Wednesday, December 14, 2022

White Christmas... Starring Fred Astaire & Donald O'Connor

The plot of White Christmas went through several permutations before Danny Kaye joined the project.

Although Bing Crosby was necessarily attached to White Christmas from its conception, co-star Danny Kaye was a last-minute addition. He was called in days before filming was to begin to replace the ailing Donald O’Connor. O’Connor himself had also been a replacement—for Fred Astaire.

The project originated in 1952, with Paramount’s desire for a sequel to their 1942 hit Holiday Inn to be named after the picture’s hit song, “White Christmas.” Holiday Inn’s stars, Crosby and Astaire, and composer, Irving Berlin, showed interest. Berlin even had a time-saving idea for the story: “White Christmas” had skyrocketed up the charts to become the number-one single ever recorded, with much of its popularity attributed to how much the tune meant to soldiers off at war. 

Four years earlier, Berlin and playwright Norman Krasna had created a stage musical, Stars on My Shoulders, that was to be produced by Rogers and Hammerstein. Its plot focused on the post-war life of a retired general who—feeling forgotten—considers running for president, and is given a boost by his former soldiers.

Krasna went to work trying to recraft Stars on My Shoulders as a vehicle for Crosby and Astaire that would feature “White Christmas” as the title song. It didn’t have to play like a true sequel to Holiday Inn, but was to at least harken back to it.

Krasna’s first script, dated September 29, 1952, featured the “well-known song-and-dance team” partners Chuck (Crosby) and Johnny (Astaire). They are longtime friends, who have a friendly rivalry over women—though Johnny is more the playboy, Chuck the protective watchdog.

They are appearing in the elaborate revue Fancy Free in Miami, and decide to close the show until after the holidays. At a roadside diner, they meet Helen O’Conner and her kid sister, Judy. The boys are both taken with Judy, amusing Helen, who’s used to seeing men fall all over her sister. The girls, also performers, are finishing up a local engagement and have another booking lined up in Pine Tree, Vermont. But the girls have been unable to pay their hotel bill, and the proprietor is holding their trunk. 

Chuck and Johnny hatch a scheme to switch trunks and send the girl’s luggage to Vermont, COD. They then go to watch the O’Conner Sisters perform, where they spot the sheriff in the audience, waiting for girls to finish. During intermission, the boys don the girls’ outfits, and the girls escape to the railroad station. After Chuck and Johnny perform the girl’s number, they’re stopped by the sheriff—who lets them go, because he’s an old Army pal. The boys then join up with the girls on the train, and they all head off to Vermont.

The inn where the sisters are to appear is owned by the boys’ former Army superior, General Waverly. Unfortunately, the inn has few guests, because there’s no snow. So, to drum up a crowd, Chuck and Johnny offer to bring in their Fancy Free company, since they’re “not doing anything,” and put Helen and Judy in the act. 

The whole time, Helen is secretly miserable because she’s falling for Chuck, who she thinks still likes Judy. But Judy has actually been hitting it off with Johnny. Finally, Helen heads to New York to work as a solo act. The General, misreading the situation, tries to console Chuck by telling him Helen left because she liked Johnny.

Chuck is now more worried about the General. He’s now lost a lead singer and there’s still no snow. General Waverly says not to worry, because he has a letter coming that will make everything okay. Soon after, the letter does arrive, but it’s not the news the General was hoping to hear. The Army has declined the General’s request to be reinstated, explaining that he’s “too old.” Chuck intercepts the news, and heads to New York—first to ask Helen to return, and second to ask a favor of another old Army buddy, radio/TV gossip columnist Steve King. On his next broadcast, King shares the plight of the forgotten “old man” and encourages anyone who served under Waverly to support his inn. The show opens on Christmas to a packed house of Army veterans, bringing the General to tears. And as the leads sing “White Christmas,” it begins to snow.

The original plan was to capitalize on the popularity of the song “White Christmas” by reuniting Bing Crosby with Fred Astaire, his co-star in Holiday Inn, in which he introduced the song.

