Friday, October 25, 2013

Kids from Brooklyn: Danny (Kaye) and Sylvia (Fine) and Woody (Allen) and Spike (Lee)

It must be something in the water. Over the years, the number of talented people coming out of New York’s most populous borough has been staggeringly high. I recently toured the picturesque section called Brooklyn Heights, strolling through the neighborhood where Arthur Miller wrote Death of a Salesman, Thomas Wolfe struggled with Look Homeward, Angel, and Betty Smith explored domestic life in the popular novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Ironically, they all wrote about misery while living with a view of the New York skyline that’s downright gorgeous.

Though newly home, I’m still in a New York state of mind. A young man I know and love is a budding writer of music theatre. A showcase of his original work -- Dorks, Drunks, and Dinosaurs: The Songs of Jeff Bienstock – just lit up the stage of a small but trendy cabaret theatre. The Laurie Beechman is on fabled 42nd Street, a few blocks west of Broadway.  Jeff, though, does not call Manhattan home.  One of his catchiest songs, “California Time,” may be a paean to his native Santa Monica. But, like so many young folks with creative aspirations, he’s turned into a Brooklynite.

Appropriately, I’ve just seen a small exhibit housed in the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles.  Called “Two Kids from Brooklyn,” it pays tribute to the careers of Danny Kaye and Sylvia Fine. It’s accompanied by clips of Kaye in some of his many guises: clowning in films and on television, conducting the New York Philharmonic, serving as UNICEF ambassador to needy children around the globe. Kaye may have become a citizen of the world, but he started out in Brooklyn. And like so many entertainers of the day, he began by performing as a “tummler” (or comic master-of-ceremonies) in Borscht Belt summer resorts. That’s where he met another kid from Brooklyn, Sylvia Fine, who had a talent for writing witty songs. One of these, featuring a pseudo-French hat-maker called Anatole of Paris, was debuted by Kaye at Camp Tamiment in the Poconos. He later used it as the finale of his nightclub act, and in 1947 it became a dream sequence in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Obviously, Sylvia Fine was a great help to Danny Kaye’s career. As she often put it, “He couldn’t afford to pay me so he married me.”

A later kid from Brooklyn, Woody Allen, didn’t hone his comic talents in the Catskills. Rather, while still in his teens, he was earning big bucks for supplying TV performers with material. His involvement with Sid Caesar put him in the company of some of the best comic writers in the business. By the Sixties, he was performing his own material, then went on to write, direct, and star in some of our best-loved films. His portraits of Jewish homelife in Brooklyn are iconic – I’ll never forget Alvy Singer’s family living under the roller coaster in Annie Hall – but Allen himself eventually moved to a two-story penthouse on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.    

Spike Lee has devoted much of his directing career to films with an unmistakable Brooklyn flavor. The gritty neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant has always been his particular territory, starting with his NYU thesis film, Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads.  Later Lee portraits of the area include the impish She’s Gotta Have It and the dark, disturbing Do The Right Thing.

In Saturday Night Fever, John Travolta’s character finally makes it out of Brooklyn to start a better life in Manhattan. Today’s Brooklynites prefer to stay put, but I hope some of them make it to Broadway.


  1. I think Arsenic and Old Lace takes place in Brooklyn too - surely a truly fabled place in literature and film. I think it's amazing that Danny Kaye is from there - like Vincent Price (from St. Louis Missouri) - Danny Kaye always seemed lightly British. I certainly didn't detect a Brooklyn accent in there. Could there be a better post about Brooklyn? Fuhgeddaboudit!

  2. Vincent Price's origins are definitely unexpected. You may also be surprised to learn that a quintessential "English" intellectual was born in St. Louis: I'm talking about poet T.S. Eliot. But Danny Kaye, to me, is very much a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn. Of course when he got to Hollywood they dyed his red hair blond in hopes of making him somehow look more Anglo-Saxon.