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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Fine And Danny

In yesterday's post, I referred to "Danny and Sylvia: The Danny Kaye Musical", which I saw last Wednesday in New York, thusly:

"Never have I had such thoroughly mixed feelings about any show I've ever seen.

It alternated between totally great and thoroughly awful, and kept shifting back and forth."

I'll now elaborate:

What was great about it----They found a guy who simply nailed Danny Kaye.
He channeled him. He captured all that was great about him.
It was as if you were seeing Danny Kaye in a great live performance.
Better, in fact.
Because it came without all of the negatives that have since been associated with Danny Kaye, the person.
From all accounts, Danny Kaye in real life was, as my friend Lenny Friefeld would describe him in his intentionally redundant way, as "a shmuck and a putz".
He would always go out of his way to snub autograph seekers.
He would go to nightclubs at dinner shows and sit with his back to the onstage performers.
In the show "Two By Two", he would intentionally wreak havoc on stage.
He would always be bragging about who he was flying around in his private plane.
He apparently treated his wife, Sylvia Fine, abusively, something not covered in the musical I saw.
But then who wanted to see that, anyway?
So watching him on clips on YouTube, or in his old movies, meant accepting his personal baggage along with him. I find this difficult to do.
It's not like Jerry Lewis, whose professional and personal persona is pretty much that of a shmuck and a putz. If you like his work, you know what you're getting going in.

But Danny Kaye's public persona was that of an erudite, charming, likeable humanitarian.
And this apparently was not him.
He was entirely a lie.

But seeing someone else in his skin, someone equally talented at being Danny Kaye, removed all that baggage, and made it really easy to watch him perform all those wonderful Sylvia Fine songs, and other material that he made famous. That's why much of this show was great.

What was godawful about it: They didn't use all those wonderful Sylvia Fine songs.
Odd, because that's what the show was ostensibly about---how her songs transformed Danny Kaye into a major star.
There were twenty-eight songs in this show.
You know how many of these they used were Sylvia Fine songs ?
You heard me. Three.
And what were the other twenty-five?
Pedestrian crappy songs, supposedly about their relationship.
One or two at least made the attempt to copy Sylvia Fine's witty style, and they sort of worked, but the rest were just pedestrian crappy songs that commented on scenes we'd just seen and didn't move the story along. I wanted to rise from my seat and say "Get on with it!!"

Has anyone ever heard of Lyn Duddy and Jerry Bresler?
Their main claim to fame, besides writing shows that never made it to Broadway, was to write the songs for "The Honeymooners" when they did a season of hour-long musical episodes.
They were the original purveyors of the Pedestrian Crappy Song.

In my early twenties, I once drove Totie Fields and her husband from New York to Philadelphia to appear on the Mike Douglas Show.
She was waxing ecstatically about having hired Lyn Duddy and Jerry Bresler to write special material for her.
I already had my attitude about them then, but didn't have the heart to tell her.

Then she started gushing about how they turn out a new musical every week for "The Honeymooners".
I did have the heart to tell her that the stuff currently on the Honeymooners was recycled from ten years previously, and simply reshot, this time in color.
She of course didn't believe me, but I still had the memory of my friend David Freitag singing those songs over and over ten years previously until I wanted to belt him in the mouth.
Those guys couldn't even turn out new pedestrian crappy songs for the occasion.
They were perfectly content recycling the old ones.

And the guys who wrote the new songs for the Danny Kaye musical were Duddy-Bresler clones.
And the ancient audience didn't notice or care.
They just wanted to see their Danny, in whatever form was offered.
It's a critic-proof show. Nothing was going to keep these people away.
And they had a wonderful time.
They just simply didn't know how good a show they could have seen.

In the dialogue, it was mentioned that Cole Porter was so impressed with Sylvia's songs that he interpolated two of them into one of his shows.
I would have loved to hear those songs.
But, of course, I didn't get to hear either one of them.
I got to hear more pedestrian crap.

The time frame for this show was the late thirties, when Danny and Sylvia first met, to 1948, when Sylvia tells Danny that he is about to become a father.
If they had extended it by a year, they could have bailed much of this show out by providing the perfect ending: Their daughter would have been born, and they could have both sung a song to the baby that Sylvia Fine wrote for "The Five Pennies" called "Lullaby in Ragtime", which has intricate two-part counterpoint melodies. In the movie, it was done by Danny Kaye and Louis Armstrong. There is, in fact, a third part, but there are only two actors on stage.
There wouldn't have been a dry eye in the house, including mine.

So they kept going back from great Danny Kaye performances without the baggage, to pedestrian crap. The latter, needlessly.

Do I really have to fix everybody's shows?

