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.

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