THE BLOG

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Jim Hill Headshot

Will Two Too Many Birthdays Spoil Danny Kaye's Centennial Celebration?

Posted: Updated:
Alamy
Alamy

For weeks now all around the country, there have been events honoring that king of jesters and jester of kings, Danny Kaye. In honor of the 100th anniversary of the birth of this legendary entertainer and humanitarian, cultural institutions as varied as the Paley Center of Media in Beverly Hills and NYC's Lincoln Center have been putting together high-profile panels and concerts which then paid tribute to Kaye's creative legacy.

Take -- for example -- those outdoor screenings of Kaye and Bing Crosby's holiday classic White Christmas that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented with faux snowfall back in December. Or just this past weekend, when 10 of Danny's movies were shown at the Pasadena Convention Center as part of the first-ever Danny Kaye Film Festival. Better yet, starting this Sunday at 6 a.m., Turner Classic Movies will be devoting a solid 24-hour block of its schedule to airing many of Kaye's motion picture and television appearances.

Yeah, it's been over a quarter of a century since we lost Danny back in March of 1987. Yet there are hundreds of thousands of people out there who still have extremely fond memories of this American icon. Especially in the Big Apple, where "The Kid From Brooklyn" was born back on January 18, 1913. Which is why today -- on the presumed 100th anniversary of Danny's birth -- New York City officials will be declaring January 18, 2013, Danny Kaye Day.

Mind you, what I've described above is just the start of a year-long celebration of Kaye's life and career. Among the other high points will be a "Danny Kaye and Sylvia Fine: Two Kids From Brooklyn" exhibit, which will be opening on February 14 at the Library of Congress. The 56 artifacts on display here will not only pay tribute to Danny's talents but also acknowledge his wife Sylvia's contributions.

After all, it was Ms. Fine who wrote the music and lyrics for many of those tongue-twisting songs that Kaye became so famous for. And it was Sylvia who masterminded much of Kaye's career. Which is what kept Danny in the spotlight long after many of his show business contemporaries had simply faded away.

Of course, a big part of the Danny Kaye legend has to do with this entertainer's allegedly meteoric rise to fame. As Fine and Kaye liked to tell the tale, Danny got his start at the tender age of 16, tummling in the Catskills. By September of 1939, Kaye made his Broadway debut in The Straw Hat Revue. It was also the first big-time credit for Sylvia, the show's composer and lyricist, whom Danny had met at a nightclub revue earlier that year. Weeks after The Straw Hat Revue closed, in January of 1940, the two married. And, little over a year later, Kaye rocketed to fame thanks to a high-profile supporting role in the Kurt Weill/Ira Gershwin musical, Lady in the Dark.

To become a star on Broadway at the age of 28 was a very big deal back then. Which is why Danny and Sylvia made a point of telling this story to every newspaper columnist and TV and radio reporter who might listen. Which then made Kaye's obviously enormous talent seem that much bigger, given that Danny had broken through into the big time at such a relatively young age.

There was only one problem with the story that Kaye and Fine liked to tell. It wasn't true.

"Danny wasn't born on January 18, 1913," explained David Koenig, author of the new book "Danny Kaye: King of Jesters" (Bonaventure Press, November 2012). "He was actually born January 18, 1911. Which made him 30 when he was appearing in Lady in the Dark."

Why lie about something so trivial? Koenig suggests that Kaye did this because he wanted to be seen as this kid sensation on Broadway, this hot young talent who was new on the scene. And Danny couldn't be seen as this kid sensation if he was pushing 30.

"I'm guessing that Kaye would have shaved even more years off if he could have gotten away with it. But that would have then made him younger than his wife, who was born in August of 1913. And Fine -- who didn't want to be seen as the older woman -- wasn't going to let that happen," David continued. "So for the remainder of their days, both Danny and Sylvia would claim that Kaye was born in 1913, rather than 1911."

Now where this gets interesting is that Danny and Sylvia never let their daughter, Dena, in on their secret. So when she began laying the groundwork for a centennial celebration 18 months ago, Kaye's daughter had absolutely no idea that her Dad's 100th birthday had already passed.

"You really have to feel for Dena. But -- then again -- that's what performers did in back in the day. They changed their names from Kaminsky to something that sounded more stage-worthy, like Kaye. They shaved a few years off their birthdates to make themselves seem that much more like a wunderkind. They did whatever it took to stand out a bit from the crowd," Koenig said.

And given what a huge talent Danny turned out to be (not to mention all of the good work that he did when he became UNICEF's first Goodwill Ambassador in 1954), does it really matter that Kaye wasn't really Danny's last name or that he was born in 1911, rather than 1913? David doesn't think so.

"I mean, compared to what goes on in Hollywood today, where performers regularly use Botox to smooth away the wrinkles or plastic surgery to boost their bust lines, what Danny and Sylvia did was relatively innocent. Which is why I'm hoping that these two too many birthdays won't prevent people from celebrating the Danny Kaye Centennial in 2013," Koenig stated.

Speaking of which, the Danny Kaye Centennial will culminate with the presentation of the Danny Kaye Humanitarian Award, which is presented at UNICEF's annual Goodwill Gala, which is one of those dignified affairs where you really want to be careful when it comes to what you imbibe.

After all, as Mr. Kaye taught us in his 1955 cinematic masterpiece, The Court Jester, "... the pellet with the poison's in the vessel with the pestle. The chalice from the palace has the brew that is true."

Jim Hill is an award-winning entertainment writer who lives in New Boston, NH. Over the past 30 years, he has interviewed hundreds of veterans of the animation and themed entertainment industry and written extensively about The Walt Disney Company.

Jim is currently working on a behind-the-scene history of the development and construction of Disneyland. For his more immediate musings on movies, TV shows, books and theme parks, please check out his blog, jimhillmedia.com.