Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Wish List: The Next "Best of Danny Kaye Show" DVD

Any future Best of the Danny Kaye Show release would be wise to include a Louis Armstrong episode.

We're still a few weeks away from the release of The Best of The Danny Kaye Show DVD, featuring six terrific shows. But that's still not too early to begin planning for the next batch (assuming sales of the first set are strong, along the lines of the two Christmas shows released two years ago).

Here are the six shows I'd like to see on the next disk:

Episode 13 (originally aired Nov. 27, 1963) Similar to next month's initial "Best of" collection, I'd be content with one disk featuring three black-and-white episodes from the funnier first two seasons and three living-color episodes from the more musical last two seasons. I'd start out with this wonderful time capsule:  taped the night after JFK was assassinated. The emotion is real, with Danny bravely holding guest performer Mahalia Jackson and the rest of his team together.

Episode 29 (April 8, 1964) This episode is not only historic (featuring the first time Jim "Gomer Pyle" Nabors ever sings on TV), and nostalgic (Nabors is joined in a cameo by former co-star Andy Griffith), but it's also great fun. (Kaye plays Fat Daddy, a comically ruthless Southern tyrant in a spoof of The Long, Hot Summer, to such great effect, it became be a recurring character).

Episode 49 (Dec. 23, 1964) Season 2 featured the series' best Christmas show, marking the debut of Billy Barnes' classic "Waltz Around the Christmas Tree;" Danny reteaming with his favorite co-star, Gwen Verdon; and the first appearance of Victoria Paige Meyerink, the pint-sized sensation who would change the direction of the show. This is the episode where it all began. (If the DVD producers decide to save this gem for another special Christmas DVD, I'd happily substitute another Verdon classic, Episode 36, which features a stunning three-act musical spoof, Top Hat, White Tie, and Green Socks. Other solid choices are Episode 16 with Dick Van Dyke and Episode 42 with Lucille Ball, but those are among the few shows you can already find a bootlegged copy of, if you look hard enough.)

Episode 76 (Nov. 10, 1965) Whereas most of the musical guests in the first two seasons were featured interacting with Danny, starting with Season 3, younger pop singers and bands began to appear, whom Kaye would merely introduce and then get out of the way. This episode provides a nice balance, with Danny joining Freddie from Freddie & the Dreamers and soprano Marguerite Piazza in a special song Bernie Rothman wrote for—and about—the threesome. It also has a fun sketch with one of Danny's favorite characters, the shy, Brooklynese shoestore clerk, Jerome.

Episode 104 (Nov. 16, 1966) Louis Armstrong swings with Danny, and it's not just another "Five Pennies Saints"(which Satchmo would return a few weeks later to again perform).

Episode 119 (March 8, 1967) Besides Jerome, Danny's other favorite character from the series was a gentle, old Italian named Giovanni (featured in a sketch on the first Christmas with Danny Kaye DVD release from 2012). By the spring of 1967, the series was nearing the end of its run and the writers decided to send the character off in fine fashion, by devoting an entire hour to a five-act musical, "Giovanni's Wedding." The episode, which generated a record amount of fan mail, also has Danny breaking the news to his audience that the series was about to end.

Hopefully we won't have to wait another two years for the next DVD release!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

New DVD Does Contain Kaye's Best

Does the new Best of The Danny Kaye Show DVD really contain the series' best episodes?

After a two-year wait, a second collection of episodes of The Danny Kaye Show are finallly about to be released on DVD. Come Oct. 7, The Best of The Danny Kaye Show will contain six episodes on two discs—three black-and-white shows from the first season and three color shows from seasons three and four.

Usually, those who put together any “Best of” collection aren’t overly concerned with selecting the absolute best. It’s a marketing ploy. They typically opt for the episodes or clips that are easiest to get the rights for (which explains why the “Best of Danny Kaye” VHS release of 20 years ago lacked third-party songs and big-name guest stars).

And, certainly, ease of rights issue must have been a factor with this new DVD. Nevertheless, the producers are indeed telling the truth: the release does feature the Best of The Danny Kaye Show.

Here’s what they chose:

Episode 1 (aired Sept. 25, 1963) Critics consider the premiere to be the finest episode in the history of the series. It guest-stars Jackie Cooper, short-lived co-star Lovelady Powell, and a terrific cameo by Jack Benny. Three baseball-themed versions of popular musicals (like My Fair Umpire) are the highlight, and Danny also does a sketch playing the mishap-prone “Victim,” which would become his first recurring character.