Ultimately, Astaire backed out. The scenario had to be tweaked after his role was given to the younger Donald O’Connor and after Crosby demanded that his character not act too young or frivolously. (Even the characters’ names were changed. The producers suggested Chuck should be the more practical Robert, Bob or James; Johnny should be the more naive Phillip; Helen the less stodgy Betty or Beth; Steve King be the newsier Ed or Walter; and Fancy Free become Heads Up.) 

Kaye’s arrival led to further changes, to better fit Kaye’s more comical image and to give work to Kaye collaborators Norman Panama and Mel Frank.

Although Donald O’Connor had to drop out of White Christmas at the eleventh hour, Paramount teamed him with Crosby two years later as song-and-dance men in Anything Goes.

In the end, White Christmas would retain three of the nine songs Berlin wrote for Stars on My Shoulders: “(We’ll Follow) the Old Man,” “What Can You Do with a General?” and “Monohan & Callahan” (which was rewritten as “A Singer – A Dancer” when Donald O’Connor was cast, and then re-rewritten as “A Crooner – A Comic” when Kaye signed on).

Despite all the permutations, White Christmas has become a beloved holiday classic that most of us could not imagine any other way.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

In Memoriam: Danny Kaye’s Co-Stars We Lost in 2020

Sam Goldwyn, Danny Kaye, the late Zizi Jeanmarie, and Farley Granger on the set of Hans Christian Andersen.

It’s been nearly 34 years since the world lost Danny Kaye—and decades longer than that since his greatest triumphs on film, stage and television. So with each passing year, the world of those who worked with Danny gets a little bit smaller. Sadly, 2020 was no different. Among the notable losses:

Renee “Zizi” Jeanmarie, the French actress/ballerina who broke Danny’s heart in Hans Christian Andersen (1952), died July 20, 2020, in Switzerland. She was 96. She met her husband and ballet partner, Roland Petit when they were 9, and they would become dance partners on stage as well as in Hans Christian Andersen. She also starred on Broadway, in the film Anything Goes (1956) with Bing Crosby, and sang a duet with Kaye, “No Two People,” for the Hans Christian Andersen soundtrack.

Lovelady Powell, 89, the singer/actress who co-starred in the first episode of The Danny Kaye Show, passed away February 2, 2020. Powell was discovered performing her nightclub act in New York by series producer Perry Lafferty, who suggested she become a regular. She was initially signed to appear in two episodes, as a trial. In the premiere episode, her proper manner played to great effect in sketches and songs. But the show immediately realized that her manner was too distinct and not sufficiently versatile for her to be a weekly supporting player. For her return appearance, they limited her to three songs—all of which were deleted and replaced with numbers by Michelle Lee. Powell did go on to a successful singing and acting career, appearing in The Happy Hooker and in a recurring role on The Secret Storm and Dark Shadows.

Tony Charmoli, choreographer for all four years of The Danny Kaye Show and director of Sylvia Fine Kaye’s Musical Comedy Tonight II, passed away August 7. He was 99. From his early years as a stager on Your Hit Parade in the early 1950s, Tony went on to choreograph and direct numerous specials and series for Dinah Shore, Julie Andrews, Bob Hope, Mitzi Gaynor, and many more. In addition to creating the dance numbers for Kaye’s series, he also appeared frequently in them, as part of The Tony Charmoli Dancers. And it was in his kitchen that Danny volunteered to make spaghetti one night and so badly burned his leg that he had to finish the season’s shows bandaged and off his feet.

Roger Beatty, 87, accomplished television writer, died April 6. Beatty got his start as a stage manager for The Danny Kaye Show before hitching on to its replacement, The Carol Burnett Show. He spent the next 20+ years writing and helping direct series and specials for Burnett and friends.

Elaine Baird, who appeared in Danny’s first films, Up in Arms (1944) as one of the original Goldwyn Girls, died November 17, 2020, at age 100. She later appeared in a number of westerns, where she met her future husband, actor Richard Crane. After retiring from show business, Elaine worked in management for Bullock’s department stores.

