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Danny Kaye’s Private Life

Dena Kaye, aged seven, sat in the audience at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco, awaiting what she knew would be the most exciting experience in her young life. It was her first visit to a theatre, and even more thrilling, it would be the first time she would ever see her famous father, Danny Kaye, give a full-length performance of his comedy routines which have made him the master in his field.

When Danny stepped out on the stage, there was a roar of applause, and because the audience knew that belly-buster would follow rib-tickler, the laughter began even before Danny opened his mouth to utter a syllable or warble a note. As soon as he began his opening number, the laughter grew and delighted shrieks punctuated the air. Danny was on his way, and the audience was loving it—with one notable exception.

She was Danny’s daughter, Dena, and a look of utter disbelief swept over her face. This in turn gave way to crying, and as the audience’s verbal reaction grew to Danny’s antics, her wails of anguish took on more volume. She studied the people around her, puzzled and incredulous, and by the time Danny finished his final number and Dena was taken backstage to see him, she was weeping profusely from the depths of what seemed to be a broken heart.

Danny, upon seeing the apple of his eye in such a piteous state, swept her into his arms and tried to console her as he searched for the cause of her great unhappiness. At first, only sobs were her reply, and then gradually, the true cause came out. “I don’t want people laughing at my Daddy,” she said, brushing away her tears.

Danny tried to explain that all the people laughed because he was doing funny things on the stage for them, but at this crucial moment, Dena found this difficult to understand. It took her three days to come to the realization that all this was acting and that people responded the way they did because her father was such a wonderful comedian. Yet during those three days, Danny was depressed, a rare sight indeed for a man who is usually riding the crest of the wave.

This story, fortunately, had a happy ending, because Dena gradually began to get the feel of what was going on, and by the end of the week, she was something of a little critic all by herself, discussing the various things she had watched her Daddy do on the stage. The proof that she had become fully acclimated to the world of show-business came when she asked Danny, “If I walk out on the stage, Daddy, will people laugh at me?” She did, however, take a bow with her father, and she loved it!

Danny Kaye in person is everything you’d expect him to be, but this is only the beginning of an understanding of what makes him tick. Watch him work on the set, he exudes a tremendous personality, and you see a real dynamo in action. In “Knock On Wood,” one of his newest cinema epics, he’s quite a contrast to the hero of “Hans Christian Andersen.” He plays a ventriloquist unwittingly embroiled with a gang of European spies, and indulges in one of his happy pastimes of wearing weird costumes, wigs and beards to his heart’s content.

Trying to pin Danny down for an interview, when he’s on the set, is like trying to keep a handful of frolicsome puppies still. It just can’t be done. You ask him a question, and he rattles off a fast answer. Just as you’re jotting down the last of your notes, you look up, and he’s gone. You next see him running over a tune with Mrs. Kaye, who writes all his music under her maiden name of Sylvia Fine. Then he bounces over to the makeup mirror, slaps on a zany wig, dons a long gold-buttoned coat, and steps into the next sequence.

“I chose ‘Knock On Wood’ because in it I go back to the kind of parts I played in ‘Up In Arms,’ ‘On The Riviera’ and ‘The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty.’ It’s a good follow-up, I think, for ‘Andersen.’ It’s a modern, atomic spy comedy and it’s the first picture that was ever written strictly for me. Needless to say, I’m having fun doing it.”

Danny’s not alone in enjoying doing his zany brand of comedy. On the day when he was filming scenes in which he reveals the identity of the spy-ring leader, he rattled off long sentences studded with such tongue-catching names as Gromek, Brutchek, Shaslik, Papinek and Brodnik without a hitch, and completed his sequence in one take. Members of the crew broke out in applause, which is really quite a compliment when you consider hat they have seen celluloid greats perform for decades.

Since Danny is one of those people who won’t talk too much about himself, other than accounting straight and terse pieces of news about his work or the plans that lie ahead, we cornered the person nearest to him and put the more personal questions about his private life to her. Naturally she is Mrs. Danny Kaye, a vital yet winsome and most attractive lady. You like her at first glance.

“Danny,” she began, “is like Mercury because his moods change so rapidly. He’s either ecstatically happy, or in the depths, but never in between. He’s creative and brilliant, with a natural technique as a singer, dancer and comedian.

“He’s a great tease. Just let him know that you want very much for him to do something, and he’ll go out of his way to dawdle, procrastinate, and to find a hundred other things that he insists he must do at that particular moment. Then switch your tactics, pretend you don’t care if he does or doesn’t do what you ask, and you achieve your desired results in record time. Dena can handle him best in this department because she teases right back.

