Librarian's Lobby
July 2002
by Daniel D. Stuhlman


Jewish Comedians part II

Jewish characters were present in motion pictures from the invention of the art form. Early films had characters focused on Jewish stereotypes such as long beards and heavy mustaches. They were pawnbrokers, tailors, con artists, and cowards. In the later 1930's with the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, characters were de-ethnized. At a time when most American Jews were abhorred at the thought of intermarriage the Jewish-Gentile relationship was common in the entertainment industry. The lure of gentile America was powerful.
 

Danny Kaye

Danny Kaye, 1913-1987

Danny Kaye had a face full of expression that mirrored all the emotions of humanity.(1)

He touched audiences all over the world. Danny Kaye (David Daniel Kaminski, January 18, 1913 - March 3, 1987) was the youngest child of Jacob and Clara Kaminski. Danny Kaye suffered from manic-depressive disorder all his life. He loved to be on stage and the audience gave him the energy to perform. When he was finally convinced to star in a TV show he insisted on a studio audience for both the dress rehearsal and the performance.

His parents called him, Duvidelleh and taught him Yiddish songs including, "Ofyn Pripetshik." The language at home was Yiddish. Duvidellah, who showed his singing talent as early as four years old, made his stage debut in Public School #149, an almost all Jewish environment. However, as a left-handed red-head he was somewhat of an outsider. At twelve years old he became an assistant to Dr. Samuel Fine, a dentist. Dr. Fine's daughter, Sylvia, would later become his wife. Clara Kaminiski died shortly after David's bar mitzvah. After his mother's death, his grandmother moved in along with a couple of cousins, to help take care of the family.

Sylvia and David (or Dave as he called himself) went to Thomas Jefferson High School. Sylvia was one of the brightest students, who loved to write for the school newspaper and play piano. Danny dropped out of high school, while Sylvia graduated.

In the summer of 1929 Dave and his friend Lou Eisen went to the White Roe Lake House in the village of Livingston Manor in the Catskills. This was the area known as the "Borsht Belt" of Jewish summer resort hotels. Lou took the stage name of "Lou Reed" and Dave announced he would use his middle name, Daniel and short his name to Kamin.(2) Hired as tummlers, their job was to create tumult, i.e., entertain the guests. They participated in plays, concerts, games, and singing. One of Danny's early performances was to dress as a Hasidic rebbe and sing, "Ofyn Pripetshik." During this time he got valuable training in performing, working an audience, and made friendships that lasted many years.

While Danny was clowning his way through the summers and drumming his fingers during the winter, Sylvia Fine was getting an education at Hunter and Brooklyn College. She was writing for the stage and the school's newspaper.

In 1937 a Yiddish stage company wanted Danny as a star. Had the financing not fallen through, Danny would have starred as a Yiddish actor. His girl friend at the time was Lillian Lux. She got a job with Yiddish company, the Clinton Theater. The director, Pesach Burstyn, later became her husband and they were the parents of Michael Burstyn. Thirty years later Danny would meet up with Michael when he was an Israeli soldier assigned to an entertainment group. Michael's first starring movie role was the title role of Kuni Lemel.

In the spring of 1939 Max Liebman was preparing a revue for the summer resort, Camp Tamiment. Already signed for the show was Sylvia Fine. She remembered him from her father's dental office, but he didn't remember her. This is why many bibliographic sources claim they met at Camp Tamiment. She was smitten with him and began to write material for him. She gave him his stage Danny Kaye persona and his career. She gave up her ambition to be a Broadway composer and lyricist. What made the Saturday night revue at Tamiment different was the work of Max Liebman, who held to a Broadway standard. At the season's end Liebman told his company that he wanted to take his show, The Straw Hat Revue to Broadway. September 29, 1939 was Kaye's Broadway debut. He had never even seen a Broadway show before then. The show lasted 10 weeks.

