Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Walter Mitty's Weirdest Dream

In dreaming up The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), producer Sam Goldwyn's screenwriters sketched out a number of daydreams for Danny Kaye that never made it to the screen:  the infamous filmed-but-deleted Irish fugitive dream, the firing squad dream, the courtroom dream, the Dutch dike dream, the Inspector Mitty of Scotland Yard dream, the submarine pilot dream, the medieval knight dream (featuring a swordfight between the dashing Sir Walter Mitty and villain Boris Karloff that foreshadows the climax of The Court Jester), an Austrian psychiatrist dream—all detailed in that amazing new book Danny Kaye: King of Jesters.

All of these dreams would have made fascinating set pieces for Kaye, although there was one more unused dream that has always struck me as peculiar:  a “serial hero” dream. Inspired by the Saturday matinee action serials that ended each week with an over-the-top cliffhanger, the sequence was included in the first full screenplay by Everett Freeman and Ken Englund (November 14, 1945), after the scene where Walter and Rosalind return to Uncle Peter’s house to hand over the black book.

But when Uncle realizes Rosalind is on to him, he gives Walter a spiked drink. Our hero is knocked out and begins dreaming...

... he’s an Indiana Jones-type adventurer, who finds himself battling little green space aliens in the jungle. He narrowly escapes, and sprints down a forest path, crashing through a hidden passageway and into a dungeon. There, a black-cowled figure has Rosalind tied up and sets a pack of gorillas loose on our hero. The villain then is about to administer a deadly hypodermic needle to Rosalind ...

… just as Walter awakens in Van Hoorn’s home, who informs two henchman, pretending to be cops, that this young man burst into his home looking for his niece—but he has no niece.

And this sequence must have had next to no chance of being filmed. Goldwyn promptly contacted James Thurber to try to get his writers back on track.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Best (and Newest) Danny Kaye Website Ever

The Library of Congress' new website offers a delicious sampling of Danny Kaye and Sylvia Fine's work.

Today, the Library of Congress officially launches its amazing new website for its Danny Kaye and Sylvia Fine Collection.

The site can be accessed at www.loc.gov/kayefine, or go direct to the home page at http://lcweb2.loc.gov/natlib/kayefine/index.html.

Among the features are biographical information, an interactive timeline of Kaye’s career, and recordings of several songs, radio shows, and films (including his four shorts for Educational Pictures).

But the jackpot is hundreds of images of original pieces from the collection—rare family photographs, Sylvia’s hand-drawn orchestral scores and typed lyric sheets, scripts, personal letters, and more.

Many of the treasures I’d seen before, during my weeks digging through the collection’s several hundred bankers’ boxes in Washington, D.C., but having instant access is even better. But as much as I loved poring over the dusty artifacts, I was disappointed to learn that I was one of the few members of the public to do so during the 20 years the Library of Congress has held the bulk of the collection for 20 years. (In fact, the materials were so infrequently viewed that after I viewed the last of the boxes, most of them were moved off-site and now must be viewed by appointment.)

Hopefully, making key pieces available online will not only give Danny and Sylvia’s work greater exposure, but also inspire others to visit the Library and enjoy the remaining 90% of the treasure trove for themselves.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Here He Comes Now

Danny Kaye’s first Great Triumph took place at the Tamiment Playhouse on July 24, 1939, as he debuted “Anatole of Paris” and starred in several other musical sketches, including the grand finale: “Here He Comes Now,” a spoof of operettas written by producer Max Liebman, with songs by Sylvia Fine. Kaye starred as Mario, the Masked Gondolier, supported by Imogene Coca as Mary Sue Ann, Robert Burton as Mr. Vanderveer, Max Liebman as his secretary, James Shelton as cowboy Bruce Benton, and Lee Brody as accomplice Trixie.

