Though he was really born in 1911 (see below), Danny Kaye’s centennial is being celebrated this year. Fox has just released On the Riviera on Blu-ray, and Kaye’s daughter Dena phoned Blu-ray.com staff reviewer Jeffrey Kauffman to discuss the film and her father’s life.
Hello, Mr. Kauffman, this is Dena Kaye.
Hi, Dena, what an incredible pleasure to be able to talk to you today. First of all, you have to call me Jeff.
Okay, Jeff—where are you?
I’m in a suburb of Portland, Oregon called Lake Oswego.
Oh, really? My father and his partner used to own some radio stations in Portland!
Really? Which ones? My wife was a news anchor for several years on one of the biggest stations in this market.
Oh—let’s see. You know, I just can’t remember, you know how that goes.
Yes, I deal with a failing memory virtually daily. In fact, that brings up something I was trying to remember last night as I prepared for this interview. I looked for this last night but couldn’t find it, and dealing entirely from memory now—somewhere in papers I inherited I have a note your Dad wrote to my late Uncle which says something like ‘thank you for all your efforts’, which I think was probably dated 1971 when your Dad was doing Two by Two on Broadway. My Uncle was a big real estate impresario in Manhattan and I’m wondering if maybe he helped find your Dad a place to stay during the run of that show.
Oh, no, absolutely not, Daddy had a suite at a hotel. I was always “Eloise” with him when we were in New York.
Well, I guess those “efforts” will have to remain a mystery. Also, I was a friend of the late actress Susan Gordon, who played you in a manner of speaking, appearing as your father’s daughter in The Five Pennies. Did you know Susan?
No, I really didn’t. I may have met her at some point, but I don’t think so. But I have to say she was so lovely in that movie, and that scene of my Dad and Susan singing The Five Pennies is so touching to me, it’s one of my favorite scenes in any of my father’s films.
Well, Susan told me and my wife on several occasions what a sweet man your Dad was on the set, helping to put her at ease, both during takes and especially between them.
Well, that I can believe, quite easily.
I never trust Wikipedia for accurate information, but according to the article on your father, it’s intimated that your parents separated shortly after your birth, so I’m wondering what your childhood with your father was like.
Well, that’s absolutely not the truth—they were together my entire childhood, in fact my whole life. They were often working in different places of course, but they were always together.
Which is exactly why I never count on Wikipedia for accurate information. So did you have a lot of contact with your Dad—did you go on set with him, for example?
No, not really, though speaking of The Five Pennies, I did have a bit in that film in the hospital scene. But that’s really about it. I had a really boring, normal childhood. We always lived in the same house in Beverly Hills. But I’ll tell you some of my early memories. My Dad was an avid golfer and he used to take me to Palm Springs where he’d golf, and he used to let me drive the golf cart around the course, which of course delighted me. And he used to take me to an old place called Beverly Pony Land where I got to ride the horses. And believe it or not, he used to regularly help me with my homework. And he was part of my adult life as well. We were very close friends. As you probably know, I’ve made my living as a journalist and when I did a piece on a cooking school in Bologna, he said “Why don’t I go with you?”, for he was a wonderful cook. He also took me to Israel. He was always an incredible friend to my friends. Most of all, he was an incredible listener.
And I’ll tell you some unusual things. You know, growing up you don’t really have a concept of how others treat your parents. But when I was nine I came straight from camp to meet my Dad in Toronto, where he was performing. And there was a police escort with traffic being stopped—now that’s unusual. And something else about that trip—he was a huge ping pong fan, and they were having a tournament there, and believe it or not, he had a suite in a hotel and he had a ping pong table brought into the living room so that he could play!
I have a kind of bifurcated career where I split my time between journalism and working as a professional musician, and for me, your mother’s (note: Sylvia Fine, who wrote much of the specialty music material Kaye performed during his career) contributions to your Dad were immeasurable. Did she ever feel her talents were underappreciated, that maybe she was just basking in the reflected glow from your Dad?
Well, I think in New York she felt very much appreciated. You know, New York was authentic. She wrote for Broadway, she wrote my father’s material, and she of course accompanied him at their very successful run at the Martinique, and she was valued for who she was. Los Angeles was a different story. People there had a tendency to simply refer to her as Danny Kaye’s wife, but, you know, it’s two completely different cultures.
To get back to the not very reliable Wikipedia, the article on your Dad also states that you “confessed” to Ben Mankiewicz that your Dad was actually born in 1911, not 1913, so tell us why we’re celebrating The Danny Kaye Centennial this year.
He actually was born in 1911, but when we started planning the Centennial, we decided to use the year that he chose. [Laughs]
Why do you think he changed his birthyear? Typically only female stars tended to do that.
Isn’t it strange—and especially only shaving off two years! It’s just a mystery to me. I have absolutely no idea why he did that, but you’d be surprised to see how many official documents have 1913 listed as his birthyear.
Do you have a favorite Danny Kaye film?
That’s kind of like asking, do you have a favorite city? [Laughs] Each film he did has a special place in my heart for completely different reasons. But I’ll tell you one I really love is Me and the Colonel, because that showed a dramatic side to my father’s talents.
Did you ever see The Grand Tour?
The Grand Tour? What’s that?
It’s a musical based on the same source material as Me and the Colonel. Jerry Herman musicalized it and it starred Joel Grey on Broadway. It was a huge flop, but it has an incredibly charming score. I highly recommend it.
You’re kidding. I never knew that, thanks so much for telling me about it. I’m going to have to check it out.
Tell us what this Centennial Celebration has meant to you personally.
Well, let me put it this way. There are a lot of people who have a little Danny Kaye in them, but you’d be hard pressed to find someone who has all of Danny Kaye in them. There was his talent and humanitarianism and work with UNICEF—he was the first celebrity to do anything like that. And all of his different hobbies, I mean he was a jet pilot and owner of a baseball team, the list just goes on and on. What’s important to me is that he’s being remembered and of course that we’re getting new releases of some of his films.
Including On the Riviera!
Yes! I’ll tell you what I love about that film—it shows Daddy to be a musical comedy star, and a wonderful dancer. You know when I was little, I asked my mother, “Why should I take ballet lessons? Daddy never took lessons, and look at him!” [Laughs] And the film is just classic Danny Kaye, including him playing two characters. You know he so often played the unsuspecting but ultimately triumphant romantic lead. And On the Riviera has one of my all time favorite songs my Dad did, “Ballin’ the Jack”.
I know! Isn’t that a fantastic arrangement? I actually called it “unplugged” in my review of the film. Did your mother do the arrangement?
You know, I’m not sure about that. But he did it again on television with Gene Kelly, which is just amazing.
Absolutely—and here’s to more offerings in the future. I personally would love to see The Court Jester on Blu-ray. Dena, thanks so much for your time!