Friday, October 6, 2017

Memories of "Knock on Wood"

Danny Kaye left a wonderful impression on AD Francisco Day during the production of Knock on Wood.

Francisco “Chico” Day, the assistant director of Danny Kaye’s Knock on Wood (1954), was the first interview I conducted solely for my book—30 years in the making—Danny Kaye: King of Jesters

It was a Wednesday afternoon, February 3, 1982. I was a wide-eyed, 19-year-old college kid; Chico was 74 and had been in show business since the 1940s. He’d worked on over 60 movies, with Tracy, Hepburn, Brando, Elizabeth Taylor, Billy Wilder, and Cecil B. DeMille, for whom he helped pull off the parting of the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments. He got a lot of assignments, especially those shot in Mexico and Spain, because he was bilingual, and was the first Mexican-American to join the Directors Guild. But Chico struck me as a sweet, humble man who lived in a modest high-rise apartment in Los Angeles, and lit up with joy talking about working with Danny. (I checked in on him after the interview, and that year he sent me a Christmas card.)

Here’s our conversation:

[DK] You made a lot of films for Paramount.

[Day] Oh, yeah. I was about 25 years at Paramount.

[DK] Just Paramount? You were under contract to Paramount?

[Day] No, no. You know, we were employed at the time in the so-called “Golden Era,” you know? We weren’t under contract; we were hired on a yearly basis, but we weren’t under contract at all. We worked in many, many pictures over many, many years.

[DK] You were assigned to your films or you went door-to-door shopping?

[Day] Oh, yeah. They had the directors and the writers and the assistant directors and the production managers and the stars and everything. It was at that time, the so-called “Golden Era.” We really had stars. Now you pick up anybody on the street and he’ll be a star the next day. We used to groom them.

Anyway, Danny was a wonderful man. I loved working with him. But he always wanted me, whenever he had to do something, he wanted me to do it first. Like he had to climb a ladder in a theater, one of those backstage ladders way up onto the roof, and he didn’t want to do it until I did it. And when we were on the street and he had to run and then slide and then turn, he wanted me to go and do it for him.

So we had a great rapport with each other and I think that Danny was and still is one of the great mimics of the world. He’s a great musician, he knows music quite well, and comedy, and what else is there? I mean for a man who has attained as much popularity and position in the world as Danny.

I haven’t seen him since I made that (picture). We used to have a great set-up when he’d come into the stage, he’d always crawl out and say (in a heavy accent), “Cheee-co?” And I says, “Yes, Danny?” And he says, “Did you took a chave?” And I’d say, “Yeah, Danny.” And then he’d say, “You took a chit?”

And you know he was a great fellow to be around with and a great pro. He was always on time. There was no problem EVER with dialogue. If there was something that they were rehearsing and it didn’t work out the way that they thought it would work out, why just like that Danny would rehearse it once and that’s all. He had a real photographic mind and he would do anything that he had that we could do, because if the directors had something new for him, something that was better, Danny would take it always. But usually Danny was the one that would make suggestions, as far as I can remember.

[DK] He would improvise a little?

[Day] When it came to things that required music or anything like that I imagine that he and his wife would go over it, but he would improvise gags, whatever came up, whatever he was thinking about. He was just really one of the people I enjoyed working with and learning a lot of things from him becasuse he had a great personality and was very kind to people, very cordial.

Chico Day was an assistant director at Paramount for 25 years. He semi-retired in 1981 and passed away in 1995.

[DK] Was that the first time you met him?

[Day] Well, you know, I had seen Danny in the studio because I was at Paramount for many years, but that was the first time I worked with him.

[DK] There was (second-unit) filming in England, France and Switzerland. Did the whole crew go out there or was it just location shooting?

