publicity, but her schedule was packed writing songs for Danny’s weekly radio show and for his upcoming movie, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. More pressing, she had just discovered she was with child and would experience a difficult pregnancy.

So, Sylvia hired a ghost writer, the well known New York literary agent Ethel Paige. Paige had edited and authored several books. Her most recent was Private Lives of Movie Stars: Hedy Lamarr, James Cagney, Barbara Stanwyck, Red Skelton, Lucille Ball—a book that may have sounded juicy, but was really just press agent puffery. Just what Sylvia was looking for.

By October 1946, Sylvia was less than two months away from her due date and news was beginning to leak of her rocky relationship with Danny. Fan magazines had begun hinting at his carrying on with Eve Arden. This was not the time for a writer to be digging into their personal life. Sylvia demanded the project be scrapped and that Paige “cease her activites on behalf of Danny in the writing of a book.”

By March 1947, Sylvia was ready to take another crack at it, this time by her own hand. She would have to be in complete control of the story. Doubleday & Co., at the time the world’s largest book publisher, paid her a hefty advance, hoping for a whimsical look at the entertainer’s life. Instead, Sylvia spent the next two years writing a more critical look she called Seven Years in a Pressure Cooker. The writing period coincided with the bumpiest time Danny and Sylvia’s marriage would endure, including their seven-month separation. As their relationship finally matured into a “new normal,” she opted to return the advance and scrap the whole project.

Sylvia again started writing a book—but not a biography—in 1976. After teaching a class on the history of musical comedy, first at USC in 1972 and then at Yale for the fall semester of 1975, she thought each lecture would make a great chapter in a book. She paid to have each lesson transcribed, and then began tweaking them into book form. (Interestingly, her chapter on lousy Broadway shows, titled “Turkeys—And Why,” singled out Danny’s only Broadway show she wasn’t involved with, Two by Two.)

But early on in the project she realized the lessons would be better seen and heard rather than read about. So she turned her efforts to pitching them as a TV series for PBS. They eventually were produced as three specials, starting with Musical Comedy Tonight (1979).

Sylvia took one last stab at a memoir in 1987, when she signed a contract with Alfred A. Knopf about seven months after Danny’s death. She called it Fine and Danny, a title she’d first thought up for a video compilation of her husband performing her best bits, which she’d put together a few years earlier for a special event in their honor. But Sylvia, at heart an intensely private person, could never bring herself to finish the book and, four years later, died.

But what about Danny and Sylvia’s daughter, Dena? She is an accomplished writer and author in her own right. Might one day she write a book about her parents? Martin Gottried’s near-fictional Nobody’s Fool claims that the Kayes forced Dena to sign a contract stipulating that she would never write a book about her parents, lest she be cut out of the will. I can only assume this story is apocryphal, since a few years ago Dena was working on a book that she had hoped to have published in connection with the Danny Kaye Centennial Celebration in 2013.

Alas, the economics of today’s publishing industry prevented its publication as the lavish, photo-filled, coffee-table hardcover she envisioned. Instead, a number of those rare photos are now available for viewing on the Library of Congress’ website. And we are left to hope that one day Dena will sit down and share the fascinating story her mother tried to, but couldn’t.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Danny Kaye Sitcom That Almost Was

A new Danny Kaye Show was planned in 1986 as a spin-off of The Cosby Show.

Inspired by the mid-1980s success of the family-friendly Cosby Show, Danny Kaye seriously considered starring in his own self-titled family-friendly situation comedy for NBC.

To that point, Danny had limited experience with sitcoms. He’d guested in episodes of The Jack Benny Show and The Lucy Show in the early 1960s, as payback for guest spots on his variety series. But the rest of his TV work was specials and a handful of spots on talk shows and variety programs.

So the idea was to put him on an episode of the top-rated Cosby Show, to gauge his comfort level and the audience’s reaction. The episode, which aired in February 1986, was sort of a quasi-pilot called "The Dentist," with Danny playing the Huxtables’ unorthodox dentist, Dr. Burns.

The show was well received, but rather than feature the character in a true spin-off, work began on a true pilot for his own series, The Danny Kaye Show.

