The following is a guest post by Daniel Walshaw, Music Division. The Music Division is home to the Danny Kaye and Sylvia Fine Collection.
Danny Kaye turned ninety-nine yesterday. While normally that would not warrant more than the usual nod to a performing genius, something about the rhythmical nature of the number “ninety-nine” makes me think of Danny Kaye and his amazing ability to spin any set of seemingly mundane words into a musical masterpiece.
Danny Kaye was a true renaissance man. He was at the top of his field as an actor, dancer, and even an orchestral conductor. However, what shot him into fame in the early 1940’s was his amazing aptitude at the patter song. An early example of this talent was his performance of the song “Tchaikovsky and Other Russians” by Ira Gershwin and Kurt Weil. There is no reason that this song should be interesting – a list of Russian composers sung over a repeated bass line. Yet with Danny Kaye’s lighting fast tongue and crystal clear pronunciation, he was able to pull off exciting performances of this short song both onstage and in recording studios.
More often than not, Danny’s repertoire was fueled and infused with the work of his gifted wife Sylvia Fine. Sylvia would tailor scripts, lyrics, and songs to fit Danny’s amazing abilities with language in song. The work “Lobby Number,” which appeared in the film Up in Arms, features Danny’s unique talents as it contains the frantic ravings of a man who is cynical about movies. A similar hit song by Sylvia Fine was “Stanislavsky.” This song not only allowed Danny to access his quick tongue, but he also employs his masterful ability to mimic accents, in this case Russian.
So in remembering Danny Kaye on his ninety-ninth birthday, I can easily close my eyes and imagine a witty and crafty tune quickly by Sylvia Fine and performed in an agile and quirky voice by the marvelous Danny Kaye.