Hand color tinted photo of Danny Kaye & Vera Ellen from the 1954 movie, White Christmas
Danny Kaye (January 18, 1913 – March 3, 1987) was an American award-winning actor, singer and comedian.
Born David Daniel Kaminsky to Jewish Ukrainian immigrants in Brooklyn, Kaye became one of the world’s best-known comedians. He spent his early youth attending Public School 149 in East New York, Brooklyn, before moving to Thomas Jefferson High School, but he never graduated. He learned his trade in his teenage years in the Catskills as a tummler in the Borscht Belt.
Danny Kaye made his film debut in a 1935 comedy short entitled Moon Over Manhattan. In 1937 he signed with New York-based Educational Pictures for a series of two-reel comedies. Kaye usually played a manic, dark-haired, fast-talking Russian in these low-budget shorts, opposite young hopefuls June Allyson or Imogene Coca. The Kaye series ended abruptly when the studio shut down permanently in 1938.
Kaye scored a personal triumph in 1941, in the hit Broadway comedy Lady in the Dark. His show-stopping number was “Tchaikovsky”, by Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin, in which he sang the names of a whole string of Russian composers at breakneck speed, seemingly without taking a breath.
His feature film debut was in producer Samuel Goldwyn’s Technicolor 1944 comedy Up in Arms, a remake of Goldwyn’s Eddie Cantor comedy Whoopee! (1930). Goldwyn agonized over Kaye’s ethnic, Borscht-belt looks and ordered him to undergo a nose job. Kaye refused, and Goldwyn found another way to brighten Kaye’s dark features by lightening his hair, giving him his trademark redheaded locks. Kaye’s rubber face and fast patter were an instant hit, and rival producer Robert M. Savini cashed in almost immediately by compiling three of Kaye’s old Educational Pictures shorts into a makeshift feature, The Birth of a Star (1945).
Kaye starred in several movies with actress Virginia Mayo in the 1940s, and is well known for his roles in films such as The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), The Inspector General (1949), On the Riviera (1951) co-starring Gene Tierney, White Christmas (1954, in a role originally intended for Fred Astaire, then Donald O’Connor), Knock on Wood (1954), The Court Jester (1956), and Merry Andrew (1958). Kaye starred in two pictures based on biographies, Hans Christian Andersen (1952) about the Danish story-teller, and The Five Pennies (1959) about jazz pioneer Red Nichols. His wife, writer/lyricist Sylvia Fine, wrote many of the witty, tongue-twisting songs Danny Kaye became famous for. Some of Kaye’s films included the theme of doubles, two people who look identical (both played by Danny Kaye) being mistaken for each other, to comic effect. The Kaye-Fine marriage, as was the case with many spouses who worked together in the high-pressure world of film-making, was sometimes stormy.
During World War II, the Federal Bureau of Investigation investigated rumors that Kaye dodged the draft by manufacturing a medical condition to gain 4-F status and exemption from military service. FBI files show he was also under investigation for supposed links with Communist groups. The allegations were never substantiated, and he was never charged with any associated crime.
Kaye starred in a radio program of his own, The Danny Kaye Show, on CBS in 1945-1946. Although it had a stellar cast (including Eve Arden, Lionel Stander, and Big Band leader Harry James), and was scripted by radio notables Goodman Ace, Sylvia Fine, and respected playwright-director Abe Burrows, the show failed to make proper use of its star, and never found an audience. It turned out to be a very bitter experience for both Kaye and Ace. Many episodes survive today, and are notable for Kaye’s opening “nonsense” patter.
Kaye was sufficiently popular that he inspired imitations:
The 1946 Warner Bros. cartoon Book Revue had a lengthy sequence with Daffy Duck impersonating Kaye singing “Carolina in the Morning” with the Russian accent that Kaye would affect from time to time. Satirical songwriter Tom Lehrer’s 1953 song “Lobachevsky” was based on a number that Kaye had done, about the Russian director Konstantin Stanislavski, again with the affected Russian accent. Lehrer mentioned Kaye in the opening monologue, citing him as an “idol since childbirth.”
When he appeared at the London Palladium music hall in 1948, he “roused the Royal family to shrieks of laughter and was the first of many performers who have turned English variety into an American preserve.” Life magazine described his reception as “worshipful hysteria” and noted that the royal family, for the first time in history, left the royal box to see the show from the front row of the orchestra.
He hosted the 24th Academy Awards in 1952. The program was broadcast only on radio. Telecasts of the Oscar ceremony would come later.
He hosted his own variety hour on CBS television, The Danny Kaye Show, from 1963 to 1967. During this period, beginning in 1964, he acted as television host to the annual CBS telecasts of MGM’s The Wizard of Oz. Kaye also did a stint as one of the What’s My Line? Mystery Guests on the popular Sunday night CBS-TV quiz program. Kaye later served as a guest panelist on that show. He also appeared on the NBC interview program Here’s Hollywood.
In 1976, he played the role of Geppetto in a television musical adaptation of Pinocchio with Sandy Duncan in the title role. He guest-starred much later in his career in episodes of The Muppet Show, The Cosby Show and in the 1980s revival of The Twilight Zone.
Kaye was the original owner of baseball’s Seattle Mariners along with his partner Lester Smith from 1977 to 1981. Prior to that, the lifelong fan of the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers recorded a song called “The D-O-D-G-E-R-S Song (Oh really? No, O’Malley!)”, describing a fictitious encounter with the San Francisco Giants, which was a hit during those clubs’ real-life pennant chase of 1962. That song is included on one of the Baseball’s Greatest Hits compact discs.
