Disney Hall’s Danny Kaye, Sylvia Fine exhibit sings their praises


“Danny Kaye and Sylvia Fine: Two Kids From Brooklyn,” currently ensconced at Walt Disney Concert Hall’s Ira Gershwin Gallery through Feb. 23, is a treasure trove of lyric sheets, performance materials, scripts, correspondence, business papers, posters, videos and recordings chronicling the lives and careers of the legendary comic actor and his composer wife.

The Disney Hall space, a satellite gallery of the Library of Congress, is open to anyone attending a performance or on a free docent-led tour or a self-guided audio tour of the building.

The exhibit, which recently closed at the Library of Congress, is part of the centennial celebration of Kaye. Born in Brooklyn on Jan. 18, 1913, Kaye began his career as a teenager in the Catskill Mountains. In 1939 he joined the cast of the short-lived New York revue “Sunday Night Varieties,” for which Fine was composing, writing and playing the piano. The two married the following year.

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Kaye conquered Broadway in 1941 in “Lady in the Dark,” performing the patter song “Tschaikowsky (and Other Russians)” and took Hollywood by storm in such classic musical comedies as 1947’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and 1955’s “The Court Jester.” He starred in his own CBS musical-variety series in the 1960s, performed live onstage, conducted orchestras and worked tirelessly for charities.

Fine wrote 100 songs for Kaye, who died in 1987, during their career.

The Library of Congress received the couple’s personal collection shortly after Fine’s death in 1991. The Danny Kaye and Sylvia Fine Collection in the Library’s music division has some 300,000 items. The Disney Hall exhibit, said curator Daniel Walshaw, has just under 50.

“They met in the late 1930s and she recognized the talent he had,” Walshaw said of Kaye and Fine. “He was a bit scattered and he threw himself into all sorts of styles. She helped focus him. She wrote specialty songs that were specific to his vocal and physical talents. She helped him define the character of Danny Kaye and every aspect of his career.”

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One of his most popular snappy, tongue-twisting songs was Fine’s “Anatole of Paris,” which Kaye first performed in 1939 at the Pennsylvania summer resort Camp Tamiment and eight years later in the movie “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”

“So we have the original program from the production when it was first performed, a page of original handwritten lyrics of this song, a piece of sheet music and a photograph from the film. On the television screen in the exhibit, there is a clip of his song. You really see their collaboration and the evolution of the song.”

Items from Fine’s academic career are also on display.

“She was a scholar of the history of musical comedy,” said Walshaw.

“She taught courses at USC and Yale. Through her scholarship she created [the documentary series] ‘Musical Comedy Tonight’ that aired on PBS. In the second special she had Danny Kaye come on and perform ‘Tschaikowsky’ from ‘Lady in the Dark.’ We have a clip of that.”

And the final area of the exhibit shines the spotlight on Kaye’s humanitarian achievements.

“It’s just amazing what he achieved,” said Walshaw.

“He was the first celebrity ambassador for UNICEF. He did a lot of work for the USO and entertaining troops. He conducted orchestras to raise money for pension funds around the country. We have photographs and programs that show a nice swath of everything that he did.”

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