As the mini-operetta begins, five sorority sisters, vacationing in front of modest painted backdrops of Italy, sing the opening number, “So This Is Venice,” extolling the romance of the city (“… shed a tear for the gondolier / as he must beat a retreat from the menace / of Brooklyn teachers on sabatical / who are on a seach fanatical / for a life that’s more romantic than grammatical.”)
(“…the lovely maid in the gondola / a tall serenader to fondle ’er…”)
(“La, la, there’s the Lido / you know, where you can go / to get the sun and air for your libido / though the sand you will have sat in / won’t feel very much more Latin / than the kind you find at Coney or Manhattan.”)

July  Isn’t it wonderful, girls, to be in Venice?

June  It’s the most romantic spot in the whole world. Aren’t you just thrilled, May?

May  It’s so exciting, I can hardly speak. Why, to think, I have wasted away year after year on papa’s miserable 50,000-acre estate at Great Neck, Long Island. Aren’t you just struck dumb, April?

April  I can hardly believe it’s true—I’m in Venice. Just think of it, January, I’m in Venice.

January  And we have Mr. Vanderveer to thank for it all. It was just peachy of him to take us all on this trip. Wasn’t it, July?

July  But there was a method to his madness. He knew that his daughter Mary Sue Ann would be lonesome for her sorority sisters.

June  Methinks she hasn’t stayed lonesome very long.

May  Why, what do you mean, June?

June  You know very well what I mean, May.

May  What does June mean, April?

April  The Masked Gondolier, of course, you silly. She’s out with him this very moment being serenaded on the Grand Canal.

July  And we’re just excess baggage.

Jan.  Yes, but we must keep it a secret. If Mr. Vanderveer finds out, he’ll send us all home.

May  I wonder what Bruce Benson will think? Engaged to a girl who falls for the notorious heartbreaker in Venice?

July  As far as I’m concerned, hear no evil, see no evil. Mr. Vanderveer is willing to pay, I’m willing to stay. I wonder what the old man is up to anyhow? Carrying that leather case with him wherever he goes.

Jan.  Shhh, here he comes now…

Vanderveer (enters, dictating to his secretary)  And I will close the deal as soon as possible. Sincerely yours. Sign my name. Ah, there you are, girls, how do you like Venice?
(They gush about what a wonderful time they’re having, until he asks where is Mary Sue Anne. They stutter.)

Vanderveer  Come, come, speak up.

July  She went to see a man about a boat.

Van.  What, I told you not to leave her out of your sight. I just received a cable from Bruce Benson. He closed up his ranch and will be here any minute.

Girls  Bruce Benson?

Van.  Yes, here he comes now…

Bruce (enters)  Ah, there you are, Mr. Vanderveer. I’ve been looking all over for you.

Van.  Howdy, Bruce. Glad to see you, my boy.

Girls  Helly, Bruce. This is a surprise.

Bruce  Well, I just couldn’t take it, I guess, riding the Lone Prairie, jest with Tony, it’s pretty lonesome. I jest had to come to see Mary Sue Ann.
(He breaks into the song “On the Lone Prairie,” about how lonely it is on the prairie. After the song, all exit. Then, from offstage, a voice is heard serenading. In “floats” a gondola with the singing Masked Gondolier, Mario, and Mary Sue Ann.)

Mary (sighs)  Such divine music.

Mario  What did you say, signorina?

Mary  Such divine music—and don’t call me signorina.

Mario  Ah, but you are a signorina, no?

Mary  No.

Mario  But you are not married?

Mary  No, I’m not married.

Mario  I am glad.

Mary  Why, Mario? Why are you glad?

Mario  I cannot help it, signorina—

Mary  Why, Mario, why can’t you help it?

Mario (passionately)  Because you are the most beautiful signorina in all the world. Ever since you came into my life, I do not feel the same. I feel much better. You have done something to me, like six bottles Chianti. You do something to me. You have made me———

Mary  Why, Mario, I have not.

Mario  Yes, signorina. You have make me very happy. My voice she is better. You have changed me from baritone to tenor. Tell me I have done the same to you.

Mary  You mustn’t forget yourself, Mario. You are only a Gondolier—and I—

Mario  And you are Mary Sue Ann Vanderveer, the richest girl on Long Island. I knew I must never forget, but my heart keeps pounding and the words keep flowing like wine, from my lips. Tell me, signorina, you are not engaged?