Carl Reiner, 98, who played Kaye’s friend and neighbor Abbot Rosen in Skokie (1981), died June 29, 2020. Reiner was a comedy legend, starting as second banana to Sid Caesar (Your Show of Shows) in the 1950s, creating The Dick Van Dyke Show in the 1960s, directing movie blockbusters like Oh, God! and The Jerk in the 1970s, and more recently appearing in the Ocean’s Eleven films. He even took the stage next to Dena Kaye in 2013 for a tribute at the Paley Center in honor of Danny’s centennial.

Brian Dennehy, 81, fellow Skokie co-star, died two months earlier, on April 15. A year after appearing as the police chief in Skokie, the burly actor rose to fame as Rambo’s nemesis in First Blood (1982). He would work steadily in high-profile movies ever since, including Silverado, Cocoon and Gladiator.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Backstage at the Danny Kaye Show

Lovelady Powell and Danny Kaye rehearse for the premiere of the Danny Kaye Show.

Although my book Danny Kaye: King of Jesters contains an extensive section on Kaye's weekly TV variety show, I know there are many more stories, information and behind-the-scenes photos out there. So, in my infrequent spare time, I have continued to seek out anecdotes, factoids and images on The Danny Kaye Show, perhaps to one day be used in an all-new book devoted entirely to the series.

I'd love to be able to announce that project... but unfortunately (as you can probably tell from the sporadic updating of this blog) I've just been too overwhelmed with more pressing matters for that to be in the cards in the near time.

I recently finished a gorgeous coffee-table book all about the Magic Kingdom's original employees (The 55ers: The Pioneers Who Settled Disneyland) and am now up to my ears in another project related to classic entertainment. If all goes well, when my current work is released in 1 to 2 years, I can then devote my undivided efforts to The Danny Kaye Show.

As a teaser, I recently acquired a massive collection of behind-the-scenes images taken during the dress rehearsal and the taping of the very first episode of The Danny Kaye Show on Aug. 9-10, 1963. These were snapped by a private professional photographer, not by CBS, so they have never been published before. And they are ALL amazing.

The collection did not include any prints, only negatives and some contact sheets, so at some point I'll have high-resolution scans produced and ideally include a great number of them in the later project. The only problem is there are 463 different images, so choosing how many and which ones to include won't be easy.

In the meantime, here are a few, scanned from the contact sheets. Enjoy. Be patient. Read (or re-read!) King of Jesters. And one day I can hopefully share many of these in all their glory, along with hundreds of other photos, soundstage diagrams, and wonderful stories that I'm continuing to collect along the way.

Danny takes a quick cigarette break between scenes.

Jackie Cooper and Danny rehearse a sketch for the show.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Danny Kaye’s Stomping Grounds, Then & Now, Part III

Danny spent most of his early years in New York (and a number of his later years, in an apartment at the Sherry-Netherland), but not all. Here are the spots where Kaye spent the majority of his time when not in the Big Apple, and what they look like today.

(11) Danny’s Last Summer Camp: Bushkill, PA
Although he had sworn off performing at summer camps, in 1939 Danny was persuaded by producer Max Liebman and songwriter Sylvia Fine to perform in weekly revues at Camp Tamiment in the Poconos. He found everything about Tamiment’s productions to be distinctly more professional than anything he encountered during his “toomling” days in the Catskills.

A new Tamiment Playhouse replaced that theater in 1941 and continued to host productions until 1960. The summer camp remained active and successful; in fact, in 1959, Kaye hosted the resort’s annual golf tournament. The resort changed hands several times through the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, until the 2,200-acre property was finally acquired in 2005 by an investment group, which began tearing down structures and auctioning off assets to allow for redevelop into multi-family residences.

Danny performs with Lee Brody and Imogene Coca in the original Tamiment Playhouse, 1939.