During the 1950s, Kaye visited Australia, where he played “Buttons” in a production of Cinderella in Sydney. In the 1970s Kaye tore a ligament in his leg during the run of the Richard Rodgers musical Two by Two, but went on with the show, appearing with his leg in a cast and cavorting on stage from a wheelchair.
In many of his movies, as well as on stage, Kaye proved to be a very able actor, singer, dancer and comedian. He showed quite a different and serious side as Ambassador for UNICEF and in his dramatic role in the memorable TV movie Skokie, in which he played a Holocaust survivor. Before his death in 1987, Kaye demonstrated his ability to conduct an orchestra during a comical, but technically sound, series of concerts organized for UNICEF fundraising. Kaye received two Academy Awards: an honorary award in 1955 and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1982.
In 1980, Kaye hosted and sang in the 25th Anniversary of Disneyland celebration, and hosted the opening celebration for Epcot in 1982 (EPCOT Center at the time), both of which were aired on prime-time American television.
In his later years he took to entertaining at home as chef he had a special stove installed in his patio and specialized in Chinese cooking. The theater and demonstration kitchen underneath the library at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York is named for him.
He also had a longstanding interest in medicine and was permitted to observe surgery on several occasions.
He was an accomplished pilot, rated for airplanes ranging from single engine light aircraft to multi-engine jets.
Kaye died in 1987 from a heart attack, following a bout of hepatitis. He left a widow, Sylvia Fine, and a daughter, Dena. He is interred in the Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York. His grave is adorned with a bench that contains friezes of a baseball and bat, an aircraft, a piano, a flower pot, musical notes, and a glove.
Throughout his life, Kaye donated to various charities.
Working alongside UNICEF’s Halloween fundraiser founder, Ward Simon Kimball Jr., the actor educated the public on impoverished children in deplorable living conditions overseas and assisted in the distribution of donated goods and funds.
Kaye was enamored of music. While he often claimed an inability to read music, he was quite the conductor, and was said to have perfect pitch. Kaye was often invited to conduct symphonies as charity fundraisers. Over the course of his career he raised over US$5,000,000 in support of musicians pension funds.
After Kaye and his wife became estranged, he was allegedly involved with a succession of women, though he and Fine never formally divorced. The best-known of these women was actress Eve Arden.
There are persistent rumors that Kaye was either homosexual or bisexual, and some sources claim that Kaye and Laurence Olivier had a 10-year affair in the 1950s, while Olivier was still married to Vivien Leigh. A biography of Leigh states that their affair caused her to have a breakdown. The affair has been denied by Olivier’s official biographer, Terry Coleman. Joan Plowright, Olivier’s widow, has dealt with the matter in different ways on different occasions: she deflected the question (but alluded to Olivier’s “demons”) in a BBC interview , and was reported saying on another occasion that “”I have always resented the comments that it was I who was the homewrecker of Larry’s marriage to Vivien Leigh. Danny Kaye was attached to Larry far earlier than I.” However, in her memoirs Plowright denies that there had been an affair between the two men. Producer Perry Lafferty reported: People would ask me, Is he gay? Is he gay? I never saw anything to substantiate that in all the time I was with him. Kaye’s final girlfriend, Marlene Sorosky, reported that he told her, I’ve never had a homosexual experience in my life. I’ve never had any kind of gay relationship. I’ve had opportunities, but I never did anything about them.
Vera-Ellen (February 16, 1921 – August 30, 1981) was an American actress and dancer, principally celebrated for her filmed dance partnerships with Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Danny Kaye and Donald O’Connor.
She was born Vera Ellen Westmeier Rohe in Norwood, Ohio, an enclave within Cincinnati, to Martin Rohe and Alma Catherine Westmeier, both descended from German immigrants. She began dancing at age 10 and quickly became very proficient. At 16 she was a winner on the Major Bowes Amateur Hour, and embarked upon a professional career.
In 1939 Vera-Ellen made her Broadway theatre debut in the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein musical Very Warm for May at age 18. She became one of the youngest Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall, although she was only 5’4″. This led to roles on Broadway in Panama Hattie, By Jupiter, and A Connecticut Yankee, where she was spotted by Samuel Goldwyn, who cast her opposite Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo in Wonder Man.
She danced with Gene Kelly in the Hollywood musicals Words and Music and On the Town, while also appearing in the last Marx Brothers film, Love Happy. She received top billing alongside Fred Astaire in the MGM musicals, Three Little Words and The Belle of New York (1952). She had a co-starring role with Donald O’Connor in the Ethel Merman vehicle, Call Me Madam for 20th Century-Fox, and with Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye and Rosemary Clooney in Paramount’s blockbuster hit, White Christmas, in which she was partnered with Clooney (“Sisters”), Kaye (“The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing” and “Choreography”) and dancer John Brascia. Let’s Be Happy was Vera-Ellen’s final film.
During the 1950s she was known for having the “smallest waist in Hollywood”, and is believed to have suffered from anorexia nervosa. She retired from the big screen in 1957, and retired completely after the death of her 3-month old daughter in 1963. Guest appearances on the television variety shows of Dinah Shore and Perry Como in 1958 and 1959 were among the last of her entertainment career.
Personal life and death
Vera-Ellen was married twice. Her first husband was fellow dancer, Robert Hightower (married from 1941-46). Her second husband was millionaire Victor Rothschild (married from 1954-66). Both marriages ended in divorce. While married to Rothschild, she gave birth to a daughter, Victoria Ellen Rothschild, who died at three months of age from SIDS in 1963. Following the death of her only child, she withdrew from public life.
She died of cancer in Los Angeles, California in 1981, aged 60.