Mary (silence)

Mario  Ah, you are engaged. You are in love with handsome, rich Americano—

Mary  No, I’m not. I’m fancy free and pledged to no one. (Aside) Heaven help me for this lie. But this romantic foreigner has captivated me. And I am truly in a dilemma. (She turns to Mario) Tell me, Mario, why do you wear that mask?

Mario  I am deeply hurt, signorina. Deeply offended. You have promise not to ask.

Mary  I know, but it is a woman’s prerogative not to keep her promise. Come, take it off.

Mario  No, signorina. No, I will do anything. I will sing for you a thousand songs. I will gondolier you a million miles. I will jump into the canal—four feet deep—but I cannot remove my mask.

Mary  Very well then, I will go and find myself a gondolier without a mask. (Aside) How lightly the words fall from my lips, yet I know I cannot budge from this spot. I fear me I have fallen in love with this dashing boatman. Yet I must not appear too eager.

Mario  Very well, signorina, but only for you I will take off the mask. (He turns his back to audience and takes off mask. She falls into his arms. He replaces mask.)
(After song, Trixie enters selling flowers.)

Lee Brody, as the seductive Trixie, flirts with Danny Kaye, as Mario, the Masked Gondolier.

Trixie  Ah, signor, you buy beautiful flowers for beautiful signorina?

Mario  Yes, I buy. Only she must be more big, more beautiful, she must be magnifice, like the signorina herself. I buy whole garden flowers.

Trixie  Si, si, signor.
(Hands Mary all the flowers in the basket. Mary takes money from her purse and pays Trixie. Trixie lurks in the shadows.)

Mary  Thank you, Mario, and now I must go. Tomorrow, same time, same canal.

Mario  Adio, signorina. (She goes. Mario turns to Trixie) What the hell do you mean busting in like that? I told you never to come near me when I was with her.

Trixie  You listen to me, you two-timing heel. I’ve stood enough of this. I’m going to the dame’s father and shoot my mouth off.

Mario  Now wait a minute, Trixie. You know it’s only the black leather case I’m after. You don’t think I’d pass you up for a Long Island orchid like her.

Trixie  You better not try it.

Mario  Once I get my hands on that black leather case, we’ll be set for life.

Trixie  Well, you’d better step on it. I’m running out of disguises.

Mario  You can hide out for a while. I’ll keep an eye on the case.

Trixie  Yeah, and who’ll keep an eye on you?

Mario  It won’t be long now. Just let me get the old man into this damn rowboat. Shhh, here he comes now…
(Vanderveer enters dictating same letter as before. Mario asks him if he would like a ride. He declines, saying he doesn’t trust boats.)

Mario (reaching for case)  Ah, but you can trust me. I am the singing boatman (sings)

Trixie (passes seductively, goes to Mario) Your gondola, signor, she is free?

Mario  No, get the hell—no, signorina, she is taken by the Americano.

Trixie (to Van.)  Ah, you will help me, signor, no? I must get to the other side of the canal, where my mother she is dying. I have brought her medicine, no? (seductively)

Van. (hems)  Well, eh—eh—I have never failed a woman in distress. (They hop into the boat and go off as secretary is left behind) And besides, it really doesn’t matter.
(The secretary exits, as Vanderveer, Trixie and Mario sing “It Really Doesn’t Matter.” After the song, they sail offstage. Enter Bruce and Mary Sue Ann)

Bruce  But, Mary Sue Ann. I came all the way from the Lone Prairie to take you back to my ranch.

Mary  That was indeed a reckless thing to do, Bruce. You know father wants me to see all of Venice. And I’ve only been paddled on one canal.

Bruce  But, Mary Sue Ann, you know I have the finest ranch in Texas—Bar None.

Mary  That I am well aware of. Bar None is the finest ranch in all the world—60,000 acres—but not a gondola in sight. (Aside) Strange how I cannot drive gondolas from my mind. If this Western Plainsman should suspect my infatuation with the Masked Gondolier, it would, I fear, break his heart.