(12) Danny’s First LA Home: 1710 Angelo Dr., Beverly Hills, CA
After moving to California to make movies in the mid-1940s, Danny and Sylvia first rented a home from Muriel Rosenbloom, the ex-wife of boxer-turned-restauranteur “Slapsy” Maxie Rosenbloom. Built in 1926, the 4,025-square foot home featured five bedrooms and five and a half baths. In April of 1946, though, Ms. Rosenbloom wanted to break the lease and tried to have the Kayes evicted early, claiming they were damaging the property. Danny and Sylvia contended the accusation was a ruse to oust them within 30 days, instead of being given six months notice, as stipulated in their lease. The Kayes finally vacated in the fall, after which the landlord found a series of new renters.

Kaye's first SoCal home in Beverly Hills, as it is today.

(13) Danny’s First Movie Studio: 7200 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood, CA
Kaye made his first five feature films for Samuel Goldwyn Productions, based out of his offices and soundstages that originally belonged to Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and later United Artists. The lot then became Warner Hollywood Studios and, since 1999, The Lot, specializing primarily in production of TV shows.

Goldwyn Studios was Kaye's first stop in Hollywood.

Goldwyn's studio is now "The Lot," although this historic office (once Mary Pickford's) was recently demolished.

(14) Danny’s Longest-Time Home: 1103 San Ysidro Dr., Beverly Hills, CA
In 1949 Danny and Sylvia moved into—and a year later purchased—the house that would become their home for the rest of their lives. Built in 1932, the white brick Georgian-style showplace was covered with wisteria and sat on a half-acre at the end of a long driveway, behind by jacaranda trees. It had two stories and about 6,000 square feet (although that figure increased slightly when Danny added his own Chinese kitchen in 1963). For a look inside, Architectural Digest published a pictorial spread, narrated by daughter Dena. Dena sold the home in 1992, a year after he mother passed. It is currently valued at $12 million.

Kaye lived in this beautiful Beverly Hills home for nearly 40 years.

The Kaye home on San Ysidro Drive was designed for privacy.

(15) Danny’s TV Home: 7800 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, CA
Kaye spent four seasons at CBS taping 124 weekly episodes of his own variety show, The Danny Kaye Show. The series was recorded on Stage 31 at CBS Television City. As part of the deal to convince Kaye to do a weekly series, CBS agreed to build him the Chinese kitchen at his home as well as a penthouse “dressing room” on the roof above Stage 33. It was actually more of a 1,386-square foot apartment, featuring a full-sized kitchen, waiting room with secretary, bedroom, large living room with a grand piano, two bathrooms, and a patio with a barbecue. After The Danny Kaye Show’s run ended in 1967, Studio 31 played host to a variety of gameshows, sitcoms, talk shows, variety shows, and soaps before becoming the permanent home of The Bold and the Beautiful starting in 1987.

Late last year, CBS sold Television City to Los Angeles-based real estate investment company Hackman Capital Partners. For now, CBS is continuing to use the complex as headquarters for its international unit and to tape series such as The Young and the Restless, The Late Late Show with James Corden, and—in Danny’s Studio 33—The Bold and the Beautiful.

The Danny Kaye Show
was taped on Stage 31 (back, right center of the building on the right), with his quarters on the roof.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Danny Kaye's Stomping Grounds: Then & Now, Part II


His Catskills days behind him, Danny Kaye continued his slow climb up the ranks of show business primarily in New York. His biggest stops included:

(6) Where Danny Met Sylvia: 201 W. 52nd St., New York, NY
Two years his junior, Sylvia Fine grew up not far from Danny. She remembered having a crush on him as a young girl. For his part, Kaye did not seem to remember her, even though he briefly worked for her father, the neighborhood dentist. The first meeting they both recalled was in February 1939, in a loft-turned-makeshift theater on W. 52nd Street. Danny was rehearsing for a revue, Sunday Night Varieties, which was in need of another songwriter. Enter Sylvia.
They called the space the Keynote Theatre, and held performances on three consecutive Sundays. They were ready for a fourth performance, but were closed down when police discovered the facility didn’t have a proper license. The second-story “theater” has been used for a variety of purposes ever since. Today, it’s a for-rent event space called Manhattan Manor, which sits above Rosie Grady’s Saloon and looks out on Central Park.
Sunday Night Varieties, meanwhile, was able to move up in the world, to a better-furnished space inside the Barbizon-Plaza Hotel. The 38-story art deco hotel, at 106 Central Park South, was purchased by Donald Trump in 1981, who closed the hotel in 1985 to convert it into condos and rename it The Trump Parc. 
Through the doors and head up and, for a fleeting moment, you'd find a loft theater called the Keynote.

(7) Danny’s Broadway Debut: 219 W. 49th St., New York, NY

Kaye first appeared on a Broadway stage on Sept. 28, 1939, in The Straw Hat Revue. Comprised of sketches, songs and variety acts lifted from Danny and Sylvia’s last summer camp gig, the show ran for 75 performances at the Ambassador Theatre on 49th Street. 
The Ambassador had a unique set-up; because it was built in 1921 on an angled lot, it had to be situated diagonally, creating an extra-wide, none-too-deep auditorium, guaranteeing that even the worst seats in the house were close to the action. Many of its stately architectural features from the days of Danny remain intact, and its hulking chandelier is a reminder of the Straw Hat Revue’s Act One climax, “The Great Chandelier.” The theater has stayed active ever since, and since 2003 has been the home of Chicago. 
In the revue's show-stopping "The Great Chandelier," Danny played the Masked Gondolier.

Even the back of the balcony at the Ambassador offered audiences a close up look at young Danny Kaye.

(8) Danny’s First Solo: 57 W. 57th St., New York, NY

Kaye’s first break as a solo performer came in January 1940 when he agreed to a two-week tryout engagement at Dario’s La Martinique nightclub, inside the Medical Arts Building on W. 57th Street. Although the high-rise had 21 floors, La Martinique wasn’t on any of them—it was stashed in the basement, which had been used as a themed nightclub (first Parisian, then Cuban, and finally Latin American) since 1934.
At La Martinique, Danny performed Sylvia’s songs in a solo act for the first time, accompanied by Sylvia on piano.Over the years, the building—now simply called “57”—has housed a wide range of offices and businesses, including a few other nightclubs and a disco. 
Through the doors and head down to the basement was where you used to be able to find the La Martinique.

(9) Danny Goes Legit: 250 W. 52nd St., New York, NY

Kaye had only a small supporting role in Lady in the Dark, and one he kept for fewer than five months, but with it he nearly stole the show. It premiered at Broadway’s Alvin Theatre, which today operates as the Neil Simon Theatre. 
Danny in Lady in the Dark at Broadway's Alvin (now Neil Simon) Theatre.

(10) Danny’s Starring Role: 249 W. 45th St., New York, NY

Danny spent nearly a year and a half headlining the Cole Porter musical comedy Let’s Face It at the Imperial Theatre. The playhouse has premiered A-list productions ever since, including the original runs of Annie Get Your Gun (1946), Call Me Madam (1950), Oliver! (1963), Fiddler on the Roof (194), Cabaret (1967), Pippin (1972), Dreamgirls (1981), and of course Kaye’s return to Broadway, Two by Two (1970). 
Danny's two longest-running Broadway shows both played at the Imperial.

Next Time: In Part III, our travels will take us to more Danny Kaye landmarks outside of New York.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Danny Kaye's Stomping Grounds: Then & Now, Part I

Unfortunately, there aren’t many people around today who grew up knowing or working with Danny Kaye dating back to his early years in New York. But many places survive that we can visit to see where he began.

(1) Danny’s Boyhood Home: 361 Miller Ave., Brooklyn, NY

During his boyhood in the 1910s, Danny lived with his parents, two brothers, and grandmother in a small apartment on Miller Avenue in Brooklyn. Today, there’s a four-story building at that address, crammed with 20 tiny apartment units, but city records show that structure was built in 1925, after the Kaminskys had moved out. Perhaps the construction is why in the early 1920s, the family relocated to the next block, Bradford Street.