“Planning menus for him is a really simple procedure until he gets on his food binges. As a rule, he prefers fowl as his entree, or he doesn’t seem to be interested in food at all, and then suddenly he develops a great passion for Chinese, French or Italian dishes. Then our own cook must go international, or we visit all the foreign restaurants in this area until the passion wears off.

“I think Danny’s greatest component is his charm. He has more than his share of it. Far from possessing even the smallest tinge of temperament, he’s dependable, punctual and patient. He goes out of his way in an effort to please people, and a responsive audience will keep him going on until his clothes are wringing wet.

“Because he’s not temperamental himself, he bridles against it in anyone else. He can’t abide pretentiousness, and he loathes ‘armchair generals’ who go off on a lengthy dissertation when they don’t know what they’re talking about. And, because he’s as honest about all things as he is, he’s equally at ease with a king and queen as he is with a cook.

“He is absolutely great in a crisis. When a friend is in trouble, he is the calmest, sanest, most sympathetic person you’d ever meet. He seems to know exactly what to do, and goes at it with a certainty that is most assuring. There is one exception however—Dena. When she is ill or unhappy, he goes to pieces, and he’s completely miserable and upset until she’s all right again.”

In passing, Mrs. Kaye brought out a point about Danny that seemed of considerable interest. She referred to him as a “bad rehearser” who cannot audition and because of this was almost thrown out of “Lady In The Dark,” the New York musical in which he first achieved big time notice. He needs an audience, and when he and Sylvia run through her musical numbers for his movies, he doesn’t warm up until she starts laughing. Then he really goes at it. If there’s no reaction from her, he just “walks through” the number.

Danny, who has made 12 pictures in the 15 years in which he’s been in motion pictures—or less than one a year—is changing that status temporarily by doing three movies in one year. After “Knock On Wood” and “White Christmas” with Bing Crosby, he’s scheduled for “Huckleberry Finn,” with Gene Kelly at MGM, and then returns to Paramount for his second film for Dena Productions, a company in which he is connected with veterans Norman Panama and Mel Frank. The firm, you’ll note, is named after his daughter.

It’s doubtful that he’ll travel abroad as much as he has in the past. He’ll play the London Palladium, of course, since it’s one theatre that’s really dear to his heart, but now that the American public has proved that it will support his live shows, he’ll stick closer to these shores. And although this year is the exception, from now on he plans to adhere to his policy of doing one movie a year, since he feels that you can do harm to a career by appearing too often in screen vehicles.

Ask Danny what his personal plans are, and he gives you a searching look simply because he hasn’t any at the moment. Having traveled as much as he has in the past, he’s content to make his Hollywood home his headquarters for the time being, and to devote his free time to golf at the nearby Hillerest Country Club. He’s a whiz at the tee, and plays in the 70’s. Yet tomorrow he’s just as apt to announce to Mrs. Kaye and Dena that it would be nice to go to Lake Louise or Honolulu, and they will all pack up and be on their way. “It’s more fun that way,” he says, “and your plans don’t get upset so easily.”

At home, Danny loves to entertain, and puts on whole shows for his servants. At parties, he is invariably called upon to perform, and Sylvia says that much of his best material has been inspired by things he has done spontaneously in somebody’s living room. He is unfailingly obliging about this, as he is about camp tours, and his record of benefit appearances for worthy causes is indeed impressive.

He and his wife have been news for gossip-minded columnists for years. Danny used to deny angrily every rumor of impending separation and once feuded with several top columnists because of their prediction of a Kaye marital collapse. Now, after 12 years of such prophecies which never have come true, Danny takes such talk in his stride.

He admits he and Sylvia give columnists cause for talk, since they seemingly fight like tigers. However, what the writers don’t know is that their arguments are more like battles of wit, and that both wind up laughing hysterically when one or the other puts over a telling point. Sylvia usually wins all the battles, and Danny laughs as he describes them as “tension relievers.”

By the same token, his greatest booster and severest critic is Sylvia. “I’m like every wife with a husband,” she reports. “Dealing with Danny, I need the tact and diplomacy of the State Department. I used to be much more direct until I discovered that with Danny it’s imperative to pick the right time and place.

“I’m a combination now of wife and business partner, so naturally under such an arrangement I have to soft-pedal wifely prerogatives. Danny listens to everything I have to say, but doesn’t necessarily do it, since I’m not always right. Show business is a matter of opinion, and you cross your fingers and trust to luck!”





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