Bruce  But, Mary Sue Ann, I am beside myself.

Mary (Aside)  I knew it, he is beside himself. His favorite positon. What can I do? (Turns) You dear, dear boy. You are suffering, aren’t you? Why did you not bring your horse, Hi-Ho Silver?

Bruce  But, Mary Sue Ann. They ain’t no place to ride here, ‘ceptin’ the canals, and Hi-Ho Silver cain’t swim. (Falling to his knees) You must come back with me or I’ll go crazy. (Enter secretary)

Secretary  Oh, Miss Vanderveer! Mr. Benson! They’ve kidnapped him!

Mary  What are you talking about?

Bruce  Yes, man, what are you talking about?

Secretary  The Masked Gondolier and that woman, they took Mr. Vanderveer in a boat—they’re after the leather briefcase.

Mary  The leather briefcase?

Bruce  The leather briefcase?

Secretary  Yes, ma’am. Yes, sir. The leather briefcase.

Bruce  Then I must get into action. No foreigner is gonna steal no leather briefcase from my prospective father-in-law. You better go, Mary Sue Ann. There’s gonna be trouble. (Mary goes) And you, give me some men. (As the secretary exits, Bruce and chorus break into “Give Me Some Men”—“Give me some men / make it eight / he said ten / with a yen to sing fortissimo / Give me some men who will cry / that they’re willing to die / for my Carissimo.” After the song, all exit. Mario and Mary enter.)

Mario  But you do not understand, signorina—

Mary  Do not understand? Do not understand what? What is there to understand? You have kidnapped my father and stolen his leather briefcase—

Mario  But, signorina, I unmask myself. You must trust me.

Mary  I do trust you, Mario. (Aside) Heaven help me, but I do. I know not why, but I do.

Mary Sue Ann (Imogene Coca) and Mario (Danny Kaye) belt out a love song in the operetta spoof "Here He Comes Now."

Mario  Ever since I have seen you, I have longed for you. For this moment, this one moment alone. (They sing “One Moment Alone,” as shadowy figures battle behind them. “One moment alone / one moment my own / one moment before we part / one moment to hold, enfold you closely to my heart / one moment of bliss / one moment to kiss / one moment we have to share / one moment to whisper darling just how much we care…” The sorority sisters approach.)

Mary  The girls mustn’t see you, Mario. Here they come now. Put on your mask and go.

Mario  I go, but I shall return.
(He exits, as girls enter.)

Mary  Oh, what am I going to do—what am I going to do? April, May, June, July, January? What am I going to do? My father has been kidnapped by the man I love, and the man who loves me has gone to kidnap the man who kidnapped my father. Oh, what am I going to do?

Jan.  Don’t worry, Mary Sue Ann.

April  Everything will turn out all right.

May  It always does.

June  Love will find a way.
(They sing “Love Will Find a Way”)

Mary  It cannot be. It cannot be. I cannot believe that the Masked Gondolier is a deceiver. I’m sure he can explain everything. Here he comes now…
(Mario rushes in)

Mario  Signorina, I can explain everything.

Mary  I knew it, Mario. I knew it.

April  Don’t, Mary Sue Ann.

May  You musn’t, Mary Sue Ann.

Jan.  You can’t, Mary Sue Ann.

July  It ain’t right, Mary Sue Ann.

Mary  Calm your fears, girls. You do not know who this man is. Remove your mask, Mario—show them.
(Mario drmatically removes his mask)

Girls  Danny Kaye! What are you doing here?

Mario (very fast)  Yes, girls, Danny Kaye, U.S. Secret Service never sleeps. I followed Mr. Vanderveer and Miss Mary Sue Ann to protect them and the important Navy plans from the clutches of the international spies, Bruce Benson and Trixie Lee. Here they come now…
(Vanderveer enters with Bruce and Trixie. Father has them covered with a gun.)

Van.  Good work, Captain Kaye. I knew it all the time.

Girls  My goodness.

Bruce  My God.

Van.  My papers.

Mario  My sweetheart.