As lead writer/producer, Kaye looked to Ernie Chambers, who was a writer on the first three years of Kaye’s 1960s variety series, then left to produce its summer replacement, The John Gary Show (bankrolled by Danny’s company, Dena Productions). Chambers then went on to produce other variety series (Joey Bishop Show, Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, etc.), before branching into sitcoms and specials.

Chambers was joined by Carol Burnett Show veteran Saul Turteltaub and his writing partner, Bernie Orenstein, who had first written together, then produced together, on That Girl, and had continued to write and produce together ever since.

Their idea was to mix the wacky character he played on Cosby with many of Danny’s own personality traits and hobbies. Kaye would play Dr. Henry Becker, a baseball-loving, French pastry cooking pediatrician at a children’s hospital in Pittsburgh.

They completed their 30-minute pilot script on August 26, 1986. Unfortunately, in just the few months since Cosby, Kaye’s health seriously deteriorated. He had undergone quadruple bypass heart surgery three years prior, during which a tainted blood transfusion gave him hepatitis C. Six months after receiving the script, he was dead. The Cosby Show would be Danny’s final appearance.

Interestingly, if the sitcom would have ever happened, it would have been the fifth time Kaye had starred in a "Danny Kaye Show," following his radio show of the 1940s, his stage act of the 1950s and 1960s, a TV special of the early 1960s, and his TV variety series of the mid-1960s.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Dr. Who Was Danny's Double

Comic Jon Pertwee looked so much like Danny Kaye, he was hired to play him.

Although he became best known as BBC’s time-traveling Dr. Who in the early 1970s, Jon Pertwee started out as an English comedian who was so often mistaken as Danny Kaye, that in time he was hired to play Danny Kaye.

Pertwee didn’t just look like Danny. He was also equally limber-limbed and nimble-tongued. So, after Kaye’s triumphant appearances at the London Palladium in 1948, Pertwee worked an impersonation of Kaye into his vaudeville act. His impression was so well received, that it was featured in the British film Murder at the Windmill (1949, released in the U.S. as Mystery at the Burlesque), which was really just an excuse to show off a bunch of vaudeville acts.

The comparisons to Kaye, however, soon began to irk Pertwee. Worse, autograph-seekers were constantly walking up to him and asking for Kaye’s signature. During one music hall appearance in 1951, he told a reporter, “I am tired of being mistaken for Danny Kaye. I am waiting for the day when I hear of Danny Kaye being mistaken for me.”

Yet that resemblance did get Pertwee more work. In 1953, writer/directors Norman Panama and Melvin Frank had hoped to film their new Danny Kaye picture, Knock on Wood, entirely in London and Zurich, and cast Swedish beauty Mai Zetterling as the leading lady. Yet as soon as they laid out their shooting schedule, to begin June 1, news came that Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, televised nationally, was to take place June 2. Suddenly it seemed easier and less expensive to make the movie on a Paramount soundstage, with a Paramount crew.

Instead, a second-unit crew would spend the last two weeks of May filming Zetterling and a body-double for Kaye running around England and Zurich. And the obvious choice to hire as Danny’s lookalike? Pertwee. Unfortunately, Pertwee had a prior commitment, so a stand-in for the stand-in had to be hired for the last three days of filming. Those exteriors in Zurich at the airport, clinic and hotel? Pertwee. The shots in England, on the country road, river bank, clinic, railroad station, hotel, alley, and driving to and from the castle? Also Pertwee. But the exteriors about two-thirds into the movie in England at a crossroads, on the streets, and outside the pub and hotel? Some other guy, who’s noticeably taller and lankier than Pertwee (or Kaye, for that matter).

Zetterling, too, had to get on a plane to Hollywood, so after the first three days of second-unit work, a double for Zetterling was used in the remaining far shots.

As a sly nod to Kaye’s double, Panama and Frank in their next Kaye picture, The Court Jester, named one of the assassinated lords Sir Pertwee.

But that wasn’t Pertwee’s final Kaye connection. In 1975, he sang Danny’s fairy-tale tunes on the soundtrack to Hans Andersen, a stage version of Kaye’s Hans Christian Andersen musical (1952). (Pertwee’s 1959 movie The Ugly Duckling, however, had nothing to do with Andersen or Kaye).

Pertwee died in 1996, like Kaye at age 76, and was compared to Danny till the end.

British comedian Jon Pertwee gained famed as the third Dr. Who, after years of living as a Danny Kaye lookalike.