Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Danny's Lost Film Perhaps His Greatest

Danny's one-man show was taped when he played the Greek Theatre in 1962.

As wonderful as Danny Kaye’s performances could be on film, television and records, few would argue that his genius shone most brightly on stage. He had a powerful way, like few others, of connecting with his audience so that thousands of guests would leave the theater convinced that Danny had spent an hour playing especially for them. They were convinced he shared a part of himself with them.

I saw him perform live but once—at his final show, comically conducting at the Hollywood Bowl in 1987. But it was his celebrated one-man show, developed in the 1940s, perfected in the 1950s, and performed to sold-out audiences until the end of the 1960s, in which he truly excelled.

Unfortunately, there are no recordings of these shows, apart from a handful of snippets, mostly silent, shot for British newsreels.

With some creativity, a good editor could cobble together a reasonable facsimile of the content of a typical show. He always performed several numbers he made famous on film, such as wife Sylvia Fine’s specialty numbers, like “Anatole of Paris” and “Pavlova,” and songs from Hans Christian Andersen. A considerable number of his stage bits made it the three television specials he made in 1960, 1961 and 1962, in most cases performed exactly as he would on stage (unlike in the movies, where the numbers had to be reworked to fit into the plot). And, his stage act’s trademark “sit down spot” became the regular, episode-ending feature of his weekly TV series.

Yet, there was one performance of Danny’s one-man show that was in fact recorded, in its entirety. It was in July 1962. Kaye was appearing at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles. At the time, producer Jess Oppenheimer was gathering ideas for Kaye’s third TV special (which would be taped three months later). Oppenheimer was convinced that the best way to present Danny in his special would be to carry over the charm, magic and spontaneity that came across when he was on stage. So, Oppenheimer had his production company, O&O Productions, tape one of Danny’s shows at the Greek, so he and his writers could study it. During his run at the Greek, Danny performed an assortment of old favorites, a few new numbers he was breaking in, and, probably for the first time ever, his brand-new “Dodgers Song.”

After the special aired, Oppenheimer retained the tape, hoping to be reimbursed for the cost of producing it. This would lead to a back-and-forth between Oppenheimer and Dena Productions lawyer Simon Bricker. The Kayes, it turned out, weren’t nearly so upset about the money as they were that a tape of Danny on stage even existed. They demanded that the tape be erased. “Obviously we would not like to have a tape of Danny’s performance at the Greek Theatre floating around,” Bricker explained.

Presumably, as part of their deal, Oppenheimer erased the tape—and in doing so may have obliterated the greatest hour Danny Kaye ever recorded.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Danny's Monkey Tale

Danny Kaye tries to make nice with his simian co-star from Merry Andrew.

Although he was brilliant at playing off of children, Danny Kaye supposedly never worked well with animals, no matter how well he and his primate co-star seemed to click on screen in Merry Andrew (1958).

Consequently, a few years later, when his weekly variety series began, the writers were discouraged from including bits for animals on The Danny Kaye Show. Nonetheless, one crew member who owned a dog threw a party for co-workers and friends at his home. Dozens upon dozens upon dozens of guests arrived. The party went on for hours. Danny was the last one to show up. He stayed the shortest amount of time. Yet he was the one who got bit by the dog.

Inevitably, came an episode containing a sketch that featured a trained monkey. As the series' script secretary, Maggie Warren Scott, shared in her unpublished memoirs, When It Was Fun:

Danny loved George Bye, our prop man. He loved all the small potatoes, but hated the big brass. One week we were doing a spy sketch and it had been a very difficult week for poor old George. We taped on Saturday nights and Friday was camera blocking all day and music rehearsal in the evening. 

Henderson was the name given to this monkey that was in the spy sketch and his report day was on Friday. George was standing near his prop box in one of the corners of the stage, mumbling to himself, "That monkey comes in for two days and probably makes more money than I do and I've been here all week killing myself!" 

Danny overheard this and said, "Well, George, that monkey's smarter than you!" 

There was a lot of laughter from the crew. We started rehearsing the sketch. Henderson was a spy and he was in a cage dressed in a little skirt with a little hat on. The cage was like a big birdcage hanging on a pole with a curtain draped over it. Danny was supposed to go over to the cage, lift the curtain, and give Henderson a message, which Henderson was then supposed to relay to another spy. 

The next day, show day, the audience was in and we started the sketch. George was over by his prop box. In the middle of the sketch, Danny crossed over to Henderson's cage and lifted the curtain. Henderson turned, gave Danny a look, lifted his skirt, and with this big smile on his face, blew the loudest fart you ever heard right in Danny's face. 

 Way off in the corner you heard, "That monkey IS smarter than I am!" You could not control the crew; you could not control the audience. That one went down in history.