Friday, November 7, 2014

Danny Kaye’s First Talk Show Appearance

What may have been Danny Kaye's first talk show appearance ever was just released this week on DVD.

First, a little background:  Early on, Danny was wary of television. Initially, he thought himself above the fledgling medium. He also saw that TV chewed up material at a ferocious pace, and was fearful it would quickly consume all the specialty numbers he had spent decades perfecting on stage.

In the 1950s, he appeared on a handful of TV specials, such as the Academy Awards, but it took until 1960 before a new agent convinced him to appear in three hour-long TV specials, one a year, to rejuvenate his sagging movie career.

To promote the first two specials on CBS, he made guest appearances on his favorite game show, What’s My Line. But the third special, co-starring Lucille Ball, would run on NBC, so he needed to find NBC shows on which to promote it. He consented to something he’d never done before: talk shows.

With the Lucy special set to air Nov. 11, 1962, he appeared for the first time on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson Nov. 8, The Andy Williams Show Nov. 8, and was interviewed on Here’s Hollywood Nov. 9. He also appeared on NBC’s brand-new Merv Griffin Show, taping the episode Nov. 8-9. The episode aired that second afternoon, so while it may have been the first talk show set Danny ever set foot on, it was his third broadcast.

And it's that hilarious appearance on the Merv Griffin Show that was released on DVD this week, as part of a 12-disc box set of the series.

After the Lucy special, Kaye started his own weekly variety show, which ran for four years, after which he’d sporadically return to talk shows, like David Frost and Dick Cavett, to promote other projects.

New Merv Griffin Show box set kicks off with an early appearance by Danny Kaye.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Wish List: The Next "Best of Danny Kaye Show" DVD

Any future Best of the Danny Kaye Show release would be wise to include a Louis Armstrong episode.

We're still a few weeks away from the release of The Best of The Danny Kaye Show DVD, featuring six terrific shows. But that's still not too early to begin planning for the next batch (assuming sales of the first set are strong, along the lines of the two Christmas shows released two years ago).

Here are the six shows I'd like to see on the next disk:

Episode 13 (originally aired Nov. 27, 1963) Similar to next month's initial "Best of" collection, I'd be content with one disk featuring three black-and-white episodes from the funnier first two seasons and three living-color episodes from the more musical last two seasons. I'd start out with this wonderful time capsule:  taped the night after JFK was assassinated. The emotion is real, with Danny bravely holding guest performer Mahalia Jackson and the rest of his team together.

Episode 29 (April 8, 1964) This episode is not only historic (featuring the first time Jim "Gomer Pyle" Nabors ever sings on TV), and nostalgic (Nabors is joined in a cameo by former co-star Andy Griffith), but it's also great fun. (Kaye plays Fat Daddy, a comically ruthless Southern tyrant in a spoof of The Long, Hot Summer, to such great effect, it became be a recurring character).

Episode 49 (Dec. 23, 1964) Season 2 featured the series' best Christmas show, marking the debut of Billy Barnes' classic "Waltz Around the Christmas Tree;" Danny reteaming with his favorite co-star, Gwen Verdon; and the first appearance of Victoria Paige Meyerink, the pint-sized sensation who would change the direction of the show. This is the episode where it all began. (If the DVD producers decide to save this gem for another special Christmas DVD, I'd happily substitute another Verdon classic, Episode 36, which features a stunning three-act musical spoof, Top Hat, White Tie, and Green Socks. Other solid choices are Episode 16 with Dick Van Dyke and Episode 42 with Lucille Ball, but those are among the few shows you can already find a bootlegged copy of, if you look hard enough.)

Episode 76 (Nov. 10, 1965) Whereas most of the musical guests in the first two seasons were featured interacting with Danny, starting with Season 3, younger pop singers and bands began to appear, whom Kaye would merely introduce and then get out of the way. This episode provides a nice balance, with Danny joining Freddie from Freddie & the Dreamers and soprano Marguerite Piazza in a special song Bernie Rothman wrote for—and about—the threesome. It also has a fun sketch with one of Danny's favorite characters, the shy, Brooklynese shoestore clerk, Jerome.

