Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Cracking Up His Pals

Jack Benny (far right) found just about anything his buddy Danny Kaye (left) did hysterical, to the point where he would often fall to the floor in convulsions.

Playfully taking on the characteristics of other types of people was a favorite hobby of Danny Kaye’s, especially when he would get together with his show-biz pals like Don Hartman, Dore Schary, Johnny Green, and Leonard Spigelgass. They would all pick up different characters or languages. As Spigelgass recalled, “We’d speak a little Yiddish together, we’d speak French. Of course, I can’t tell if he’s speaking French or making it up.”

Kaye got a special kick out of a silly voice done by songwriter Green—a squeaky eastern European professor-like character. Danny liked it so much, in fact, he copied the Czechoslovakian voice when he performed “Symphony for Unstrung Tongue” in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

For Benny—and only for Benny—Kaye would oftentimes assume the identity of a meek little Jewish man: Mr. Kaplan from Youngstown, Ohio, who worked for the Acme Rubber Company. Danny, in a heavy Jewish accent, would start a silly conversation and Jack would talk as if he were actually speaking with Kaplan about the Ohioan’s family, his life, and his adventures in the rubber business. In fact, whenever Jack made stage appearances in various corners of the world, he would usually receive a congratulatory telegram from Mr. Kaplan.

With some of Danny’s other friends, he didn’t have to come up with a new character. If they had a pronounced accent, Kaye would simply become them. For instance, violinist Nathan Milstein would say something in his heavy Russian accent, and Danny would reply in an even thicker accent, “You hev spaht on my coat. Brosh off. No. There, on der bottom. So? Play someting.”

And no sooner would Kaye say his hellos to Maurice Chevalier before the elder gentleman would respond, “Ah-ha! You’re do-eeng eet ah-gayn!”

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

X-Ray Marks the Spot

Danny Kaye knocked the audience out, and nearly himself, during his memorable 1949 engagement at the London Palladium.

Danny Kaye's visit with playwright George Bernard Shaw on May 3, 1949 may have made the papers, but it was the ride back from Ayot St. Lawrence that generated the headlines.

Danny had to hurriedly rush back to London to perform two shows that evening at the Palladium. To get to the theater on time, Danny’s publicity manager, Eddie Dukoff, had to speed back along the narrow, winding road. As Dukoff rounded one curve, he collided with a second car, the impact driving Kaye’s elbow into his own ribs.

Danny telephoned the Palladium to report the accident and to make sure there would be a doctor waiting in his dressing room. When he arrived at the theater, his side was quickly bandaged and he wobbled on stage and little late and in sever pain. But, about fifteen minutes into his act, Kaye, sure his ribs were cracked, excused himself into the wings as the band struck up “God Save the Queen.” Nevertheless, he returned and uncomfortably completed his performance with his arms hanging stiffly at his sides.

After the show, Danny rushed to Middlesex Hospital, where X-rays revealed that he had collected no broken bones, but serious bruises. Kaye once again returned to the Palladium that evening, in time to make the 8:00 performance. Taking the stage, he pulled open his shirt to expose his strapped chest and explained, “They told me that it was nothing serious, and that I’d just fractured all my ribs.”

Danny did his act without a break, but did ask the crowd if he could perform for a while from a low stool. He stood up again at the finish, but was practically knocked back down by the deafening applause.

Pianist Sammy Prager recalled, “Next night he told the story to the audience and apologized for what happened the night before. Then he took out his X-ray plates and went down into the audience with them. He spent ten minutes handing the X-rays around for people to look at. He’ll do anything. He’s a gambler.”

Over the next few weeks, whenever someone in the audience inquired about Kaye’s health, he would pull out his X-rays.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Kaye & Shaw

London's latest sensation, Danny Kaye, met celebrated George Bernard Shaw in 1949.

On May 3, 1949, a week after beginning his second triumphant run at the London Palladium, Danny Kaye took a Tuesday morning trip to Ayot St. Lawrence, to visit a group of friends who were hosting a tea party for their neighbor, acclaimed playwright George Bernard Shaw. Not long after Danny at the home, the 92-year-old Shaw came walking through the door, asking, “Anybody here I know?”

The neighbors introduced their two guests, after which Shaw remarked, “Seems to me I’ve read of you somewhere.” Kaye was a bit apprehensive before meeting the literary legend, but the two warmed up to each other immediately.

“How long are you staying, Danny?” Shaw asked.

“As long as Britain can take it, sir.”

“Well, they’re still taking me, Danny.”

Shaw later complimented him: “Young man, you don’t need make up. You’ve got it all in your face.”

The pair even made a short home movie, in which Shaw tiptoed out form a clump of bushes, tapped Kaye on the shoulder, and then flung his arms around him. “I shouldn’t like you,” Shaw said. “If you have your way, you’ll do away with authors. You do whatever comes into your head.”

“Now I know why you hate actors,” Danny replied. “You’re a better actor than all of us.”

After a long look, the elder admitted. “You’re probably right.”

The visit stretched into a pleasant two hours, but Kaye had to finally leave to do his two Palladium shows that evening. It was during his rushed drive back to the theater that disaster struck. Next week: the rest of the story...

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Practical Joker

Danny Kaye was never a practicioner of hand buzzers or whoopie cushions, but often he would try to break up the long hours on stage and soundstage by playing practical jokes on his co-stars—in the middle of their performances. Typically, his aim either to see if he could mess with the other actors' concentration or otherwise throw them into utter confusion.

During the making of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Virginia Mayo was concurrently filming the highly regarded drama The Best Years of Our Lives at the Goldwyn studio. She shared with me how, while filming her most serious scenes on Best Years, Danny would hide out of camera range and make silly faces at her, to try to get her to flub her lines.

In 1942, Eddie Cantor was appearing on Broadway in Banjo Eyes at the Hollywood Theatre, just down the street from the Imperial Theatre, where his pal Kaye was starring in Let’s Face It. One evening Danny dropped in on Eddie backstage, not long before the curtain was supposed to go up. Cantor had no time for his guest, explaining, “Sorry, Danny, but we’re kind of busy right now. One of the chorus boys didn’t show up, and we’re trying to figure out what we can do with the drill number without him.”

“Sure, pal,” Danny smiled, seeming to take the quick brush-off well. “I know how it is. See you later.”

Cantor was appropriately nervous when it came time for the drill routine, but surprised when the act was greeted with tremendous laughter from the audience and from the orchestra pit. He was surprised, that is, until he looked down the short chorus line to see Danny decked out in the ill-fitting costume, deliberately out of step.

In 1959, Danny took his stage revue to Australia, appearing with—among others—expert juggler Francis Brunn. During one of Brunn’s demonstrations, when he had several objects flying through the air, a pair of old socks suddenly floated down from the catwalk. His concentration shattered, the performer stopped cold. Brunn continued his juggling, until he was greeted by a pair of red flannel underwear. When he was next treated to a flurry of falling odds and ends, he stopped a third time and huffed off the stage.

Kaye hurriedly threw on an old raincoat and hat and managed to pass Brunn as he stalked to his dressing room. “Hello, Francis. How goes things?” the comedian smiled as he casually walked on.

Brunn turned to stop him. “Where were you just now?” he demanded. Kaye looked at him curiously, glanced down at his raincoat and shrugged. The juggler frowned in disbelief.