Thursday, December 17, 2015

Danny & Stannie

Danny Kaye stepped up to receive Stan Laurel's special Academy Award, after the comedian fell ill.

Danny Kaye and Stan Laurel didn’t exactly run around in the same circles. Kaye hob-nobbed with the elite in all fields—the finest actors and musicians, nationally known doctors and politicians. Laurel’s closest friends were his fellow screenwriters and other behind-the-scenes show biz folks.

Yet Danny greatly admired Stan’s work and talent, and in the early 1960s was among the many who visited the elderly Laurel at his beachside Santa Monica apartment. There, Laurel would welcome all who called, whether famous admirers like Dick Van Dyke and Marcel Marceau or just plain regular folks who’d always dreamed of meeting their idol.

Stan finally gets his hands on the prize.
In 1961, Laurel was selected to receive an honorary Academy Award, but shortly before the ceremony, he developed a hemorrhage in his left eye. He had Danny Kaye accept the Oscar for him. Soon after, Dick Van Dyke personally delivered the statue to Stan.

(Ironically, one other special Oscar was presented that same year—to Gary Cooper, who was also too ill to attend and had his award picked up by Jimmy Stewart. Four weeks later, Cooper was dead of cancer.)

Laurel would live four more years. By the time Stan passed away, on February 23, 1965, Danny—through his weekly variety show—had become a fixture on CBS. Not long after, a photographer who had visited Stan at his apartment several times thought the Tiffany Network should pay a proper, posthumous tribute to Laurel and recruited Van Dyke and other celebrities to convince CBS.

CBS agreed. But instead of showcasing the work of Laurel and Hardy, CBS used only quick, seconds-long clips and instead turned A Salute to Stan Laurel into a variety show featuring dance numbers and a parade of CBS sit-com stars in unfunny skits (from Lucille Ball to Fred Gwynne dressed as Herman Munster). Kaye’s second banana, Harvey Korman, appeared in one sketch as a cop.

Danny was also asked to participate and wisely declined to appear in any sketches. Instead, he consented to briefly reminisce about accepting Laurel’s Oscar and introduce a clip of Stan receiving it. The short bit was reminiscent of the “Sit Down Spot” Kaye would do at the end of each week’s Danny Kaye Show. Though he appeared for less than 60 seconds, Kaye received equivalent billing of those who were cursed with larger parts. The show was widely panned by audiences.

For those interested in Laurel and Hardy and the full story of the awkward variety show tribute, check out the forthcoming book Laurel & Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies, which is being launched in a special collector’s edition pre-sale on KickStarter. In fact, those who buy a copy of the new book can also add on Danny Kaye: King of Jesters at a discounted price (see "Me and My Pal" package)! So there is a Santa Claus!

Monday, December 7, 2015

The Danny Kaye Holiday Gift Guide

Looking for something special this Christmas for the Danny Kaye fan in your life? You can’t go wrong with any of these 10 great suggestions:

The Court Jester: Original Soundtrack
In teaming with her most accomplished collaborator, Sammy Cahn, Sylvia Fine (Danny’s wife and songwriter) created what to me is her greatest movie work. And the original sountrack contains several songs—“I Live to Love,” “Pass the Basket,” the gorgeous “Where Walks My True Love”—that ended up being cut from the picture. Through its print-on-order system, Amazon has begun reissuing the soundtrack on a 12-track CD. Get it?




Danny Kaye: King of Jesters
This is part biography, but primarily a behind-the-scenes look at Danny at work, filled with stories of making all his wonderful movies, TV and radio shows, audio recordings, and stage performances.
It’s based on 30 years of research and interviews with 50 of Kaye’s closest co-workers and friends, and clears up a lot of the nonsense written in prior books and online.


White Christmas Gift Set  Nine years ago, Turner Classic Movies teamed up with Starbucks to put out a “gift set” combining the White Christmas DVD with a soundtrack CD. Four years later, Paramount Home Entertainment updated the package—putting it in a shiner case, adding a couple of special features to the DVD, substituting music downloads for the CD, and throwing reprints of the lobby card set. The second set is still available from several retailers. It’s a nice package, but if you’re just interested in the movie, there’s a better alternative...


White Christmas: Diamond Anniversary Edition  It seems like every Christmas, a new, re-re-remastered edition of White Christmas would be released, in a slightly different package, with some new but insignificant bell or whistle. There’s now no longer need for any more. Last year’s Blu-Ray release is high-definition perfection. It proudly sits on my shelf next to other beautiful Blu-Rays like Hans Christian Andersen, On the Riviera, Knock on Wood, and On the Double.






The Great Movie Comedians  Repeat showings of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty on KTLA-5 started my love of Danny Kaye movies, but this classic book by Leonard Maltin opened my eyes to everything else, beyond the handful of movies reshown.I read that chapter on Danny Kaye over and over again—not to mention Maltin’s spot-on analysis of many of my other favorites, like Laurel & Hardy and the Marx Brothers.
This book had been out of print for years, so it’s great to see it finally back in circulation in a new expertly updated edition.




Danny Kaye: Legends  This latest batch of Danny Kaye Show episodes on DVD release is another winner, with six fascinating shows featuring such guests as Lucille Ball, Louis Armstrong, George Burns, Tony Bennett, and Shirley Jones.
This is the third collection of shows released, maintaining the high level set by a collection of Christmas shows (issued in 2012) and a “Best of...” with, among others, the premiere (2014).





White Christmas Shirts  A number of inventive companies are offering T-shirts, blouses and tank tops with White Christmas images on them. Payyand offers shirts with the iconic Santa foursome shot and with the stage play’s logo, but my favorites are the T’s, tanks and hoodies with a logo for “Wallace-Davis Productions.” (Redbubble also has Wallace-Davis logo’ed throw pillows and welcome mats!)
Poster Reprints  Pop Culture Graphics sells colorful print-on-demand reproductions of movie posters, including several Kaye titles (mini-11x17’s of The Court Jester, White Christmas, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and A Song Is Born, plus full-size 27x40 one-sheets of the Man from the Diners Club and—the coolest—White Christmas in Italian). At $10 for an 11x17 or $20 for a 27x40, including shipping, they’re a lot more affordable—and likely more vibrant—than an original.


Danny Kaye Jigsaw Puzzles  Prints Prints Prints offers three different photo jigsaw puzzles featuring Danny—one a handsome portrait, one as Mitty the Kid, and one at a nightclub with Bette Davis. At $34.99, they’re a little pricey, but very cool looking.




Classic Homes of Los Angeles  This stunning coffee table book by architecture expert Douglas Woods showcases fine estates in Southern California, including Danny Kaye’s former home on San Ysidro Drive in Beverly Hills.
Since the Kayes never invited me over for dinner in Danny’s Chinese kitchen, this is the closest I’ll ever get.


Enjoy the holidays, everyone, and I hope to have another article for you next week!

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.