Danny Kaye was many things and, at the same time, a one and only: a live performer who combined comedy, song and dance in an utterly unique way; a celebrity humanitarian, one of the first; an actor with big box-office hits; a conductor of classical music who couldn’t read a note.
A Library of Congress exhibition that opens today explores the legacy of Kaye and his wife, songwriter Sylvia Fine, who managed his career and helped make him one of the biggest stars in the world during the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s.
Kaye appeared in hit films such as “White Christmas” and “Hans Christian Andersen” and sold out live performances around the planet. Tongue-twisting tunes and dialogue were a hallmark of his work in movies and onstage – in “Tchaikowsky,” a high-speed staple of his live act, he sang the names of 50 Russian composers in 38 seconds.
The quick tongue, the quirky bits and the personal connection he developed with audiences made him so popular that fans would queue up for days for tickets to his shows. “I’m supposed to be a master of oratory and yet cannot cast a spell over audiences like you do,” Winston Churchill told Kaye after a performance at the London Palladium in 1949.
Kaye devoted much of his life to humanitarian causes. In 1954, he was named the first good will ambassador for UNICEF, a position he held until his death in 1987. Kaye, who couldn’t read music, also developed a side career conducting symphony orchestras to raise funds for charitable causes – in his own comic fashion, of course. Kaye would direct the orchestra with his feet or conduct “Flight of the Bumblebee” with a flyswatter. The orchestras and audiences loved it.
You might love his work, too: Watch a clip of one of Kaye’s best-known bits – the tongue-twisting “flagon with the dragon” scene from “The Court Jester.” Check out the Library’s online exhibition, “ Danny Kaye and Sylvia Fine: Two Kids from Brooklyn.”