On January 3, 1940, Danny and Sylvia were married in a civil ceremony in Fort Lauderdale, FL. Sylvia's parents were furious. That cemented their personal and professional partnership. She needed a medium and he needed material. She used her talents and gifts to create, Danny Kaye. To satisfy her parents they had a Jewish wedding on Feb. 22, 1940. In January they barely had $100 between them but, by February he was working at the night club Matinique. His salary started at $250 a week and was soon doubled and then tripled.

The 1940's saw Danny's career blossom. He became one of the highest paid entertainers, making movies, performing in nightclubs, and on Broadway. His stage antics and ability to do dialect and double-talk routines caused audiences to crack up in laughter.

In March 1943 Kaye signed a movie contract with Samuel Goldwyn. Goldwyn did not like Kay's red hair. He thought it was "too Jewish." Kaye briefly dyed his hair blond for the movies. During the war Danny made tours to entertain soldiers.

In 1954 Danny signed up as the spokesperson for UNICEF, United Nations Children's Fund. He pushed the idea of Trick or Treat for UNICEF collection boxes (pushkes). This was one of his most important acts of tzedakeh. He traveled the world entertaining and calling the attention of the world the great need to help children. This was part of his mania. Part of his world tour led him to Israel where he met with David Ben-Gurion. He performed in English and did not do any Yiddish dialect humor.

Danny' s manic-depressive behavior had some extreme examples. The reporting of the same event could show his childish irresponsibility or his deep sense of caring for his people, the Jews of Israel. To give a flavor of this behavior I want to write about the events of May-June 1967 first as a British entertainment magazine and second as an Israeli magazine would report.

The background --Laurence Olivier started a summer drama festival in the village of Chichester in 1962. At his urging Danny agreed to appear from August 1 to September 16, 1967. In May of 1967 the situation was very grave in Israel and in June was the Six-Day War.

British magazine -- The once glorious friendship between Danny Kaye and Sir Laurence Olivier has been dimmed. Sir Laurence had convinced Kaye to star in the 1745 comedy by Carlo Goldoni, Servant of Two Masters. Claiming the Six-Day War in Israel was more important, Kaye canceled his performance and breached every business rule of proper conduct. This writer would not be surprised if the two stars never talk to each other again. Danny Kaye was to be the centerpiece of the entire season. Many promoters lost money and audiences were disappointed. Kaye refused to answer questions from the press.

Israeli magazine--Jewish entertainer, Danny Kaye, canceled his summer show to come to Israel to entertain the troops. After the six-day miracle Kaye arrived at Lod Airport for a month long tour. Michael Burstyn, star of Kuni Leml, and now a soldier was assigned to act as his guide and interpreter. All the good things about being Jewish were wrapped in the exhilaration of victory. At an air force dinner, Danny was not expected to entertain, but he told a story about happiness in dialect, imitating British, Russian, German, and French accents. The audience roared. When Burstyn told the story in Hebrew, they roared again. Kaye and Burstyn went from hospital to hospital meeting wounded soldiers to help cheer them up. The soldiers and the Israeli public know where the heart and soul of Danny Kaye lies.

Later that year Danny Kaye went on a USO tour to the Pacific and a Keren Ha-yesod tour to Argentina.

The next Jewish event in his life was the Broadway show, Two by Two. This was a Richard Rodgers musical based on the short 1954 play, The Flowering Peach, by Clifford Odets. The Flowering Peach is a very strongly Jewish play about the generation gap, based on the Biblical Noah story. Odets' characters acted Jewish. The play even has a Shabbat scene with prayers and Shabbat candles. The wives of Shem and Yaphet un-named in the Torah, have Hebrew names in the plays. Richard Rodgers had agreed to write the music. Discussions began as to how Jewish the play should be. Rodgers was worried about how non-Jewish audiences would react despite the fact the Fiddler on the Roof was then in its sixth year on Broadway. Rodgers was a de-ethnized Jew who seemed to have forgotten his family heritage. On November 10, 1970 Two by Two opened at the Imperial Theatre. The critics gave the star better reviews than the show.