Mary  My hero.
(All sing finale, “L’Amour Toujours.” Curtain.)

“Here He Comes Now” was such a smash, the Tamiment Players repeated it twice more during the summer and it was featured on Broadway in The Straw Hat Revue (although retitled "The Great Chandeleir"). Liebman and Fine would also borrow snippets of the plot and dialogue four years later in writing “The Lobby Number” for Danny’s first feature film, Up in Arms.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Danny's First Triumph

There are a handful of magical evenings that must have stood as high-water marks in Danny Kaye’s career—opening night of Lady in the Dark, when his genius was first discovered by all of New York… seven years later, when for the first time he appeared at the London Palladium and instantly became an international sensation... nine months later, when he headlined the Royal Command Performance on the same stage... perhaps the night he hosted the Academy Awards in 1952 or first conducted a world-class symphony orchestra in Philadelphia in 1953.

I consider the night of his first Grand Triumph to be July 24, 1939, the one Kaye performance I would choose to enjoy should I ever master time travel. It took place at Camp Tamiment, Max Liebman’s summer camp/Broadway training ground in the Poconos. That night, thosee couple hundred audience members of the ramshackle Tamiment Playhouse were treated to what must have been one of the most stunning events in theater history—a revue so superb in quality and execution that it would rival the greatest of Broadway gems… yet it was created in a single week and intended to be performed only once.

The 12-act program was themed “Shooting Stars,” although the titles of Tamiment’s Saturday night revues typically had little to do with their content. The titles were intentionally vague so they could encompass any act imaginable.

Every Tamiment revue opened with a musical welcome from the entire cast, typically written by Danny’s future wife, Sylvia Fine. “Shooting Stars” opened with two introductions—first the song “Hollywood Stars” by the full company, then Kaye, Imogene Coca (Your Show of Shows), and the other main players sang “This Is Hollywood.”

Lee Brody (left) received such a great reaction to her sketch "It's a Noel Coward Custom" (with Danny Kaye and Imogene Coca), she and the skit were recruited by the Shuberts for their Broadway revue Streets of Paris. Sylvia Fine is playing piano at foot of stage.

The action slowed a bit with a recital by Sylvia Stone (“On Stage Number Five”), before moving to the first sketch of the night, “It’s a Noel Coward Custom,” written by Lee Brody, and performed by Coca (She), Brody (Her), and Kaye (Him). It was so successful, the skit—and Brody—were snatched up by the hit Broadway revue Streets of Paris starring Carmen Miranda and Abbott & Costello.

Next up was a modern dance number, “Death of a Loyalist,” choreographed by and starring West Side Story creator Jerome Robbins (billed in the program as Jerry Robyns) and Dorothy Bird. Another Brody skit followed, then a hilarious jazz band spoof, “The Swingeroo Trio,” featuring Kaye, Coca, and her husband Robert Burton.

Kaye introduces models in ridiculous headgear during his first performance of "Anatole of Paris."

Bird danced to “Begin the Beguine,” and then out walked Kaye to center stage. Uncharacteristically for him at this point in his career, he was alone. For the first time ever, he sang “Anatole of Paris,” the first number Sylvia Fine ever crafted expressly for Danny and his talents and the number that would become the template for his future solos. As Kaye finished Sylvia’s clever lyrics (accompanied by Sylvia on the piano), the band launched into Irving Berlin’s “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody” and a procession of female co-stars appeared, modeling Anatole’s ridiculous creations as Danny narrated. The number stopped the show cold.

For all rights, the revue could have ended right there. But there was more. After two more set pieces came the grand finale. The Tamiment shows typically ended with a major production number, and this week featured the most elaborate of them all—a full-scale spoof of operettas featuring eight songs by Sylvia and Danny in the lead. Less than two months later, the spoof would end up intact on Broadway as the closer for Act I of The Straw Hat Revue and its script would be a major influence on my favorite of all Kaye’s specialty songs: “The Lobby Number.”

The audience ate up every moment, of it and tomorrow you’ll find out why, as I recreate this landmark performance.