[Day] I don’t remember in Knock on Wood—it was all done on stage here at Paramount. We never went on location, but with other pictures, naturally. Patton, The Magnficent Seven: Mexico. Patton: Spain, England, India, Morocco, Crete. You took the whole crew. From here we took the nucleus crew and then we augmented it in Spain and then when we went to England and we had to use some of the English personnel. When you go to any other place that has the people involved, that are in the motion picture business, the theatrical business, they we’d use some of them. But usually we took our own crew.

[DK] Do you remember anything about the directors?

[Day] Panama and Frank? Oh, they were great. You know I never thought that two people could get along, but I think this was an exception. Originally they were writers together, and then when they decided to produce and direct, one of them would direct one picture and one of them would produce. Then they’d change around in the other picture. So it was very congenial as far as I was concerned. I know that later on when I left Paramount I think that they sort of broke up and decided to go their own way, but I wasn’t involved in any of that. I always thought they were very congenial and every once in a while, you know tempers would come up just like in any other human being and it was one of those things that was conveniently and defintiely settled and never, NEVER allowed a situation. They were really wonderful to work with.

[DK] So did just one of them direct the film?

[Day] Well, they were both on the set. But one of them was the one who took charge of that one particular picture. Like in Knock on Wood, let me see, I think it was, uh, Panama--was Panama the young one? You know it’s a funny thing. this was the only picture I did with them and naturally I didn’t think too much about it later on. But anyway they would change around. If they decided, like they decided that one of them was to be the director and that’s it. Interference as far as doing whatever he wanted to do, no, NEVER. The other one didn’t interfere at all. They would get behind the camera and discuss maybe one thing or another and whatever it was, why, if the director, the one that was directing, decided that what he was it, why that was done. There was no argument about it.

[DK] Was that for the whole picture?

[Day] Yep, yep.

[DK] Okay, in most musicals they tape the music before.

[Day] Well, musicals, I worked in several of them, in fact I worked on a lot of them; Hello, Dolly! was one of them, one of the later ones. But they pre-score the whole thing and then they have the playback and they play the music and then they have the singing and everything, whatever can be done. And the actor or actress just mouths it. But it’s so beautifully done, so well done, and we have person who is in charge of the music is on the set all the time and whenever they have music to do and he watches the mouhting very closely—his ear on the music and his eyes on the actor of actress to see that it is absolutely in sync. Then naturally the first time, the so-called “rushes,” the very next day we see the film and then everybody’s in the theater and they watch for all of these things to see if it does jive wth the music and so forth and so on. And that’s the way it is.

[DK] Do you know like Danny’s specialty songs, like he had one in Knock on Wood called “The Drastic, Livid Life of Monahan O’Han.” He was in a bar with some Irishmen and he starts to sing the song. There’s all these words and it’s really fast. Was that a plyaback on that?

[Day] Well, I’ll tell you what. I think that it was, but the other way is called a direct recording. I would imagine in a situation like that it might be done direct. We would sometimes use two cameras, so that if you got it perfect the first time, that was it. But at other times when there is a doubt, they do what is called a pick-up. They move the camera around and get a closer angle or whatever it is and then they start maybe a few bars back and then they pick up whenever the fault that occurred and they correct that with another take. It’s done different ways, but it’s usually the actor or actress feels whether they want to do it again or not. If they want to do a pick-up, why, they do a pick-up. If they want to do it all again, they’ll do it all again. It depends on how the individual feels at the time.

[DK] Sylvia Fine, Danny’s wife who wrote all those patter songs, did she hang around the set?

[Day] Well, Sylvia I don’t remember too much on the set. But Sylvia was there, I think, whenever Danny needed her or whenever she wanted to be there. Once in a while she would be on the set that I recall, and Danny would go over whatever it was they had to do and then she would watch and see that it was taken and done right. I have a remembrance that it was very few times that she ever came on the set.

[DK] Did you have any other stories?