My book, "Show Runner" and it's sequel,"Show Runner Two", can be found at the Amazon Kindle Store, You can search by typing in my name, Cindy Williams, Laverne & Shirley, The Odd Couple, or Happy Days.
You might want to check them out.
You don't need a Kindle machine to download them.
Just get the free app from Kindle, and they can be downloaded to an IPhone, IPad, or Blackberry.
The paperback, "Mark Rothman's Essays" is still available for people without Kindle.
I have many readings and signings remaining, and the thing about Kindle is you can't sign one.
The website "On Screen & Beyond" has two hours of an interview I did on it's podcast in their archives.
Just Google On Screen & Beyond to find them if you're interested.



  1. "He was entirely a lie."

    For me, this sort of thing always begs the question: if what I want out of a performer is a good performance, why should I care about how much of a sonovabitch he is?

    I usually avoid tabloids and such that will take delight in telling me of celebrity pecadillos and foibles. Wouldn't knowing stuff like that undermine my enjoyment of their performance?

    Danny Kaye and Sylvia Fine are now both dead, but his performances of her songs live on, and can still be enjoyed, and maybe discovered by new audiences yet unborn. Unless some spoilsport comes along and says, "See that guy up on the screen? He was shmuck and a putz!"

    [Not you, dear Mark. Some spoilsport sitting in a movie house revival, I mean.]

  2. In this case, I am simply cursed with too much knowledge to enjoy him anymore.
    Some performers survive this kind of exposure better than others. To me, he doesn't.
    And I'm not the first one to stand up and say that the King is naked. He did it himself in "The Emperor's New Clothes", in Hans Christian Andersen".

  3. In a similar vein, I'm going to have a difficult time listening to any song--no matter how good--that Phil Spector had something to do with.

  4. As much as I'd like to be above-it-all, once someone is revealed to me to be a schmuck and a putz I can't enjoy the performance. Not that it's my particularly noble nature at play, I simply can't rise above how much of a lowlife Person X is.


    I never knew that Danny Kaye was an awful guy, but now I won't be able to see him in any other light.

  5. Sad it is to see how years and decades of somebody's life and work turn into rubbish as easy as that, only because of somebody's "wise" remark that they are a schmuck and putz. I wonder how you would react if ever the same sort of thing should be said about you and you find yourselves in a hell of a lot of mess ?

  6. This wasn't just somebody's "wise" remark.
    This is a consensus of many "wise" remarks from many different sources.

  7. OK, but no matter how many - don't you think that much more numerous will be the ones who do not share this opinion (unfortunately the bulk of these - his contemporaries I mean - are dead by now, so that the "wise" remarks somehow keep coming from the much younger smart alecks who hardly knew Danny as a person) ?

    Don't get me wrong, I respect everybody's freedom of speech, but it seems all the negative arguments featured here totally lack substantiation, and Danny Kaye in fact deserves better treatment and more respect...

  8. Specific sources: Martin Gottfried's biography of Danny Kaye, Paul Mazursky's autobiography.
    Paul Mazursky worked as a writer on Danny Kaye's
    TV variety show, and witnessed shmuck and putz events first hand.
    I knew Alan King, who talked about how he was performing in a nightclub and Danny Kaye sat with his back to him as he ate his dinner.
    King eventually called him on it, and Kaye had no memory of it.
    There is smoke and fire. I know of no one who knew him who thought he was a doll.
    How much more substantiation do you need?
    I know you live in Russia, and Kaye made hay singing about Russian composers. So maybe you hold him in unnecessarily higher regard (He said, jokingly.).
    I'm not trying to convert you, but the case I'm making is a legitimate one. I have no axe to grind about him personally, only about the show about him.

  9. I have to comment here as one who can see his performances and not be affected by his personal life. One, because his personal life does not affect me. Two, many, many performers are charmers on camera and assholes off camera. I can name MANY.

    But lastly, I understand that this affected you profoundly, but by repeating the stories, you ruin the performances for many who see them, or have yet to see them. Even if 200 people proved that he was an asshole in real life, that DOES NOT diminish the remarkable talent he PROVED over and over, nor does it diminish his ample humanitarian efforts.

    To continue to drag a fantastic career in the mud after the man has been dead 24 years does service to no one.

    Yes, I hold Danny Kaye in higher regard BECAUSE of his talent, not his personal life. I cried when he died, and I cry for no celebrity.

    As for the show, I saw it and thought it was awful. The actor playing Danny had no personality at all, he just mugged, sang flatly and moved stiffly; they cut the Sylvia part to almost nothing, making her a one-dimensional character. It's a pared down show from the "full length" show he did four years ago, and it got horrible reviews as well. Should you fix it? Hell yes. Get new actors and rewrite the whole damned thing. It was terrible.