Episode 5 (aired Oct. 23, 1963) Even though this episode had a troubled production, with Lovelady Powell’s scenes all cut out and Michelle Lee stepping in to tape replacements, the installment is considered a minor classic. You can thank guest Gene Kelly, who works wonderfully with Kaye, performing “Ballin’ the Jack,” a medley, and Danny’s linguini recipe. Kaye, in drag, also introduces beauty expert Miss Schmeckenvasser—his second recurring character.

Episode 20 (aired Jan. 22, 1964) Another winner, the show—taped on Danny’s 53rd birthday and airing four days later—guest stars Art Carney (who was always at the top of his game during his three appearances on The Danny Kaye Show) and includes a Twilight Zone spoof featuring Rod Serling.

Episode 70 (Sept. 15, 1965) The episodes on the second disk (like most of the series’ third and fourth seasons) aren’t nearly as funny as earlier shows, but they’re always sunnier (few series gained as much from switching to color as did Kaye’s) and a notch above musically. Guest Harry Belafonte worked wonderfully with Danny, who seems particulary at ease—his old director returned to direct this one episode. It was so good that the five episodes taped before it were aired later in the season, so this one could be the season premiere.

Episode 83 (Jan. 5, 1966) Visits from Liza Minelli, Alan Young, and singer John Gary, whom Danny’s production company was grooming to host a variety show as Kaye’s summer replacement.

Episode 101 (Oct. 5, 1966) Danny hits it off with Ella Fitzgerald and performs one of his ethnic fairy tales, this one Irish: “Little Green Riding Hood.”

All in all, it would be difficult to pick six better episodes. That won’t stop me from trying. Next week, I’ll share six episodes that I’d love to see on the next Best of The Danny Kaye Show release.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

How Many Danny Kaye Show Episodes Are There?

1945 signage promotes CBS Radio's new Danny Kaye Show, featuring Danny and singer Kitty Kallen, who often accompanied the house band, Harry James' Orchestra. Image courtesy Cary Ginell.
The first Danny Kaye Show (the one on radio in the 1940s, not the TV series of the 1960s) has always had a murky history. Each show was broadcast once with no plans to ever air it again, except occasionally chopped up and inserted into wartime radio programs, to entertain the troops overseas. No good records were kept. And none of the episodes were titled.

Over the years, tapes of some episodes did filter out into the public. Copies were bootlegged and distributed under homemade titles like "Danny Goes to Washington, D.C." Distributors dated the episodes by looking back at old program guides or newspaper listings to match up synopses.

Unfortunately, only about 18 episodes made it into circulation (although it may have seemed like more, because a single show may have been released under two or three different titles). At least one researcher did try to reconstruct the show's history and, by counting up the number of weeks between the series' first airing and last, estimated there were 58 broadcasts. Yet, he admitted he had no inkling of what aired on about a dozen of the weeks (a couple weeks no show aired, such as in the wake of FDR's death).

Fortunately, Kaye kept reel-to-reel recordings of most of the shows and scripts for all of them in his personal collection, which his heirs later donated to the Library of Congress. Piecing them together, my answer is there were 50 actual episodes of The Danny Kaye Show, spanning two seasons from January 1945 to May 1946.

But there's a hitch: a week before the series began, a small number of stations did air a "practice show," to help the cast and crew get comfortable. So, you could say 51.

And then, there were the six shows that aired under the Danny Kaye Show banner, on the Danny Kaye Show station, in the Danny Kaye Show time slot, and that were listed in program guides as The Danny Kaye Show. They just didn't have Danny Kaye on them or involve the show's regular cast and writers.

What happened is Danny had agreed to travel overseas on a six-week USO tour, departing at the end of September 1945. Unfortunately, the second season of his radio show had been scheduled to premiere September 28. So, Kaye did the season opener as a live remote from a War Fund workers rally in Chicago, then had other radio performers fill in with a show of their own.

The first week, Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland filled in. They had recently done a couple radio shows together and had just begun work on the film Till the Clouds Roll By.

For week two, Goodman Ace created a new episode of Easy Aces, the series he starred in with his wife, Jane, for 15 years prior to becoming the new director/head writer for The Danny Kaye Show.

The next week it was Burns and Allen, whose show aired the night before, also on CBS. In Danny's slot, they performed an entirely new script, but in the format of their own program.

A week later, Jack Benny and his regulars did the same thing. Benny's regular show, however, aired on NBC, but Kaye had appeared on The Jack Benny Show the year before and would appear again the following year.

Week five saw Kaye replaced by Duffy's Tavern (another NBC show) and week six Eddie Cantor (who also had a show on NBC, but guest-starred on the very first episode of The Danny Kaye Show and, a year later, would replace pal Danny as host of Pabst Blue Ribbon's series).

So, that might make 57 shows.

No matter you count them, they're all profiled, with behind-the-scenes stories, in my book Danny Kaye: King of Jesters.