[Day] Well, those things are so spontaneous, the things that happen, I don’t remember too much and it was so long ago. But my recollection of Danny as a person: very business-like, very attentive, cordial, a real gentleman. I never saw Danny really mad, though I’m sure that he must have. But when he came on the set he was just as joyful as he could be, always smiling and alert—my gosh, he was really a brilliant man. And I don’t ever remember him using his temper, you know though I guess he’s human, he could have. And he was always very polite with the other actors, very helpful. He would go and even if one of the actors had a problem, Danny would go ahead and rehearse with him, calm him down. That is if the actor wanted that type of—because actors are really very individual and some of them don’t want to have that particular feeling of the star wanting to help them.

There was this one individual that played the part of Brodnik. I don’t know if you remember the story(line), but Danny was to be met by Brodnik, and “Brodnik” would be the key word—that’s how Danny was supposed to know that this was the contact. And when we first rehearsed it, why it was really a wonderful situation because the fellow that played Brodnik would come by, Danny would get very close to him and he’d say (winking seductively), “Brrrrodnik.” Oh, You know, nobody could do anything like Danny did. He was always a great comedian. So, every once in a while I’d play that. I’d be Brodnik and I’d go up to Danny and I’d say (with an inviting wink), “Brrrodnik!”

The one thing I recall is having a good time. Always. From the time that Danny came on the set it was a pleasure. And then when the time came to take the scene, why then everything became very professional, very serious. But during the whole in-between, Danny was—if he wasn’t in his dressing room, if he wasn’t transacting business—he was talking to somebody and having a good time.

[DK] Had you ever worked with any of the people on the crew before or after, like Mai Zetterling?

[Day] I think that Mai, that was the first picture that she did. Now with Mai, we used to have a “Myer.” We used to say, “Hey, Myer!” to anybody and she used to think that it was “Mai.” That we were calling to her, see? And she would answer and pretty soon we just stopped using it because it disturbed her. Tobin Thatcher, I worked with him. Steven Giraut, I worked with him. He was Dr. Karl Krueger.

[DK] The technical people? Were you one big company or did you all get your jobs as you did and just ended up in the same film by chance?

[Day] It was a family. We worked the year round. So we’d go with maybe a completely different crew, but you know they were all people that were employed at Paramount, so we knew each other.

[DK] So you really liked your job?

[Day] Oh, my gosh, yes. There’s no job in the world that can compare to the motion picture business at that time. See, now a lot of lawyers have taken over and it’s a business. It’s a business that these lawyers should never be in, because it’s not a business of percentages. I mean that you feel that any one picture is like the other. It’s a business and that’s the way it should be treated. But it’s not so. It’s a creative business and they have no right in the motion picture business. However, you know, it doesn’t make any difference to me who it is that takes over. But the thing is that I don’t think that we’re making the type of pictures that we did when I was involved. Well, I’m still active, but the motion picture business has certainly changed considerably and a lot of the young people that are coming in are wonderful. They’re very talented, but they just don’t seem to have the creativity that the people of that era had. Maybe I’m not wise in saying that, but that’s the way I feel about it.

[DK] Maybe now they just think of it as a job?

[Day] No, I think what the trouble is, that the people that are coming into the business, they don’t want to start from the bottom. For instance, they go to UCLA or USC or any of the universities and they take a course in motion pictures, and when they come out they want to direct. Right off the bat. Well, if they can and if somebody’s willing to give them a chance, fine. But there are very few, very few that can do that. However, I’m not doubting that a lot of the young ones that are coming up have the talent, because that’s where talent comes from is youth. The only thing is that some of the old-timers can teach the young ones a lot of things to do. A lot of short cuts, a lot of ways of doing things. For instance, if you’re doing a stunt and the stunt works from a certain point to a certain point, a lot of directors would want to shoot the entire thing all over again from beginning. And other directors that are in the wise in this business and don’t want to take the time if so much of the take was good, they’ll change the angles on the camera and then do that portion coming into where the error was and then continue on. And so it’s a business where you have to know a lot of tricks and a lot of ways of remedying the situation.

