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.


  1. David: This is really interesting ! Thanks for posting this info on a little known part of Danny's career...

    (wonder if any recordings exist of Straw Hat Revue or the Tamiment shows.. would be great to hear these early performances of Danny, Imogene, etc. There is a Tamiment website archive.)

    These rare photos are fascinating...where are they located or curated ?

  2. Thank you, DKFF.

    I know of no audio or video recordings of Danny at Tamiment or anything of the Straw Hat Revue. Should such a thing exist, it would be a wonderful discovery!

    The photos are from my personal collection.

  3. Thank you for this moving report of Danny Kaye's first live triumph. I would have liked to be there too, although, if I could possibly catch a Danny Kaye live performance, any night would do. Looking forward to your nex post.

  4. Theresa,
    Agreed! Any night would do!

  5. Hurry, somebody invent a Time Machine that works! I think there's already a line forming right here! xoxoox