(Top) Danny about age 3 with an unidentified friend, possibly in front of his first home, at 361 Miller Ave. in Brooklyn. (Lower) Here's the site today. If building records are correct and this four-story apartment complex wasn't built until 1925, Danny and family moved shortly beforehand. 

(2) Danny’s Elementary School: 700 Sutter Ave., Brooklyn, NY

Danny was schooled through eighth grade at Public School 149, a five-minute walk from his family’s apartment. The facility, later renamed in his honor as PS 149 The Danny Kaye School, now teaches grades pre-K through fifth. (In 1952, Kaye recorded the school’s fight song, “Good Old 149,” as part of a medley with “I Belong to Glasgow” and “Tchaikovsky.”)

Danny's elementary school, PS 149, has been renamed in his honor.
Danny's home from adolescence through adulthood, at 350 Bradford St. in Brooklyn.

(3) Danny’s Longtime Home: 350 Bradford St., Brooklyn, NY
From the early 1920s through the late 1930s, Kaye listed his home address as 350 Bradford Street. The lease was in his father, Jacob Kaminsky’s, name. But since Danny was an itinerant show business performer, he “moved out” dozens of times, only to keep returning to Poppa until Danny married Sylvia Fine at age 29. The snug two-story brownstone, built in 1901, survives to this day.

Danny's home from adolescence through young adulthood, at 350 Bradford Street in Brooklyn, still stands.

(4) Danny’s High School: 400 Pennsylvania Ave., Brooklyn, NY

Thomas Jefferson High School was just a few years old when Danny enrolled. He dropped out shortly before graduation to pursue a show biz career. In 2007, the school was closed due to poor performance and the campus was given over to four smaller, specialized schools (performing arts/technology, nursing, civil rights, fire/life safety).

Danny's high school, Thomas Jefferson High School, is now four vocational schools in one.

(5) Danny’s Catskills Resort: White Roe Lake Rd., Livingston Manor, NY
In 1929 at age 18, Danny was hired as a “tummler” at the White Roe Lake House in the Catskill Mountains. Meyer Weiner had purchased the property in 1919 from Emory Keene, who had been operating it as a farm and boarding house. Weiner transformed it into a summer camp for young Jewish singles. Kaye was among the hired hands who made sure all the guests were constantly entertained, so they wouldn’t want to check out.
The main house offered lodging (with overflow guests and staff living out of tents), plus courts for tennis, basketball and handball, a baseball diamond, riding stables, boathouse, and private lake, three-quarters of a mile long, for swimming and boating. In all, Danny would spend six summers at White Roe, but brand new during his first was a gorgeous two-story Social Hall down by the lake. Topped by a gabled roof and faced with wood shingles and white trim, the elegant structure featured a recreation hall on the main floor, as well as an auditorium with a professionally equipped, 50-foot-wide stage. Every night it would come alive with dancing to a live orchestra or a stage production.
White Roe Lake continued as a Jewish singles resort through the 1950s. In the 1960s, the Weiners sold the property to the Hebrew Institute of Long Island, to use as a youth retreat called Camp HiLi International. The site was later purchased for a private residence, by a party who tore down all structures from Kaye’s days. Only a couple of reminders survive: an abandoned concrete pad where the tennis courts once sat and the entry road running the near-identical dogleg path that it always has, ending at the former site of that glorious Social Hall. In the exact spot sits a modern residence featuring a similar gabled roof.

White Roe Lake, Danny's first show biz home. The first real stage he ever appeared on was in the Social Hall (lower left).

Danny (back row, second from right), his arm around his mentor Nat Lichtman, with his 1935 castmates in front of White Roe's Social Hall.

All buildings have been torn down along White Roe Lake to make room for a private residence built on the site of the old Social Hall.

Next Time: In Part II, our travels will take us to five more historic Danny Kaye landmarks in New York