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Danny Kaye: The Boy From Brooklyn
(adapted from Wikipedia and the Brooklyn Eagle)
David Daniel Kaminsky was born to Ukrainian Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn. Jacob and Clara Nemerovsky Kaminsky and their two sons, Larry and Mac, left Ekaterinoslav two years before his birth; he was the only son born in the United States. He spent his early youth attending Public School 149 in East New York, Brooklyn (on Dumont Avenue, c. Williams Avenue) -- which eventually was renamed to honor him -- where he began entertaining his classmates with songs and jokes, before moving over to Thomas Jefferson High School (on Pennsylvania Ave., by Dumont), though he never graduated. His mother died when he was in his early teens. Clara enjoyed the impressions and humor of her son and always had words of encouragement; her death was a loss for the young Kaye.
Not long after his mother's death, Kaye and his friend Louis ran away to Florida. Kaye sang while Louis played the guitar; the pair eked out a living for a while. When Kaye returned to New York, his father did not pressure him to return to school or work, giving his son the chance to mature and discover his own abilities. Kaye said he had wanted to be a surgeon as a young boy, but there was no chance of the family affording a medical school education.
He held a succession of jobs after leaving school, as a soda jerk, insurance investigator, and office clerk. Most ended with his being fired. He lost the insurance job when he made an error that cost the insurance company $40,000. The dentist who hired him to look after his office at lunch hour did the same when he found Kaye using his drill on the office woodwork. He learned his trade in his teenage years in the Catskills as a tummler in the Borscht Belt, and for four seasons at The White Roe resort.
Kaye's first break came in 1933 when he joined the "Three Terpischoreans", a vaudeville dance act. They opened in Utica, New York, with him using the name Danny Kaye for the first time. The act toured the United States, then performed in Asia with the show La Vie Paree. The troupe left for a six-month tour of the Far East on February 8, 1934. While they were in Osaka, Japan, a typhoon hit the city. The hotel where Kaye and his colleagues stayed suffered heavy damage; a piece of the hotel's cornice was hurled into Kaye's room by the strong wind, nearly killing him. By performance time that evening, the city was in the grip of the storm. There was no power, and the audience was understandably restless and nervous.
To calm them, Kaye went on stage, holding a flashlight to illuminate his face, and sang every song he could recall as loudly as he was able. The experience of trying to entertain audiences who did not speak English inspired him to the pantomime, gestures, songs, and facial expressions that eventually made his reputation. Sometimes it was necessary just to get a meal. Kaye's daughter, Dena, tells a story her father related about being in a restaurant in China and trying to order chicken. Kaye flapped his arms and clucked, giving the waiter an imitation of a chicken. The waiter nodded in understanding, bringing Kaye two eggs. His interest in cooking began on the tour.
When Kaye returned to the United States,
jobs were in short supply and he struggled for bookings. One job was
working in a burlesque revue with fan dancer Sally Rand. After the
dancer dropped a fan while trying to chase away a fly, Kaye was hired to
watch the fans so they were always held in front of her.
During summer vacations Danny played the Borscht circuit in the Catskills, teamed with two vaudevillians who made him a dancer in forty minutes flat in a hotel lobby one night, when their dancer came down with measles. He went on the stage, never bothering to let his left foot know what his right foot was doing, and fell flatter than Humpty Dumpty. He got a laugh, and a comic was born.
The vaudevillians were hired by a travelling unit show, and Danny was "thrown in." Inside of two weeks he was doing 16 of the show's 21 turns. They took him to Japan, China, the Philippines, Malaya, Siam, and back again. In the Orient he was a matinee idol -- the grinning and willing audiences able to follow his jokes and patter only through an interpreter.
Lately he has played the Casa Manana with Nick Long Jr.; London's swank Dorchester House, done guest air appearances for Bessy Venuta and Walter O'Keefe; movie shorts at Astoria; and last summer teamed with the Strawhaters at Max Liebman's Camp Tamiment in the Pennsylvania Hills.
A sample of his sly style in "The
Straw Hat Revue" is the "Anatole of Paris" sketch, written by
Brooklyn's Sylvia Fine. He is a male modiste complete with blue
hair, whose "twisted eugenics" are the result of a "family of inbred
schizophrenics," and who designs preposterous women's hats because,
he confides, he hates women. A moment later he is a frenzied wolf on
Wall St., too busy cornering the pumpernickel market to get married.
Again he pops up as a blibber-blabber radio singer, a dialect
waiter, and the Masked Gondolier (alias Danny Davenport of the
United States Secret Service) in "The Great Chancelier," a merry
travesty on a long line of phony Continental operettas. Another of
his high spots is the harmonizing trio, "Three Little Hicks", a
parody on the "Three Little Maids" number in the Shubert sister
show, "Streets of Paris."
Here are some photos of
Danny's visit to P.S. 149 (East New York Junior High School). The
photographs are circa 1959.
Here is a certificate
presented to Danny by P.S. 149 in June 1941 for his work in the Dramatic
Danny Kaye as the "Professor of Music," from the film, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"
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