|Danny Kaye spent over 30 years tirelessly promoted the United Nations Children's Fund.|
Danny Kaye’s work to benefit the United Nations International Children's Fund began in the early 1950s when he convinced Paramount Pictures to film him meeting with impoverished kids around the world, bringing them joy and medicine. The film, Assignment: Children (1954), would be shown in movie theaters and then patrons would be encouraged to donate.
Two years later, Danny headed out on a similar mission, this time taped by CBS for Edward R. Murrow’s See It Now TV show. Kaye would then spend the rest of his days touring the world and promoting UNICEF as its first Special Ambassador.
On June 1, 1983, when I interviewed UNICEF’s Horst Cerni for my book Danny Kaye: King of Jesters, Danny—despite failing health—had just been honored at a UNICEF benefit and was hoping to resume his travels after the summer.
(David Koenig) What is your position with UNICEF?
(Horst Cerni) Well, I’ve just taken over in the Special Events section. I used to be in Geneva. I just was in transit from Geneva to New York. So the person who did this before and who worked with Danny Kaye quite extensively is no longer with us, unfortunately.
(DK) How long have you been with UNICEF?
(Cerni) I’ve been with UNICEF since 1966.
(DK) Did you know Danny Kaye all this time?
(Cerni) No, I had worked with him once at the Expo in Montreal, in ’67, was it? And then I had seen him in Europe last year.
(DK) What kind of person did you find him?
(Cerni) Well, I think he is certainly a marvelous performer. And what I have seen him do in Europe as well as in Montreal was quite exciting, especially dealing with children who do not understand English. He’s a tremendous communicator.
(DK) You helped him set up in Montreal?
(Cerni) No, I don’t remember exactly what the situation was there, but it was at the UN Pavilion. And I think, like in the US, the 31st of October was declared UNICEF Day at the Expo and he was invited to be the honored guest of that.
(DK) How did Danny first become associated with UNICEF?
(Cerni) Yeah, it was quite a coincidence. He was traveling, I think, from London to New York on the same plane with the executive director of UNICEF at that time. So they started talking, and he became interested. He came over to the UN and he was invited to become our special envoy or special ambassador to talk about the needs of children and get acquainted with the situation of children—that’s how it really started. It was 1953, exactly 30 years ago.
(DK) Did anyone know he would work so well with children?
(Cerni) I think only on the basis of his performances, and I guess his appearances on TV as well as in movies, he was known to be a good comedian, with children especially, and I think that must have been the reason he got invited to work for us—to do something for us.
(DK) How were the tours set up?
(Cerni) Well, I don’t know how the first one was set up, since Paramount was behind it, and they filmed his tour. So that resulted in a major movie documentary, which was released even in theaters. And then another tour in the 1970s we filmed. But we arranged it so he got acquainted with various UNICEF-assisted activities, and usually it is in conjunction with information distribution and fund-raising concerns that our national committees organize.
(DK) Each tour requires tremendous planning?
(Cerni) Well, we haven’t had any major tours for some time. I mean he had gone to Europe last year and he will be going again this fall—as a matter of fact, we’re working right now to see if we can set up a trip for him, but that would depend to some extent on his health improvement. So we are not quite sure, but we have field offices most developing countries, and they are equipped to arrange the visit in the most essential way and to meet government people to possibly set up some appearances, not necessarily performances, but certainly appearances with children.
(DK) Was last year a long trip?
(Cerni) Well, only in Europe—and the United States, of course—but I mean the major trip was to the Netherlands (in 1981).
(DK) Did it consist of benefit shows?
(Cerni) There was a benefit football game, actually. It was a rather curious event in the sense that it was organized, I think, by executives playing against journalists. And it’s an annual event and he is very much loved in the Netherlands. They invited him to come to see if he could participate in this as a fund-raising event for UNICEF.
(DK) What was his part in the game?
(Cerni) Well, for example, at the opening ceremony, he joked around with the musicians, and then in the middle of the game all of a sudden he started blowing the whistle and he appeared as an ambulance attendant and he rushed on the field with the game in the way, and he got a red card from the referee and then he wheeled off one of the players, saying, “He is no good to play.” He put on a funny little show.
(DK) Is Assignment: Children still being shown?
(Cerni) It’s still being shown, but more as a reference. But it’s still apparently used in some schools and so on.
(DK) Do prints of See It Now exist?
(Cerni) We have a kinescope only because it was a television program.
(DK) Is it still shown?
(Cerni) Again, I think that’s more for reference, because it has never been distributed. It doesn’t belong to UNICEF. It was a CBS show.
(DK) Were language barriers a problem?
(Cerni) Well, no, it’s incredible. In most other countries, he meets people and personalities who speak English, but with children and the average person (in non-English speaking lands) he’s able to communicate just with signs and sounds and so on. And he has been quite amazing.
(DK) Is he still involved in the Trick or Treat campaigns?
(Cerni) Well, this is of course a regular feature in the United States every year and he has been very actively promoting it in various years. As a matter of fact, up until a couple of years ago, I think since the 1960s, he was flying (himself) across the country and stopping in over 20 different cities in one day. And he did something similar also in Canada.
(DK) Is it still going on?
(Cerni) Yeah, but he has not been promoting it directly. I mean I don’t know in the last year since I wasn’t (involved), so I really can’t say if he has been appearing at any particular function in connection with it. It’s possible.
|Through the 1960s, Danny would fly himself to dozens of cities in a single day to promote UNICEF's Trick or Treat campaign.|
(DK) What is the Trick or Treat campaign?
(Cerni) It’s simply that the children go from house to house, and instead of collecting candy, they go in an organized through their school or youth organization with a little collection box, and collect funds for UNICEF.
(DK) Is he still flying?
(Cerni) I don’t know.
(DK) Did he film a TV special for UNICEF in 1971 or 1972?
(Cerni) I’m not aware of it. I know we made a film after his visit to the refugee camps in Pakistan. That was in 1971.
(DK) Was it theatrically shown?
(Cerni) No, it’s just a documentary which we show at events or admission committees. It’s called The Pied Piper.
(DK) Tell me about the next trip in fall.
(Cerni) We are discussing a trip to Asia, but the exact details have not been worked out, depending on his health condition. So we have to wait and see a little bit.
(DK) Have you met Sylvia?
(Cerni) I was with her in Montreal and his daughter was there at the same time. I only met them at the World’s Fair. (He is usually accompanied) by just his manager, Herb Bonis. Obviously the best person to talk to is Herb Bonis, because he would have all the details. At UNICEF, the people who have dealt with him in the past are not here now.