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The first Walter Mitty: ‘White Christmas’ legend Danny Kaye remembered on his centennial

BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com

white christmasIt’s typically show biz that Danny Kaye — the Jewish musical-comedy star from Brooklyn — is best remembered on his centennial for the films Hans Christian Andersen and White Christmas.

“My father had a real variety of talents,” said daughter Dena Kaye, a freelance journalist. “You know, he was as big a success as the Beatles in London at the Palladium in the late ‘40s. He had sold out at the Palace in New York and Vegas. He was on stage, he was in the theater, he was on the radio in the ‘40s, he was on television. He was able to express his various talents in different venues.”

Danny Kaye was born David Daniel Kaminsky on Jan. 18, 1911, but for some reason always maintained his birth date was two years later. “The birthday he celebrated was 1913. That’s the centennial we chose to do. He didn’t celebrate 1911,” his daughter says.

“My father started in the Catskills as a tummeler — somebody who keeps people amused even when it’s raining. He would do everything from squeeze bananas through his teeth to whatever else he did,” Kaye says. “He met mother in someplace called Camp Tamiment, an adult camp for the theater. Imogene Coca and Jerome Robbins were also there and my mother started writing special material, a Jewish version of The Mikado.

Kaye and composer Sylvia Fine, also of Brooklyn, eloped in Fort Lauderdale on Jan. 3, 1940, and had a formal wedding shortly after in New York City. The next year, he co-starred with British musical star Gertrude Lawrence in Kurt Weill-Ira Gershwin’s Broadway musical, Lady in the Dark. Kaye stole the show singing the tongue-twister Tschaikowsky (and Other Russians).

hansFilm producer Samuel Goldwyn later brought red-headed Kaye to Hollywood and starred him in Technicolor classics including Up in Arms (his feature film debut opposite Dinah Shore in 1944), Hans Christian Andersen (1952) and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947). Sixty-six years later, Ben Stiller has remade author James Thurber’s Walter Mitty. The new film opens Christmas Day.

“No, I haven’t seen it,” says Dena Kaye, 67. “And I’m delighted he made it because anything that puts Walter Mitty in the spotlight is going to help people know who my father was and perhaps make them curious about seeing the original.”

walter mittyWarner Archives just issued Walter Mitty on DVD, along with two box sets, Danny Kaye: The Goldwyn Years (Up in Arms/Wonder Man/The Kid From Brooklyn/A Song is Born) and from Paramount, The Danny Kaye Double Feature (The Court Jester/The Five Pennies). Hans Christian Andersen is also available on DVD and Blu-ray.

At Paramount in 1954, Kaye co-starred with Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen in one of Hollywood’s most beloved holiday classics, Irving Berlin’s White Christmas (also on DVD and Blu-ray).

White Christmas is actually coming into its 60th anniversary in 2014. I’m floored every time I see the movie because I can’t get over what a wonderful dancer he was,” Kaye says of her father. “The role was originally for Fred Astaire. The dancing scenes with Vera-Ellen are wonderful. Obviously, it looks dated, but it’s just a wonderful, feel-good movie.”

The French Festival du Cinema Americain de Deauville celebrated Kaye’s centennial with a White Christmas screening in Paris on Dec. 18.

Beginning in 1954, Kaye became known worldwide as the United Nations’ original UNICEF celebrity ambassador.

“In those years, in early ‘50s, he was a man at the height of his career, who kind of said, ‘OK, I’m going to give back.’ He immediately went to the Far East with a Paramount crew and made a film called Assignment: Children and was awarded an Academy Award,” Kaye says. “In his acceptance speech he said, ‘I’m delighted I got to make a film Assignment: Children for UNICEF.’”

His philanthropy helped earn him the Oscars’ Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1982 and a Kennedy Center Honors two years later.

Kaye, 74, died March 3, 1987, after being hospitalized in Los Angeles for internal bleeding and hepatitis, according to his New York Times obituary.

The Kayes remained wed until his death. Sylvia Fine Kaye died in 1991. Through the years, their marriage was the source of much reported speculation.

In 1948, newspaper columnist Louella O. Parsons wrote she lost the nerve to ask comic actress Eve Arden “if the reports were true that she is going to marry Danny Kaye.”

Biographers have also reported that Kaye had a longtime relationship with British acting legend Laurence Olivier while he was married to Vivien Leigh.

Dena Kaye declines to speak about her father’s alleged secret life: “I really think it’s a waste of time. It’s just unimportant. I know my father well. It’s beyond my wildest beliefs and it does nothing to make people know about what his work was and what he did and what his value and gifts to people were.”

Kaye, president of the Danny Kaye and Sylvia Fine Kaye Foundation, hopes the public concentrates on his show business career and charitable work.

“There are so many sides of him, it would be nice for people to see that,” she says. “But you know, it’s a commercial world and many decisions — some are made with hope and most are made with a calculator.”

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