[DK] Save time and money.

[Day] We did. I imagine that Knock on Wood probably was made for about $1 million in those days. A million two, a million three. Now you couldn’t make that for less than $10 million. So prices, living conditions, cost of living, and everything else goes up with it. Salaries are so tremendous now. I think that when we were doing that, in ‘53, I think the highest salary for first assistant director was $75 a week. Now, my gosh, a first assistant director, just a minimum, gets about $1,440 a week. Plus a lot of things.

[DK] So you’re a unit production manager now?

[Day] Yeah, well, I’m an assistant director or a unit prodution manager, either. Whatever comes up first. I’m working on seven projects right now, but I don’t know which one will materialize. Now for instance an assistant director that’s working on a weekly rate here in Hollywood effective as of July 1, 1982, he gets $1,445 a week—that’s for five days. Plus he gets a production fee of $63 a day! That’s something that I don’t even think counts as salary. It’s just a bonus. And on a distant location the production fee is $314 a week for first assistant director and the salary goes up to $2,024, and to think of getting $75 a week at that time and now getting over $2,000 a week. It’s quite a change.

Monday, August 21, 2017

It's Back! The Danny Kaye Show Returns to Prime Time

Danny Kaye reteamed with his Court Jester co-star, Angela Lansbury, in the second episode of the second season of The Danny Kaye Show, here performing “The Night of the Piranha” sketch (Night of the Iguana spoof). The 1964 show is one of 40 episodes being broadcast by JLTV.


Early this summer, Jewish Life TV began airing episodes of The Danny Kaye Show – most of them shown for the first time since they were originally broadcast more than 50 years ago.

For me, this is simply a broadcasting miracle, the greatest cause for celebration among Danny Kaye fans since the Kaye Centennial festivities of 2013. The shows can be found Thursday evenings at 10 p.m. (EST/PST) and every weekday at 2 p.m. EST, 11 a.m. PST.

Granted, not everything is roses. First off, JLTV is carried by only one satellite company (DirecTV) and a small number of cable TV providers (including Charter and Comcast in a smattering of regions). That leaves most of us to look for it streaming at jltv.tv.

As well, there have been some complaints that JLTV has cut out significant chunks from some episodes, not always judiciously, such as going to commercial in mid-sketch and not returning to the end of it (problems that, reportedly, have been corrected).

They’re also repeating episodes rather frequently (at least during the weekday run), which is causing viewers to wonder just how many episodes they have access to, and how long before they drop the program.

I went to Brad Pomerance, senior vice president of news & programming for Jewish Life TV, for some answers:

Q: Brad, First of all, thank you for doing whatever it took to be able to broadcast the Danny Kaye Show. It’s truly historic; most of these shows have not aired since their initial broadcast over 50 years ago (even back during their original run, only a handful of episodes each year were selected to re-run a single time in May and early June, after they’d run out of new episodes for the season).
So, how did JLTV come to acquire rights to The Danny Kaye Show?

JLTV: For about five years now, JLTV has been working with an individual who specializes in the acquisition of classic television series. When this classic television expert made us aware that the rights to The Danny Kaye Show had become available, we jumped at the opportunity. Ultimately, JLTV acquired the episodes from Dena’s Trust, the organization that represents all rights in the intellectual property and copyrights held by Danny Kaye and his wife, Sylvia Fine. JLTV could not be more pleased that we can offer this incredibly entertaining program to our nationwide television audience.  

Q: How many different episodes did JLTV acquire the rights to air and for how long?

JLTV: Currently, JLTV has acquired the rights to air 40 episodes over a one-year term. In our scheduling model, we "premiere" a new episode every Thursday night. We have not repeated any new episode on Thursday night. We are stripping the series in daytime, five days a week – that is where repeats come into play. Any editing errors are immediately remedied once discovered.

Q: Is there an opportunity to license additional episodes?

JLTV: We understand that additional episodes may become available and we look forward to that possibility in the near future.

