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.


  1. Why did they want it erased? They could have kept the tape in their archives, it could have been in the Library of Congress right now!
    I was sad enough when I thought such a recording never existed. Now that I know it had existed and got erased I'm genuinely upset.

  2. Theresa,
    Thanks for writing!
    Unfortunately, the Kayes were (and, to this day, are) hyper-protective of Danny's work. It's one reason why it took almost 50 years to get an episode of his TV series released on home video.
    Danny perfected that "one-man show" over several decades. He considered it his greatest professional achievement and was paranoid that if its contents were duplicated for mass distribution, it would no longer be as special. If only someone more forward thinking could have sat him down and explained how important a video record of his show would be to his legacy and for his fans of the future!

  3. What a sad story. Sometimes the quest to protect the artists results in the loss of incredible treasures. Even now, so few Broadway productions, for instance, are ever preserved for posterity.

    Perhaps no one ever conceived of a time when all the talent would be long passed away and that fewer and fewer people each year can say they say Danny live. Soon all we will have is the movies and perhaps more TV material if it can be shaken loose. At this point preservation of Danny's legacy for future generations and keeping his memory alive certainly trumps protectionism.

    I wish somebody would magically find a copy someplace!

    Great story, David!

  4. Thanks for the story!

    However - the Library of Congress does have a "A list of scene timings for a taping of a Danny Kaye performance at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles" (dated: 7/30/58) - what about that one?

    "Kaye/Fine Collection, new accession, box 66"

  5. Wow! Great find, Eva! This is more or less the same act he would perform before the cameras three years later.
    I'm not sure what this was for, since at this time Danny was not ready to do any television, although Sylvia was starting to think about it. And there's no indication if this was video-recorded or merely audio-recorded.
    And, most importantly, I have no idea if this tape survived. But I'll start looking into it immediately and let you know if I find anything.
    Thanks for the mission!

  6. Thank you! That's just wonderful - and please let us know about the discoveries on your "mission"...