  10. Well, we half agree about the show.
    Maybe most people are like you, and won't have his performances ruined by what I say.
    There are far more people who have access to his performances than read my blog.
    He was enormously talented, but his public persona simply didn't jive with his private one, and in this case, it got in my way. It doesn't have to get in anyone else's way.
    Al Jolson was, by all reports, a major egotist and asshole, and his radio and movie persona merely enforced this, and it did him no harm.
    Yet, "The Jolson Story", a work of complete fiction, portrays him as being completely charming in private. And I'm a complete sucker for it whenever it's on.
    So who knows how people will be affected by anything? Particularly about what I write.

  11. The whole point of my post was this: Why does it matter? We pay to see a performance, not a personal life.

    Your opinion, whether you regard it as far-reaching or not, affected a couple of people in your comments section alone. I found your blog on a random search of Danny Kaye. The internet is endless. Your words are there forever, affecting the judgment of a mans performance based on his personal life.

    All I require from a performer is a performance. That should be all that is required.

  12. I think it depends on what the performer is selling. But that's only my opinion. And as you see, it is shared by others.

  13. Yeah, two people you told this to. Three supported my opinion.

  14. I am a Danny Kaye fan. I have been for 30 years. I had a bad crash on him and I used to think him a cross between a saint and a hero. Then I read his biography and I went completely off him ... for a while. Soon, I had to admit that, whatever else he was, he was a person who has marked me and will always mean a lot to me. He was not a saint but he was not a monster either. He was complex and difficult and troubled but he was still a genius in many fields and in the course of his stormy life he has offered a lot to his fellow human beings. Something that people with less emotional baggage haven't done. No one has matched, for example, his contribution to UNICEF. I still love Danny Kaye. Not as a hero, but as a human being who has lived his life as fully and as best he could. Someone who struggled with his demons like we all do. And I miss him enormously.

  15. You know, I'm not as anti-Danny Kaye as you seem to make me out to be.
    And you seem to only know me from this article.
    There are more than 200 others on this blog to be read, and I'm getting a little tired of arguing about this one.
    Why don't you read some of the others and we can argue about them. I like arguing in general.
    I'm just worn out with this one.

  16. So basically, you're saying that you're not willing to stand behind your statements? That you're tired of defending your position? Figures.

  17. Barbara, you just can't seem to let this go, can you.
    There is no reason to be what you accuse me of being, which is judgemental.
    And in your case, in a rather snotty way.
    There is nothing inconsistent about what I have said.
    Danny Kaye was enormously talented.
    I never said he wasn't.
    Apparently I don't adore him like you do.
    The reports on his personal life have affected MY enjoyment of those talents.
    Some personas can handle it easier than others.
    Some agree with me about this. Some don't.
    That was my ONLY point.
    I'm not prostheletizing, and yes, I'm tired of defending my position, because I'm not really that adamant about it.
    I considered this a very minor point in the article when I first posted it.
    Ask yourself honestly which one of us is more objective about this matter.

    August 1, 2010 2:28 PM

  18. I only "KNOW" Kaye by his performances on film, TV, and recordings. Never met the man; never had to live with or near him. He brought great joy into my life. I also know that he owed very much to Sylvia; if he mistreated her (?), that is VERY sad, considering how much he OWED her. I have known many persons who had great PUBLIC reputations, but I don't resepect them for what they are in private. However, I had to deal with them personally and that makes all the difference. I try to keep it all in perspective
    and avoid what I can not change.

  19. The thing is who is perfect? Who has always been perfectly correct in dealing with others? When you are a big star, you go through enormous pressure, you're always under tremendous stress. If, on top of that, you have issues of your own, things are bound to get tricky. Besides, I think that, even in his heyday, Danny Kaye was suffering whenever he was away from live audiences for too long. He was a born entertainer and he felt the lack of contact with a live audience very keenly.
    Ultimately, I don't understand all this fuss about Danny Kaye's character. OK, he might have been a difficult person. So what? Do we have to crucify him for that? As for his relations with Sylvia Fine, there are heaps of things we don't know, that are between these two people. The thing about Danny Kaye is, as his friend Ruth Reichl points out, he came through when it mattered. For his friends and for people in need in general. And I mean BIG TIME. Check it out. Has any of his righteous censors done, say, half as much? Danny Kaye was a highly intelligent, highly gifted and unconventional man, who didn't always bother to be "nice" and I don't respect him any less for that.

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About Me

Hi. I am, according to my Wikipedia entry,(which I did not create) a noted television writer, playwright, screenwriter, and occasional actor. You can Google me or go to the IMDB to get my credits, and you can come here to get my opinions on things, which I'll try to express eloquently. Hopefully I'll succeed. You can also e-mail me at Perhaps my biggest claim to fame is being responsible, for about six months in 1975, while Head Writer for the "Happy Days" TV series, for Americans saying to each other "Sit on it."