The show was Jewish. Danny sang the songs with a "Yiddishe ta-am." However, he was anything but a mensch off stage. On February 5, 1971, he hurt himself while on stage. Rushed to the hospital with torn ligaments, he was hospitalized for four days. The show was revised so that he could perform in a wheel chair or on crutches. For the full story see Martin Gottefried, Nobody's Fool p. 295-300.

In 1981 Danny played his last role, a Holocaust survivor, in the made for TV movie, Skokie. This movie was based on the attempted 1977 march by a neo-Nazi group in the Chicago suburb of Skokie. Danny played Max Feldman, a holocaust survivor, who had told his children very little about his past. The character was based on a composite of several people. There was no real Max Feldman. All his life Danny played the comic, the songster, or tummler. This movie was his redemption, a dramatic role. Max starts as a quiet man, then the character develops into an outspoken opponent of any Nazi march.

In addition to his talent as a performer he was a licensed pilot, cook, and co-owner of the Seattle Mariners baseball club. Danny Kaye died in 1987 of hepatitis and internal bleeding, the consequence of a transfusion of contaminated blood during bypass heart surgery in 1983.


Daniel D. Stuhlman is president of Stuhlman Management Consultants, Chicago, IL, a firm helping organizations turn data and information into knowledge. We are looking for new clients and opportunities. Previous issues of Librarian's Lobby can be found at: http://home.earthlink.net /~DDStuhlman/liblob.htm.
Notes:

1. Source for most of the material in this article comes from the book, Nobody's Fool : the Lives of Danny Kaye, by Martin Gottfried (New York, 1994). This book is based on interviews with people associated with Danny Kaye. Since it has no bibliography, sources are not footnoted, and contains much quoted dialog this source should be accepted with sketicism. The book shows both the positive and negative sides to his personality and activities. Additional sources are the web sites:
http://www.geocities.com/Wellesley/4214/dannykaye.html,
http://www.angelfire.com/film/dannykaye/DannyKaye.htm,
http://www.classicthemes.com/50sTVThemes/themePages/dannyKayeShow.html and articles from the New York Times and Current Biography 1941. Another biography of Danny Kaye is : The Secret Life of Danny Kaye, by Michael Friedman published in 1986.

2. After the army, his brother Larry changed his name to Kaye and David became Danny Kaye.



Filmography:

1944: Up in Arms
1945: Wonder Man
1946: The Kid From Brooklyn
1947: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
1948: A Song Is Born
It's a Great Feeling (unbilled cameo)
1949: The Inspector General
1951: On the Riviera
1952: Hans Christian Andersen
1954: Knock on Wood
1954: White Christmas
1956: The Court Jester
1958: Merry Andrew
1958: Me and the Colonel
1959: The Five Pennies
1961: On the Double
1963: The Man From the Diners' Club
1969: The Madwoman of Chaillot
1977: Pinocchio
1981: Skokie (made for TV)

One of Danny Kaye's signature songs

Minnie the Moocher

Folks here's a story about Minnie the Moocher
She was a low-down hootchie cootcher
She was the roughest and the toughest frail
But Minnie had a heart as big as a whale
Hi hi dee hi dee hi
He he dee he dee he
Hoo hoo do hoo do hoo
Ouvre la fenetre,
She messed around with the king of swing
He gave her every little thing that she could need
He gave her a million dollars in nickels and dimes
She sat around and counted them a million times
Hi dee Hi dee Hi dee Hi dee Hi dee Hi dee yah
Hee dee hee
Oh dah lil layee
Oh dah layee, oh dah layee, oh dah layee
He he
They sent for Minnie where they put the crazies
Now poor ol' Minnie's pushing up the daisies
This ends the story and it ends my song
She was just a little gal but they done her wrong



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Last revised January 11, 2006