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Getting reacquainted with Danny Kaye

A centennial celebration of the comic actor-singer's birth includes a DVD release, a biography, a celebration of his TV work and screenings of 'White Christmas.'

December 02, 2012|By Susan King, Los Angeles Times
  • Danny Kaye
Danny Kaye (Roddy McDowell )

Dena Kaye is on a mission to reintroduce her father, Danny, to the world.

It may be hard for baby boomers who grew up watching Danny Kaye in movie theaters and on TV to believe that his legacy needs to be resurrected. But in the years since Kaye's death in 1987, his films, once a staple on television, have all but disappeared and just a handful of his movies have been released on DVD. The 1954 holiday musical "White Christmas" and the 1955 masterwork "The Court Jester" are his only true perennials.

With the centennial of the comic actor-singer's birth coming up in January, Dena Kaye thought that would provide "a hook around which to build events."


FOR THE RECORD:
Danny Kaye: In the Dec. 3 Calendar section, the Classic Hollywood column about Danny Kaye said that his daughter, Dena Kaye, is 67. She is 65. —

"I realized there are generations who don't know who he is," noted Dena, 67, a journalist and TV broadcaster. "The job of the centennial is to reacquaint people with who he is. Ultimately, what is going to live on about my father is his work."

PHOTOS: A trio of Danny Kaye's memorable characters

With his winning personality, uncanny pantomime ability, warm singing voice and bouncy red hair, Danny Kaye was a comedic superstar who could do it all. He starred in such lavish Technicolor classic comedies and musicals as 1947's "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," 1949's "The Inspector General" and "The Court Jester," where he introduced the "vessel with the pestle" tongue-twister.

He found an even bigger audience when he brought his diverse comedic skills to television on the CBS musical-variety series "The Danny Kaye Show," which aired from 1963 through '67.

His wife, Oscar-nominated lyricist-composer-pianist Sylvia Fine, was also part of his immense success. She wrote special material for his films, TV and stage appearances as well as worked behind the scenes as an editor and producer on his projects.

"My father used to say that whatever he was doing at a particular moment was what he thought he enjoyed best," said his daughter.

When he wasn't making movies, Kaye worked tirelessly for UNICEF, receiving an honorary Oscar and a Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for his charitable efforts. He was a master at Chinese and Italian cooking and "made great barbecue rack of lamb and key lime pie," noted Dena. He was also devoted to the Los Angeles Dodgers, conducted orchestras and flew jets.

Her father, Dena said, "was just authentic."

"He didn't have airs," she added. "He wasn't a snob. He was a professional to the nth degree. He gave 100%, and he expected other people to do the same, which could earn you the title of being difficult. But if you are giving 100%, why shouldn't everyone else give 100%?"

Kaye was actually born Jan. 18, 1911, but he celebrated 1913 as the year of his birth. His daughter never discovered the explanation for the switch. "He was not conventional," she noted.

PHOTOS: A trio of Danny Kaye's memorable characters

The Danny Kaye centennial is already in full swing. Last month, "Christmas With Danny Kaye," which features two yuletide-themed episodes of his TV series, arrived on DVD. November also marked the release of a biography, "Danny Kaye: King of Jesters" by David Koenig.

Dena Kaye will be joining actress-singer Michele Lee, producer George Schlatter and others Wednesday evening at the Paley Center in Beverly Hills for a celebration of Kaye's TV work.

Lee was a guest twice on Kaye's series. "This was a big deal, because Danny Kaye was Danny Kaye," recalled Lee, who was just 20 at the time. "I did a solo on each, and then I did a duet with Danny — Mr. Kaye. Working with him, you were in awe."

Dena Kaye will also introduce the sold-out screenings of "White Christmas," which stars Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen, on Thursday and Friday at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences' Oscar Outdoors venue in Hollywood. The academy has even hired a company to make it snow at key moments during the holiday classic.

Randy Haberkamp, the academy's managing director, programming, education and preservation, wanted to do something "outside the box" for Kaye's centennial celebration.

"What I remember about Danny Kaye as a kid was his work with UNICEF and his kind of childhood view of the world. There's nothing more outside the box than a movie outdoors and the idea of having snow. "

For more information about "White Christmas" — there will be stand-by lines — go to www.oscars.org. For information on the Paley event, go to www.paleycenter.org.

Are you an aficionado of iconic Hollywood? Like our Classic Hollywood Facebook page to get more Times coverage.

susan.king@latimes.com

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