Episode 104 (Nov. 16, 1966) Louis Armstrong swings with Danny, and it's not just another "Five Pennies Saints"(which Satchmo would return a few weeks later to again perform).

Episode 119 (March 8, 1967) Besides Jerome, Danny's other favorite character from the series was a gentle, old Italian named Giovanni (featured in a sketch on the first Christmas with Danny Kaye DVD release from 2012). By the spring of 1967, the series was nearing the end of its run and the writers decided to send the character off in fine fashion, by devoting an entire hour to a five-act musical, "Giovanni's Wedding." The episode, which generated a record amount of fan mail, also has Danny breaking the news to his audience that the series was about to end.

Hopefully we won't have to wait another two years for the next DVD release!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

New DVD Does Contain Kaye's Best

Does the new Best of The Danny Kaye Show DVD really contain the series' best episodes?

After a two-year wait, a second collection of episodes of The Danny Kaye Show are finallly about to be released on DVD. Come Oct. 7, The Best of The Danny Kaye Show will contain six episodes on two discs—three black-and-white shows from the first season and three color shows from seasons three and four.

Usually, those who put together any “Best of” collection aren’t overly concerned with selecting the absolute best. It’s a marketing ploy. They typically opt for the episodes or clips that are easiest to get the rights for (which explains why the “Best of Danny Kaye” VHS release of 20 years ago lacked third-party songs and big-name guest stars).

And, certainly, ease of rights issue must have been a factor with this new DVD. Nevertheless, the producers are indeed telling the truth: the release does feature the Best of The Danny Kaye Show.

Here’s what they chose:

Episode 1 (aired Sept. 25, 1963) Critics consider the premiere to be the finest episode in the history of the series. It guest-stars Jackie Cooper, short-lived co-star Lovelady Powell, and a terrific cameo by Jack Benny. Three baseball-themed versions of popular musicals (like My Fair Umpire) are the highlight, and Danny also does a sketch playing the mishap-prone “Victim,” which would become his first recurring character.

Episode 5 (aired Oct. 23, 1963) Even though this episode had a troubled production, with Lovelady Powell’s scenes all cut out and Michelle Lee stepping in to tape replacements, the installment is considered a minor classic. You can thank guest Gene Kelly, who works wonderfully with Kaye, performing “Ballin’ the Jack,” a medley, and Danny’s linguini recipe. Kaye, in drag, also introduces beauty expert Miss Schmeckenvasser—his second recurring character.

Episode 20 (aired Jan. 22, 1964) Another winner, the show—taped on Danny’s 53rd birthday and airing four days later—guest stars Art Carney (who was always at the top of his game during his three appearances on The Danny Kaye Show) and includes a Twilight Zone spoof featuring Rod Serling.

Episode 70 (Sept. 15, 1965) The episodes on the second disk (like most of the series’ third and fourth seasons) aren’t nearly as funny as earlier shows, but they’re always sunnier (few series gained as much from switching to color as did Kaye’s) and a notch above musically. Guest Harry Belafonte worked wonderfully with Danny, who seems particulary at ease—his old director returned to direct this one episode. It was so good that the five episodes taped before it were aired later in the season, so this one could be the season premiere.

Episode 83 (Jan. 5, 1966) Visits from Liza Minelli, Alan Young, and singer John Gary, whom Danny’s production company was grooming to host a variety show as Kaye’s summer replacement.

Episode 101 (Oct. 5, 1966) Danny hits it off with Ella Fitzgerald and performs one of his ethnic fairy tales, this one Irish: “Little Green Riding Hood.”

All in all, it would be difficult to pick six better episodes. That won’t stop me from trying. Next week, I’ll share six episodes that I’d love to see on the next Best of The Danny Kaye Show release.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

How Many Danny Kaye Show Episodes Are There?

1945 signage promotes CBS Radio's new Danny Kaye Show, featuring Danny and singer Kitty Kallen, who often accompanied the house band, Harry James' Orchestra. Image courtesy Cary Ginell.
The first Danny Kaye Show (the one on radio in the 1940s, not the TV series of the 1960s) has always had a murky history. Each show was broadcast once with no plans to ever air it again, except occasionally chopped up and inserted into wartime radio programs, to entertain the troops overseas. No good records were kept. And none of the episodes were titled.

