His fame began when he became the first man--at least the first in recorded history--to sing a song in which he named 54 Russian composers in 38 seconds. The song was "Tchaikovsky." The place was Broadway's Alvin Theater on January 21, 1941. The show was Moss Hart's Musical Lady in the Dark. The man was Danny Kaye.
Hart had discovered this young mobile-faced, nimble-tongued redhead in a small Manhattan basement nightspot and written him into the play with the now-famous 11-minute part of a temperamental photographer who had developed the art of tongue-twisters. The number brought the second act to a standstill. Danny Kaye never stood still in his profession again.
He was born David Daniel Kaminsky, the son of an immigrant Ukrainian tailor. After having dropped out of school in his teens, he got early experience as a comedian on the Borscht circuit of summer hotels and camps in the Catskills.
With the help of his wife, composer-lyricist Sylvia Fine Kaye, who provided much of his musical material, he continued to gain prominence. She wrote many of the songs and gags that brought him to the attention of Samuel Goldwyn in 1944. Starting with the film Up in Arms, he was for a decade one of the screen's biggest comedy and musical stars--often as disaster-prone, manic clown with good intentions and a plethora of words flung out haphazardly and at a dizzying rate.
Films he made during this period included Wonderman, the Kid From Brooklyn, The Court Jester, Merry Andrew, Me and the Colonel, and The Inspector General. He also starred in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Hans Christian Andersen, White Christmas, and The Five Pennies and was the recipient of a special Academy Award in 1954.
He took his one-man concert revue to London in 1948, and his success at the Palladium was instant. The Royal Family not only went to see him, but for the first time in history left the royal box and sat in the first row of the orchestra. Life magazine described England's reaction to Kaye as "worshipful hysteria."
Another aspect of his career, conducting major symphony orchestras, began at a time he described as "100 years ago" --an era in which he tends to place many things. Even though he claimed he could not read a note of music, had been known to conduct with a fly swatter and lie on the podium on his back keeping time by kicking his feet in the air, the music was true to its symphonic form and his concerts raised more than $5,000,000 for musicians, pension funds.
Kaye recalled that he took up the baton at the invitation of Eugene Ormandy. It was while Kaye was playing in a stage show in Philadelphia in a theater located a block away from the Academy of Music.
In spite of the unpredictable zany antics that accompanied the conducting, it was praised by the likes of Zubin Mehta who has stated that Kaye "has a very efficient conducting style." And his "Live from Lincoln Center: An Evening with Danny Kaye and the New York Philharmonic," broadcast on PBS, was partially responsible for the Peabody Award Kaye received in 1981. The award was presented to him for "his superb and stimulating entertainment efforts" both for that performance and for his serious dramatic role as a Nazi concentration camp survivor in "Skokie" that year.
Kaye was a familiar face on television. He starred in his own musical-variety series, "The Danny Kaye Show," for four seasons (1963-67). It won him an Emmy Award in 1963. He also received an Emmy for his 1975 appearance on "Danny Kaye's Look-In and the Metropolitan Opera," part of "The CBS Festival of Lively Arts for Young People" series. The following year, he starred opposite Sandy Duncan in "Pinocchio," and as Captain Hook to Mia Farrow's "Peter Pan."
When he returned to Broadway in 1970 in Two by Two, he hurt his hip but continued with the show, appearing night after night for 10 months either on crutches or in a wheelchair.
Although performing was the backbone of his life, Kaye's heart was also with UNICEF for which he was a permanent ambassador-at-large to the world's children. He was so identified with the United Nations agency that, when in 1965, UNICEF received the Nobel Peace Prize, Kaye was selected to accept it.
The entertainer logged thousands of miles on his UNICEF jaunts. He once went to 65 cities in five days and did all the piloting, one of his hobbies. He started flying, also "100 years ago," with a single engine plane and has since flew 747s.
Laughter, however, is what he did best--singing, impersonating and miming, making audiences laugh and cry in the same breath, changing staid adults into grinning children by making faces at them or following a routine such as one he used in Washington D.C. when presented with an award for his work with UNICEF from B'nai B'rith International.
At the end of his standing ovation, he told the audiences to keep standing. He suggested that they all sing "Happy Birthday" to no one in particular. At the end of the song, he asked them why they were "standing up like fools." Then he made faces at the photographers for 20 seconds "so they would go away."
As a youngster, David Daniel Kaminsky wanted to be a doctor. He has become one, using what is considered the best medicine.