Friday, February 28, 2014

Grandfather of "The Lobby Number"

Danny Kaye wasn't the first to poke fun at "Apple Blossom Time" in Up in Arms' "Lobby Number."

My favorite Danny Kaye number is “The Lobby Number,” from his first feature, Up in Arms. The song’s convoluted creation (which continued even after the number was filmed, so Danny had to go back and film parts again) is fully detailed in the book Danny Kaye: King of Jesters. But, in brief, Sylvia Fine and Max Liebman created most of the number by piecing together snippets of songs and sketch jokes they’d written for movie spoofs at Camp Tamiment.

But what about the number’s most famous line, “When it’s cherry blossom time in Orange, New Jersey, we’ll make a peach of a pear”—where did that come from? Jerome Kern and Cole Porter, if you go back far enough. For Up in Arms, Sylvia pilfered the line from a ditty she’d written at Tamiment, a Busby Berkeley-type production number, “Cherry Blossom Time” (“When it’s cherry blossom time in Orange, New Jersey, we’ll make a peach of a pear. Oh, honeydew be mine, because we cantaloupe. I’ll take you to the chapel, as the apple of my I declare, the month of May is merry, for girls ‘n’ boysenberry…”). Sylvia’s inspiration was “When It’s Apple Blossom Time in Normandy,” a pop song that was a huge hit—in 1913.

But Fine wasn’t the first to spoof the song. In 1917, Jerome Kern and P.G. Wodehouse made fun of it (and other “When it’s something-or-other-time in some place far away place” songs, like “Tulip Time in Holland”) in “Nesting Time in Flatbush” for the 1917 Broadway show Oh Boy! And, five years later, Cole Porter included a joke about the lyrics in his song “Cocktail Time” from his show Mayfair and Montmartre.

For the record, Sylvia insisted she’d never heard of the Kern or Porter songs when she wrote “The Lobby Number.”

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Sid Caesar and Danny Kaye Followed in Each Other's Footsteps

Sid Caesar borrowed early Danny Kaye's producer, early co-star Imogene Coca, and revue format for his historic TV variety show. Fourteen years later, Kaye would return the favor.

This morning, TV comedy pioneer Sid Caesar passed away at the age of 91. Although he never worked with Danny Kaye, Caesar’s early career was intentionally fashioned after Kaye’s—while Kaye’s later career was specifically modeled after Caesar’s.

Here’s how it happened:  While performing in an armed services musical revue, Caesar was discovered by producer Max Liebman—who five years earlier had similarly discovered Kaye. He saw in Sid the same genius for mimicry, dialects, fast-paced double-talk, broad comedy, and pantomime that he had groomed in Kaye.

Liebman would build a live TV variety show around Caesar, modeled after the revues Kaye appeared in at the Tamiment summer camp. And as Sid’s co-star, he cast Danny’s Tamiment castmate, Imogene Coca.

Fast forward 14 years later:  Danny, who had spent a decade running away from television, was finally ready to make the plunge. In early 1963, he began soliciting ideas for his own TV series. The first writers he hired to create The Danny Kaye Show were all Caesar veterans—Larry Gelbart, Mel Tolkin, and Shelly Keller—and they intentionally patterned Danny’s show after Sid’s. Even many of their ideas for comedy sketches were lifted straight from Your Show of Shows, such as Danny playing an “expert” character who each week holds a press conference to expound nonsense on a different topic a la Caesar’s Professor.

Tolkin and Keller served as head writers during The Danny Kaye Show’s first two years, and they kept writing in Caesar’s TV co-stars, Imogene Coca and Howie Morris, as guests on the Kaye show. (Morris appeared with Danny a record 10 times, Coca six.) When Tolkin and Keller needed another writer, they called on fellow Caesar show alumnus Gary Belkin.

The connections also extended to the supporting casts. The first “regular” hired, Lovelady Powell, was let go after taping two episodes because she lacked the versatility of Coca. It would take the staff a year to discover a female with a broad enough range, in Joyce Van Patten. The male regulars were identified more quickly. By episode three, they’d found Harvey Korman, who would play the exact roles Carl Reiner would do in Your Show of Shows. And soon after, they tapped Jamie Farr, to play the Howard Morris roles. Watch the Student Prince spoof on the Danny Kaye Show Christmas DVD, and you’ll swear you’re watching Caesar, Reiner and Morris instead of Kaye, Korman and Farr.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

3 Danny Kaye Movies You’ve Never Heard Of—But May Have Seen

Have you ever seen Danny Kaye in The Ladies Have Charms?

The Ladies Have Charms?

Running Risks?

Blind Man’s Bluff?

Even the biggest Danny Kaye fan probably has never even heard of these movies. Yet there’s a chance you’ve seen them—under a different name.

In the 1960s, there was no home video market. No DVDs. No VHS. (And limited options for viewing old movies on TV.) So people who wanted to collect movies had to buy actual films and their own film projector—either a giant 16mm contraption (like the rickety Bell & Howell your gradeschool used to have) or a more modestly sized, yet silent 8mm projector.

While these home projectors were typically purchased for viewing families’ home movies, there was also a small market for Hollywood-produced films, which distributors sold through catalogs and certain retail stores. (When I was a kid, the local Kmart used to stock several dozen titles.)

Since film was expensive and most home projectors could accommodate reels of limited size, many of the films offered for sale were black-and-white and either shorts (like vintage comedies, cartoons or newsreels) or cut-downs of longer movies. If a movies wasn’t well known, the distributor would usually rename its abridgement to something it thought sounded snappier (which also allowed it to create multiple different releases from a single feature).

So in the late 1960s, U.K. distributor Walton Films got the rights to release a number of Educational shorts from the 1930s, including those starring Danny Kaye as a manic Russian.

Getting an Eyeful (Danny visits a sadistic eye doctor) was retitled Blind Man’s Bluff. Cupid Takes a Holiday (Danny must find a bride) was renamed The Ladies Have Charms. And, Money on Your Life (Danny flees from hit men) became Running Risks.

They were sold in nearly complete sound versions in 16mm (as much as would fit on a 400-foot reel) and chopped down to four minutes and silent in 8mm (on 50-foot reels).

The originals are all available for viewing on the Library of Congress’ Danny Kaye & Sylvia Fine website—in their unadulterated, correctly titled state.