Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Best $25 Danny Kaye Ever Spent

The highlight of Danny Kaye's breakthrough run at New York's La Martinque nightclub was "Stanislavsky," a new song Sylvia Fine had written—with a little uncredited help.

Writer Sam Locke knew Danny Kaye before he was Danny Kaye. He met then-unknown Kaye in January 1939, during rehearsals for a short-lived revue called Sunday Night Varieties. Days later, he—and Danny—would both for the first time meet songwriter Sylvia Fine, who within a year would become Mrs. Danny Kaye.

When I met Locke in the early 1980s (he died in 1998), his memory of the fateful meeting day and everything about the Kayes was razor-sharp. In addition, he had boxes filled with scribbled notes, programs and photos to back up his every word.

One piece he was particularly proud of was an original January 1940 lyric sheet for “Stanislavsky”—straight out of Sylvia’s typewriter and covered with his own handwritten comments and additions. These days, the song—about the great Russian actor, whose secret is suffering—is not as well known as some of Danny’s other “character songs” like “Anatole of Paris” and “Pavlova,” because he never sang it in any of his movies. But when Danny first performed the song, during his breakthrough nightclub stint at New York’s La Martinique, it was widely considered the highlight of the show. (An audio recording of the song is now available on compilation albums and as a download—and here, since Kaye would later perform it numerous times on his weekly radio show.)

The La Martinique booking was Danny’s first-ever solo show and Sylvia had written “Stanislavsky” especially for it. But, with just days away from the first performance, the song just wasn’t clicking. In a panic, Sylvia ran to Locke, an occasional writing partner during 1939.

Locke suggested deleting a half-dozen extended sections he found flat, including a laugh-free parody of the old song “Mother” (“S is for the way in which we suffer, T is for the tea we always drink…”). Sylvia agreed to all the cuts but one. He also advised moving several sections around and dreamed up a few lines of his own, including what became the biggest laugh in the song: “I’ll never forget the day of my greatest triumph. I was playing part of antique mahogany bureau. So convincing, in the third act, my drawers fell out.”

The rest is history. When Danny received his first week’s pay—$250, in small bills to make the amount seem even more impressive—he knew it was time to pay off his past debts. But now no-nonsense Sylvia was in charge of the finances. They called up Locke.

“(Danny) was at La Martinique,” Locke recalled, pulling out his financial ledger from 1940 to confirm the dates and figures. “They wanted me to come down, so I came down. Then the waiter came over with the check. Anybody else would have paid the check for this poor Brooklyn boy; Danny and Sylvia had arranged that I wouldn’t have to pay the cover.

“Then I went up to their apartment. She said, ‘Now how much do you want for what you’ve done?’ I had written a quarter of it and made that number, so I said, ‘Fifty, fifty dollars.’ I should have said $500! She said, ‘O… kay…’ I said, ‘Why, what were you thinking of?’ She said, ‘25.’ So I said, ‘Okay,’ and it took two payments, $10 March first and then $15 March 22nd, 1940. It took them that long to pay that f#@%ing $25!”

Locke would never work with the Kayes again.

Original Sylvia Fine lyric sheet for "Stanislavsky" shows Sam Locke's suggested changes and doodles.

1 comment:

  1. David, Thanks for posting the Youtube of "Stanislavsky" !
    You're right, since this song appears nowhere in Danny's movie catalog, it would remain obscure if you hadn't highlighted it...
    Now we can all enjoy.