Of all the aspects of Danny Kaye’s career, his live performances were among the most revered. Audiences filled the largest performance venues around the world to witness his unique style of entertainment.

A Young Danny Kaye

Born David Daniel Kaminsky in Brooklyn on January 18, 1911, the future Danny Kaye had a long road ahead of him to become the internationally recognized star of film, stage, and television. From an early age Kaye molded himself into a performer. As a teenager, he and friend Lou Eisen performed songs and comedy on New York street corners as “Red and Blackie.” In 1929 the duo was hired as part of the entertainment staff at White Roe, a summer resort in the Catskill Mountains. There, and later at similar venues in the “Borscht Belt” (a term used for summer resorts in the Catskill Mountains), Kaye, like many Jewish entertainers of the time, developed his trade as a singing, dancing, and acting comedian.

The staff at White Roe, Livingston Manor, New York, summer of 1935. Photograph. Music Division, Library of Congress (001.00.00)

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Vaudeville

Danny Kaye returned to White Roe for multiple summers to work as a “tummler”—a person hired to keep resort guests entertained in between events through comedic antics. During the summer of 1932, Kaye joined up with the dance duo Dave Harvey and Cathleen Young. Adding Kaye to their routine allowed them to expand their repertoire to more comedic areas because he acted as a clownish character. “The Three Terpsichoreans” were a hit at White Roe, and in the fall of 1933 they joined a vaudeville tour and traveled across the country. Their success on the road led the trio to join La Vie Paree, a touring vaudevillian revue of more than seventy-five performers that was booked on a trip to Asia. This exposure to new cultures would prove seminal in the development of Kaye’s many characters as well as his comfort on stage.

Dave Harvey, Danny Kaye, and Cathleen Young as “The Three Terpsichoreans,” ca. 1933. Photograph. Music Division, Library of Congress (002.00.00)

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Broadway

After many years of hard work and struggles in the New York entertainment business, Danny Kaye was finally able to break into Broadway when Moss Hart attended one of Kaye’s performances at the nightclub La Martinique in late 1940. Hart was so struck by Kaye’s stage presence and performance skills that he wrote a role for Kaye in his new musical Lady in the Dark, which featured songs by Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin.

Danny Kaye as Russell Paxton in the circus scene from Lady in the Dark. Alvin Theatre, New York, 1941. Facsimile. Music Division, Library of Congress (004.00.00)

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"Tschaikovsky [and Other Russians]"

Although Kaye’s part was small in Lady in the Dark, his performance of the song, “Tschaikovsky [and Other Russians],” in which he rattled off the names of fifty Russian composers in less than forty seconds, brought the house down. The piece became a staple of Kaye's repertoire and was included in nearly all of his performing endeavors from his stage shows to his television and radio shows.

Kurt Weill, composer and Ira Gershwin, lyricist. “Tschaikovsky [and Other Russians],” between 1945 and 1950. Stage show arrangement. Music Division, Library of Congress (003.00.00)

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Playbill for Cole Porter's Musical Let's Face It

After Lady in the Dark, Kaye went on to headline in a new 1941 Cole Porter musical, Let’s Face It. The show, about American GIs caught up in a scheme between married couples, featured two songs by Sylvia Fine: “Fairy Tale” and “Melody in 4F.” “Melody in 4F” was later incorporated into Kaye’s first studio film Up in Arms (1944), produced by Samuel Goldwyn studio.

Playbill for Let’s Face It. Imperial Theatre, New York, 1941. Music Division, Library of Congress (006.00.00)

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"Concerto for Tongue and Orchestra"

Much of Danny Kaye’s success onstage came from his one-of-a-kind performances. One aspect of his performance style was his scat-like singing that he called “double-speak.” Kaye would rattle off gibberish at speeds few people could reach, while staying in perfect key and rhythm with the music being played. It was a skill that he learned early in his career entertaining in the Catskills and perfected as his repertoire grew. Sylvia Fine tailored many songs to this unique facet and helped refine the performances so that they could be included in his film, television, and radio appearances.

Sylvia Fine, composer and Buddy Breuman, arranger. “Concerto for Tongue and Orchestra,” arranged for the Paramount Theatre Orchestra, ca. 1952. Holograph manuscript. Music Division, Library of Congress (007.00.00)

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The Royal Command Variety Performance

By the end of the 1940s, Danny Kaye’s films were widely distributed across the world; however, his popularity as a live performer was centralized in the United States. In 1948, Kaye was invited to perform his variety show for a six-week run at the premiere theater in London—the Palladium. His act was a success with the London audiences as shows were quickly sold out and rave reviews rolled in. The performances were attended by the English elite including Winston Churchill and members of the Royal Family. After his stint was over, he was invited by King George VI to perform at the Royal Command Variety Performance—an annual variety show at the London Palladium hosted by the Royal Family. The show, which was headlined by Kaye, featured hundreds of other performers including a young Julie Andrews.

Program for the November 1, 1948, Royal Command Performance at the London Palladium. Cover. Music Division, Library of Congress (009.00.00)

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Kaye during the Royal Command Performance

After his 1948 successes at the London Palladium, Kaye’s international career as a live performer was solidified. He returned to the Palladium throughout the following decades. Each performance run was a box office hit as theatergoers queued up for days to purchase tickets. Kaye would often include a tour of the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe along with the visits to the Palladium, proving to be a star wherever he traveled.

View of stage and auditorium during the Royal Command Performance at the London Palladium. Danny Kaye at the microphone onstage, the Royal box is seen through the spotlights, November 1, 1948. Photograph. London: Fox Photos Ltd., 1948. Music Division, Library of Congress (010.00.00)

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Danny Kaye Onstage

Although Danny Kaye was a master of many performance genres—film, music, theater, radio, and television—the style to which he was best suited was the vaudevillian, variety-style live show. In this capacity he could bring all of his talents together and connect with his audience in a way that other venues did not allow. In the early 1940s his stage show exploded in popularity with the addition of his Broadway and film careers. Kaye was selling out shows at the most famous and largest venues across the United States and the world. He would keep this live act in pace with his other careers through the 1960s.

Scene outside the RKO Palace in New York City before a Danny Kaye variety show performance, 1953. Photograph. Music Division, Library of Congress (008.00.00)

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The London Palladium

After his 1948 successes at the London Palladium, Kaye’s international career as a live performer was solidified. He returned to the Palladium throughout the following decades. Each performance run was a box office hit as theatergoers queued up for days to purchase tickets. Kaye would often include a tour of the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe along with the visits to the Palladium, proving to be a star wherever he traveled.

Danny Kaye at the Famous London Palladium, 1955. Program. Music Division, Library of Congress (011.00.00)

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Kaye Onstage at Harrah's

Danny Kaye’s live stage act was an eclectic vaudevillian show. It featured songs, dance, characters, skits, monologues, and an array of guest stars such as the Dunhills, a comedic dance troupe. By the 1950s, his variety show, often titled The Danny Kaye Show or The Danny Kaye International All-Star Show, had become a well-designed institution that toured the world.

Danny Kaye dances with the Dunhills onstage at Harrah’s in Tahoe, Nevada, 1968. Photograph. Music Division, Library of Congress (012.00.00)

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