Over the years, tapes of some episodes did filter out into the public. Copies were bootlegged and distributed under homemade titles like "Danny Goes to Washington, D.C." Distributors dated the episodes by looking back at old program guides or newspaper listings to match up synopses.

Unfortunately, only about 18 episodes made it into circulation (although it may have seemed like more, because a single show may have been released under two or three different titles). At least one researcher did try to reconstruct the show's history and, by counting up the number of weeks between the series' first airing and last, estimated there were 58 broadcasts. Yet, he admitted he had no inkling of what aired on about a dozen of the weeks (a couple weeks no show aired, such as in the wake of FDR's death).

Fortunately, Kaye kept reel-to-reel recordings of most of the shows and scripts for all of them in his personal collection, which his heirs later donated to the Library of Congress. Piecing them together, my answer is there were 50 actual episodes of The Danny Kaye Show, spanning two seasons from January 1945 to May 1946.

But there's a hitch: a week before the series began, a small number of stations did air a "practice show," to help the cast and crew get comfortable. So, you could say 51.

And then, there were the six shows that aired under the Danny Kaye Show banner, on the Danny Kaye Show station, in the Danny Kaye Show time slot, and that were listed in program guides as The Danny Kaye Show. They just didn't have Danny Kaye on them or involve the show's regular cast and writers.

What happened is Danny had agreed to travel overseas on a six-week USO tour, departing at the end of September 1945. Unfortunately, the second season of his radio show had been scheduled to premiere September 28. So, Kaye did the season opener as a live remote from a War Fund workers rally in Chicago, then had other radio performers fill in with a show of their own.

The first week, Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland filled in. They had recently done a couple radio shows together and had just begun work on the film Till the Clouds Roll By.

For week two, Goodman Ace created a new episode of Easy Aces, the series he starred in with his wife, Jane, for 15 years prior to becoming the new director/head writer for The Danny Kaye Show.

The next week it was Burns and Allen, whose show aired the night before, also on CBS. In Danny's slot, they performed an entirely new script, but in the format of their own program.

A week later, Jack Benny and his regulars did the same thing. Benny's regular show, however, aired on NBC, but Kaye had appeared on The Jack Benny Show the year before and would appear again the following year.

Week five saw Kaye replaced by Duffy's Tavern (another NBC show) and week six Eddie Cantor (who also had a show on NBC, but guest-starred on the very first episode of The Danny Kaye Show and, a year later, would replace pal Danny as host of Pabst Blue Ribbon's series).

So, that might make 57 shows.

No matter you count them, they're all profiled, with behind-the-scenes stories, in my book Danny Kaye: King of Jesters.

Monday, July 28, 2014

See The Court Jester on the Big Screen Aug. 2 in Ventura County

Watch Danny Kaye in The Court Jester and hear from author David Koenig all about the "King of Jesters" Aug. 2 in Moorpark, Ca.

This weekend you’ll have a rare opportunity to enjoy Danny Kaye’s classic The Court Jester the way it was intended: in an old-time movie palace packed with an appreciative audience.

This Saturday August 2, 2014, at 7 p.m., The Court Jester will be screened at the High Street Arts Center in Moorpark, California. Hosting the event will be theater arts critic Cary Ginell with his special guest David Koenig, author of Danny Kaye: King of Jesters (that’s me!). Before the screening, we’ll  discuss Danny's career and the making of The Court Jester, and afterwards I’ll be signing books.

Advance tickets are just $3.00, or it's $5.00 at the door.

The High Street Arts Center, located at 45 E. High St., Moorpark, opened in 1927 as the El Rancho, the first “talking movie” theater in the east end of Ventura County. Starting in the 1950s, it saw several incarnations as a theater for live events.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Best $25 Danny Kaye Ever Spent

The highlight of Danny Kaye's breakthrough run at New York's La Martinque nightclub was "Stanislavsky," a new song Sylvia Fine had written—with a little uncredited help.

