Friday, January 18, 2013
Danny Kaye: A Peach of a Performer
One of my very first movie memories involves Danny Kaye, whose official centennial arrives on January 18. When I was about to start kindergarten, my mother announced that we were going to a matinee with a friend and her five-year-old son. Since Lee was (heavens!) a boy, I leaped to the conclusion that we would be seeing a cowboy movie. It was called Hans Christian Andersen, which sounded like a Western to me. Instead, of course, it was a bogus biopic, turning the life of the great Danish author into a vehicle for Danny Kaye, complete with spritely Frank Loesser songs and a big dream ballet. I was enchanted.
In later years, I continued to be a Danny Kaye fan. I was especially delighted by the sublime silliness of The Court Jester, in which such authentically English folk as Angela Lansbury, Glynis Johns, and the great Basil Rathbone keep straight faces while acting out a drama of royal intrigue set in a Technicolor Middle Ages. The Court Jester is the film in which “the pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle,” and Kaye instantly turns from coward to master swordsman with a snap of the fingers. Hilarious!
As I was to discover, my parents had their own fond recollections of Danny Kaye. During World War II, my father was stationed for a long stretch in Omaha, Nebraska, and my mother was able to join him there. The heat was stifling, and only movie theatres were air-conditioned. So every night they went to the movies. And the movie they saw most often -– at least six times –- was a military comedy called Up in Arms, featuring Danny as a hypochondriac who gets inducted into the U.S. Army. The goofy plot is punctuated by patter songs, written by Sylvia Fine (Mrs. Danny Kaye) to show off her husband’s talent for inspired buffoonery. There is, for instance, the parody of a razzle-dazzle Hollywood production number --“When it’s cherry blossom time in Orange, New Jersey, we’ll make a peach of a pair” -- featured in his famous “Lobby Number.” My mother still remembers most of the words, and I do too.
Kaye took on the occasional serious role (as when he played bandleader Red Nichols in a weepie called The Five Pennies), but a later generation probably remembers him best for one of the great TV variety shows of all time, The Danny Kaye Show (1963-1967). He also could put on a helluva live performance, and I saw him at least once at L.A.’s Greek Theater. That’s when I first heard his Dodger Song (“Oh really? No, O’Malley”), because Kaye shared with me a passion for our local baseball team.
Cut to 1970, when I was one of 56 Japanese-speaking guides greeting visitors to the U.S. Pavilion at Expo 70 in Osaka. Celebrities came through almost daily (Imelda Marcos! Britain’s Prince Charles! Emperor Hirohito! Astronauts just back from the moon!), so it was easy to become blasé. But I was thrilled to see Danny Kaye and his entourage being escorted through. When he approached the folk art exhibit where I was standing, I greeted him enthusiastically, and announced that I knew the Dodger song by heart. Uh oh! His eyes twinkling with mischief, he insisted that I sing it for him. Caught between embarrassment and bravado, I stammered out a few lines, as journalists’ cameras clicked away. Fortunately for the world’s eardrums, that footage has never surfaced. But I’ll never forget my one meeting with Danny Kaye. May his memory -- and his movies -- live on forever.