LIZ SMITH: Danny Kaye's Centennial Year

Dena and Danny Kaye.
Danny Kaye's Centennial Year — The Renaissance of a Renaissance Man.  His Daughter, Dena, Remembers Danny's Passion, Joy and Commitment to His Work and to the Real World Around Him.
by Liz Smith
Thursday, November 1, 2012

“I’ve GOT it! I’ve got it. The pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle, the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true, right?”

“Right. But there’s been a change. They broke the chalice from the palace.”

“They broke the chalice from the palace?”

“Yes. And replaced it with a flagon.”

“A flagon?”

“With a figure of a dragon.”

“Flagon with a dragon. Did you put the pellet with the poison in the vessel with the pestle?”

“NO! The pellet with the poison’s in the flagon with the dragon, the vessel with the pestle has the brew that is true.”
ANY MOVIEGOER worth his salt recognizes that classic exchange between Danny Kaye and Mildred Natwick as a witch, in the 1955 classic “The Court Jester.” (The scene which went on for quite some time, with Kaye becoming increasing confused, can still reduce audiences to helpless laughter.)

Danny Kaye was one of those rare performers — and human beings — who could literally do everything. He danced, he sang, he played comedy, he played drama. He was the darling of Broadway sophisticates and a box-office bonanza for just — plain-folks-moviegoers. He could also move live audiences to a frenzy of applause and bravos — just Danny, a spotlight, and a microphone.

He served as a template for celebrities using their fame for the greater good (he was first the UNICEF Ambassador.) And he never seemed to lose a sense of boyish wonder and enthusiasm, for a life lived to the fullest. Danny was a fine chef, a jet pilot, part-owner of a baseball team (The Seattle Mariners) and could brilliantly lead a symphony orchestra. He died in 1987.

On January 18th, Danny Kaye would have turned 100 years old. In celebration of this landmark, Danny’s daughter, author and journalist Dena Kaye, has spearheaded a monumental yearlong tribute — this will include special DVD releases and screenings of his most famous films ... tributes at The Library of Congress, The Paley Center in Hollywood, Lincoln Center, and on and on. (Mikhail Baryshnikov hosts a gala event in Manhattan on January 14th.)
I MET with my old friend Dena last week, and found her virtually unchanged from the last time I saw her. Tiny, striking, formidable. (When she noticed I was using a tape recorder, she pulled out her own!) Her only complaint was about the air conditioning in the office in which we were chatting. She kept on a fuzzy piece of clothing that seemed a cross between a chubby (as we called them back in 1940s) or a shawl. Despite its utilitarian purpose, it framed her shoulders and face attractively. She is not a child of Hollywood for nothing!

Was it daunting, being the only child of a genius?

“Well, whenever somebody asks that, I always have to remind them that I had two remarkable parents.” (Indeed, her mother was lyricist/composer Sylvia Fine Kaye, who created a great deal of Danny’s material, and acted as his manager, as well.)

“But, no. It wasn’t daunting. My father never burdened me with unusually high expectations — be a doctor, a lawyer, an actress! Actually I auditioned once for George Cukor — my mother thought I was funny. Cukor said, ‘She has talent. But not the drive. For this.

“Through his work with UNICEF he opened the world to me. He wasn’t just a movie star or a performer. He taught me the responsibility of giving back. He inspired me and gave me the freedom to choose my own path in life. I never felt I had to be like him. He was a real person, a genuine article. (Dena has taken on the mantle of her dad, and works tirelessly for UNICEF.)

“I mean, if I had said to him I’m going to Japan to raise rice to make sticky rice dishes he would have said ‘Great! I’ll get a bento box and we’ll have a picnic!’” Dena adds, “He had 500 cookbooks and believe me, he’d read every one.”
Danny Kaye with his daughter, Dena, and wife, Sylvia, at home in Beverly Hills, CA, 1958. Photo by Sid Avery – © 1978 Sid Avery – Image courtesy mptvimages.com.
Well, if it wasn’t daunting being Danny Kaye’s child, certainly this year-old celebration is? Dena laughed, “Yes, you might wonder why I’m devoting myself to this, to this extent. He deserved it. He deserves to be recognized as a role model — for his humanitarian efforts, for the ability to have a full life outside of show business, and for his professionalism. He never gave less of himself, ever. He worked at his peak and expected the same from others.”

Speaking of his work, Danny Kaye was effortless on stage, screen and TV. No sweat. I asked Dena, did he worry, did he show any nerves, was there endless rehearsal and angst?
A press kit for Dena from around 1979.
“My goodness, no one has ever asked me that question. And I have to say I never saw it, or sensed it. I mean, I would watch him in that dance number with Vera-Ellen in ‘White Christmas’ in a role intended for Fred Astaire, and I’d think, ‘Did he just get up there and do that? Because that’s how it seemed. Maybe he worried a bit when he conducted orchestras — he raised millions for the Musicians' Pension Fund. But he could read music, so he’d listen and listen and listen. But even then, it was just him working hard to make it as perfect as possible. He expressed an unfettered joy in whatever he did. That’s what I remember.”

I remark that unlike so many almost supernaturally talented people, there was no sense of tragic inevitability about Danny Kaye. No flame-out, no burn-out.

“Well, you see he had many lives. He didn’t depend on one audience for his satisfaction. His life and his work was varied and balanced. His passion focused him.”
Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen in "White Christmas."
WHAT DOES Dena intend to have accomplished at the end of this Year of Danny Kaye?

With some emotion she replied: “I want people to know him again. To see and feel what he did and what he represented. Just to log onto the UNICEF site, you can find such wonderful clips of him — dancing with lepers, for heaven’s sake, the pleasure he got with the children.

“Even though I am a journalist, I can’t separate myself from this. It brings him very close to me. And it makes me miss so him much. It’s thrilling, it’s emotional, but it’s not easy.”
"I feel that the most rewarding thing I have ever done in my life is to be associated with UNICEF." — Danny Kaye
As Dena was preparing for her next interview, I said to her, “Everybody refers to Danny Kaye as a Renaissance Man. Wouldn’t you say, this is the renaissance of a real renaissance man?”

Dena laughed: "Oh, Liz. That’s great. I wish I’d said it myself. But you say it, please. Because it’s so right!”

To find out more about the Danny Kaye Centennial log on here.

Contact Liz Smith here.

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