Writer Sam Locke knew Danny Kaye before he was Danny Kaye. He met then-unknown Kaye in January 1939, during rehearsals for a short-lived revue called Sunday Night Varieties. Days later, he—and Danny—would both for the first time meet songwriter Sylvia Fine, who within a year would become Mrs. Danny Kaye.

When I met Locke in the early 1980s (he died in 1998), his memory of the fateful meeting day and everything about the Kayes was razor-sharp. In addition, he had boxes filled with scribbled notes, programs and photos to back up his every word.

One piece he was particularly proud of was an original January 1940 lyric sheet for “Stanislavsky”—straight out of Sylvia’s typewriter and covered with his own handwritten comments and additions. These days, the song—about the great Russian actor, whose secret is suffering—is not as well known as some of Danny’s other “character songs” like “Anatole of Paris” and “Pavlova,” because he never sang it in any of his movies. But when Danny first performed the song, during his breakthrough nightclub stint at New York’s La Martinique, it was widely considered the highlight of the show. (An audio recording of the song is now available on compilation albums and as a download—and here, since Kaye would later perform it numerous times on his weekly radio show.)

The La Martinique booking was Danny’s first-ever solo show and Sylvia had written “Stanislavsky” especially for it. But, with just days away from the first performance, the song just wasn’t clicking. In a panic, Sylvia ran to Locke, an occasional writing partner during 1939.

Locke suggested deleting a half-dozen extended sections he found flat, including a laugh-free parody of the old song “Mother” (“S is for the way in which we suffer, T is for the tea we always drink…”). Sylvia agreed to all the cuts but one. He also advised moving several sections around and dreamed up a few lines of his own, including what became the biggest laugh in the song: “I’ll never forget the day of my greatest triumph. I was playing part of antique mahogany bureau. So convincing, in the third act, my drawers fell out.”

The rest is history. When Danny received his first week’s pay—$250, in small bills to make the amount seem even more impressive—he knew it was time to pay off his past debts. But now no-nonsense Sylvia was in charge of the finances. They called up Locke.

“(Danny) was at La Martinique,” Locke recalled, pulling out his financial ledger from 1940 to confirm the dates and figures. “They wanted me to come down, so I came down. Then the waiter came over with the check. Anybody else would have paid the check for this poor Brooklyn boy; Danny and Sylvia had arranged that I wouldn’t have to pay the cover.

“Then I went up to their apartment. She said, ‘Now how much do you want for what you’ve done?’ I had written a quarter of it and made that number, so I said, ‘Fifty, fifty dollars.’ I should have said $500! She said, ‘O… kay…’ I said, ‘Why, what were you thinking of?’ She said, ‘25.’ So I said, ‘Okay,’ and it took two payments, $10 March first and then $15 March 22nd, 1940. It took them that long to pay that f#@%ing $25!”

Locke would never work with the Kayes again.

Original Sylvia Fine lyric sheet for "Stanislavsky" shows Sam Locke's suggested changes and doodles.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Johnny Mann Started, But Didn't Finish, "The Danny Kaye Show"

The Johnny Mann Singers left The Danny Kaye Show weeks before they would have recorded this promotional album.

Composer Johnny Mann, who passed away last night at the age of 85, worked with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Nat King Cole, and even voiced Theodore the Chipmunk. But I’ll always think of Mann as the Wally Pipp of The Danny Kaye Show.

In 1963, Mann was signed as choral director for Kaye’s planned variety show. He would appear each week with his Johnny Mann Singers and, as a road test, also toured with Danny on stage during the summer leading up to the series.

It’s commonly believed that Mann left the series after completing the 32-episode first season. In truth, he appeared in only the first handful of episodes. (One of the shows he appeared in didn’t air until February 1964, so technically you could say that he was on the show from 1963-1964, even though he barely made it to October 1963.)

The producers decided to instead hire Earl Brown, who worked particularly well with Danny and could craft new and old material exactly for Kaye’s talents. Earl would become fast friends with Danny and one of the show's primary creative influences. He would end up writing specialty material for Danny for years after the series ended. And starting in November 1963, it was the Earl Brown Singers—not the Johnny Mann Singers—starring on The Danny Kaye Show.