Many people today will never have heard the name Danny Kaye, indeed I showed his face at an event recently and not one person recognised him, which is a shame for a someone who bestrode the entertainment world for 30 years and was a true renaissance man; Singer, Actor, Chef, Pilot, Dancer, Comedian, Conductor and Philanthropist.
Danny Kaye was born, David Daniel Kaminsky, in Brooklyn in 1911, to poor immigrant Ukrainian Jewish parents. After a series of failed jobs he learnt the basics of Show Business in a Catskill resort and then joined a touring company, who toured the Far East. It was there that he started his passion for Chinese cooking, more on that later. His first break came in 1941 in the Broadway comedy ‘The Lady in the Dark’.
He came to prominence in Hollywood in 1944 with his role in ‘Up in Arms’ and went on to star in a further 17 movies including famous roles such as “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”, “Hans Christian Andersen” and “The Court Jester”. He was known for his ability for physical comedy, his multi-faceted voices and a genuine everyman charm. Imagine, if you will, a mix of Jim Carrey and Tom Hanks, with a great singing voice.
He also starred with Bing Crosby in “White Christmas” in 1954, which was the year he gained a role he treasured for the rest of his life. He was the very first UNICEF Goodwill ambassador, becoming a role model for many celebrities who followed in their support for charity. “I believe deeply that children are more powerful than oil, more beautiful than rivers, more precious than any other natural resource a country can have,” said Danny Kaye. “I feel that the most rewarding thing I have ever done in my life is to be associated with UNICEF.”
One of the stunts he performed for UNICEF was to fly to 65 cities in 5 days, as he was a passionate pilot. He gave up his beloved golf to take up flying in 1959 and learnt to fly everything except military planes.
An accomplished singer with ‘perfect pitch’ and yet he could not read a note of music. He adored music so much that he learnt to score by ear. He became an accomplished conductor and led some world famous orchestras including the New York Philharmonic, all with a Danny Kaye flare.
Just to add to his skill set, he was a fantastic Cook. He specialised in Chinese & Italian cuisine. Indeed he was such a good chef that he taught Chinese Cooking in San Francisco and was the only non-professional to be awarded the ‘Les Meilleurs Ouvriers de France’ award. He adored Baseball, had a vast knowledge of the sport and part-owned a team for a short while.
Danny Kaye was a gentleman. He said his credo was based on growing up in Brooklyn: “Everyone born here liked a person for who he was, not for where he came from or who his parents were.” said Kaye. He was stylish and frequently appeared on Best Dressed Lists.
He married Sylvia Fine in 1940 and had a daughter Dena in 1946. Sylvia and he had a troubled marriage and became estranged after Dena was born, but they never divorced. All the way through his life Sylvia played an important role in his successful career.
Over the course of Danny Kaye’s life he won Oscars, Golden Globes, Emmys, Peabodys and the French ‘Légion d’honneur’ and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was adored around the world for his work both on and off stage and yet today he is but a footnote in Entertainment History, which, for such a Renaissance Gentleman, is a shame.
We encourage you to re-discover this Gentleman Icon.