Q: How were the episodes chosen? So far, there seems to be a preponderance of episodes from the series’ first two “black-and-white” years.

JLTV: The episodes were selected by JLTV in consultation with Dena’s Trust. Episodes from all four seasons of the Emmy Award-winning series were chosen.

Q: Can you share any reaction you’ve had to the show from viewers so far?

JLTV: The reaction has been uniformly positive. Here are just a couple of examples that we have received at www.jltv.tv/feedback.

J.M. from New York writes:
The Danny Kaye Show is even better than I remember. Danny is brilliant, the writing is excellent and the musical numbers superb.

J.D. from New Jersey writes:
We've enjoyed your new addition to JLTV's line up with The Danny Kaye Show. Keep them coming.

Q: What would you advise Danny Kaye fans whose cable/satellite service does not carry JLTV?

JLTV: They can place a request at www.jltv.tv/getjltv. They should also contact their video provider and let them know that they want them to add JLTV to their channel line-up.


I've contacted my TV provider; you should do the same! Hopefully the attention will encourage JLTV to expand its Danny Kaye Show programming, edit each episode more carefully, and help Dena's Trust clear the rights so all of these episodes will eventually find their way on to DVD – complete and uncut.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Why The Court Jester Gave Ulcers to Paramount Execs

Big crowd scenes that got out of hand contributed to massive cost over-runs on The Court Jester.
What would turn out to be Danny Kaye’s greatest motion picture triumph started out as his biggest bomb.

The Court Jester (1956) was supposed to cost comfortably less than $2 million. Its final price tag hit $4 million and the picture, in its initial run, made just half of that.

So where did all the extra money go?

The biggest cost overruns came from the picture going dramatically over-schedule. It was originally budgeted to be filmed in 48 days, plus 12 rehearsal days and 10 days of second unit shooting. It ended up taking 76 days for principal photography, 18 to rehearse, and 18 for second unit shooting. The biggest—but far from the only—problems were underestimating just how difficult it would be to pull off the tournament and especially the elaborate “midget battle” finale. In fact, an entirely new, larger contraption had to be built mid-way through shooting to launch the midgets when the originally device wouldn’t work.

Among the other cost over-runs:

• The midget number cost an extra $75,000 to shoot, the “basket number” an additional $40,000.

• Photographer Ray Rennahan had to be replaced at the last minute by Ray June, costing an extra $8,000.

• The main title had to be remade several times, increasing its cost by $30,000.

• 21 scheduled filming days were lost: $408,000. In fact, production went so long that other movies, including The Ten Commandments, needed its equipment and soundstages, and sets had to be constantly broken down (an extra $7,100), stored and rebuilt (another $28,100) over and over again.

• They also lost staff as production dragged. William Watson was added late in the game as second unit director. An extra $7,200.

• Robert Alton was called in to replace James Starbuck as dance director (though Starbuck retained choreographer credit). Up-charge: $18,000.

• An extra day of retakes: $14,000.

• Increases in lighting expenses: another $95,000.

• More stuntmen, $10,000.

• More extras, $15,000.

• Costumes for all of them, $22,000.

• More wigs, $9,000.

• Additional insurance, $8,100.

• Underestimate of split screen expenses: $8,000.

Not all of the cost over-runs were surprises. In fact, just before filming began, the directors, Norman Panama and Mel Frank, could tell they were going to blow past their budget by hundreds of thousands and they started lopping out entire scenes and songs, including an elaborate opening planned for Danny’s character to perform at a circus with the midgets. If the directors would have filmed the version they’d originally intended, I have no doubt the film would have cost closer to $5 million.


For more details on all the ups and downs of creating the The Court Jester—and Danny Kaye’s other classic movies—check out Danny Kaye: King of Jesters!

(And my apologies for not providing a story for these last many months, due to being overwhelmed by several other projects. Hopefully, things will start picking up again around here!)