Sections: Danny Kaye Onstage | Danny Kaye in Film | Radio, Television, and Recordings | Sylvia Fine: The Woman Behind the Curtain | Humanitarian Efforts

Sylvia Fine was the consummate show-business professional. She managed, organized, and produced much of Danny Kaye’s engagements while having a vibrant career of her own. In the later part of her life, she dedicated much of her time to researching the history of musical theater in America. This work eventually led to the production of a 1979 PBS special titled Musical Comedy Tonight.

An Emerging Artist

From an early age, Sylvia Fine (1913–1991) was determined to have a career in the theater business. Extremely gifted and hard working, she started her formal musical training at Brooklyn College at age fifteen. There she studied piano, composition, and general music. Fine was heavily involved in the production of revues and musicals, composing music and lyrics for songs, directing scenes, and playing piano. After graduating in 1933 at age twenty, she spent subsequent years working, often for free, for revues and musicals in New York City.

Class Night Program, Brooklyn College, May 13, 1933. Pamphlet. Music Division, Library of Congress (026.00.00)

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Breaking In

Although she rarely gave public performances from the 1940s through the end of her life, Sylvia Fine was an accomplished pianist. The early part of her career was a mix of performing and writing for off-Broadway revues. She was often tasked with both coaching the cast in rehearsal and playing for performances. She continued to perform after the 1940s, but only for special events such as charity fundraisers and her PBS show Musical Comedy Tonight.

Sylvia Fine (at piano) and Rhoda Fine (sister), 1937. Photograph. Music Division, Library of Congress (028.00.00)

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"Snappy"

In her early career, Fine often spent time not only writing music for revues but also playing piano in rehearsals and performances. She met Danny Kaye while working on Sunday Night Varieties, where she was a rehearsal pianist as well as a cowriter for the show. After realizing the talent she had at her hands, Fine convinced Max Liebman to hire Kaye at Camp Tamiment, a resort in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania where she had spent the previous summer composing and performing for the musical revues.

Sylvia Fine, nicknamed “Snappy,” at Camp Tamiment, summer of 1938. Photograph. Music Division, Library of Congress (029.00.00)

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"Sunday Night Varieties"

In April of 1939, Sylvia Fine’s career path changed when she and Danny Kaye (1911–1987) worked together on the musical revue Sunday Night Varieties—Fine composing music and playing piano, Kaye serving as a company actor. The show had financial and structural problems causing it to only run for three of its four scheduled performances. However, it marked the beginning of a performance duo that succeeded in nearly every area of the entertainment industry.

“Sunday Night Varieties,” Barbizon Plaza Theater, April 9, 1939. Program. Music Division, Library of Congress (027.00.00)

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"Anatole of Paris"—The Making of a Song

The song “Anatole of Paris”—a narrative, witty, tuneful specialty song reminiscent of comic opera composers Gilbert and Sullivan—is truly indicative of Sylvia Fine’s distinctive compositional and lyrical style. Most of Fine’s music was written with Danny Kaye’s rapid-tongue vocal talents in mind and this early example was one of the lasting successes. At Camp Tamiment, in 1939, Kaye first performed the song about an eccentric milliner who makes outlandish hats for women in 1939. Soon after, it became the song that closed his act at the nightclub La Martinique in New York City. The song wove its way through his various stage shows, studio recordings, and was even featured in the Samuel Goldwyn film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947).

“Anatole of Paris” from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, 1947. Photograph. Music Division, Library of Congress (032.00.00)

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The Score for "Anatole of Paris"

Most of Fine’s music was written with Danny Kaye’s unique talents in mind and this early example was one of the lasting successes. Kaye first performed the song, “Anatole of Paris,” about an eccentric milliner who makes outlandish hats for women in 1939 at Camp Tamiment. Soon after, it became the song that closed his act at the nightclub La Martinique in New York City. The song wove its way through his various stage shows, studio recordings, and was even featured in the Samuel Goldwyn film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947).

Sylvia Fine, composer and Irving Sheinker, arranger. “Anatole of Paris.” Holograph manuscript. Music Division, Library of Congress (033.00.00)

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The Lyricist

Sylvia Fine was a tireless reviser of her compositions. She was constantly revising and adapting her music and lyrics written for her husband, Danny Kaye, throughout their careers. “Anatole of Paris” was one such work that survived from the beginning of their time together, 1939, throughout Kaye’s performance career.

Sylvia Fine. “Anatole of Paris” lyrics, 1939. Holograph manuscript. Music Division, Library of Congress (031.00.00)

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Another Opening, Another Show

After working with Danny Kaye in early 1939 on the revue Sunday Night Varieties, Sylvia Fine was able to get Kaye hired to be a company performer at Camp Tamiment, a summer resort in the Catskill Mountains. Working closely together for an entire summer allowed Kaye to hone his comedy routine and Fine to perfect her composition style for Kaye’s vocal and dramatic talents.

The Tamiment Players Present: “Shooting Stars,” 1939. Program. Music Division, Library of Congress (030.00.00)

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The Kaye Family

Danny Kaye and Sylvia Fine first met in a professional setting while working for musical revues; soon after their friendship quickly moved beyond a working relationship. On January 3, 1940, they were married during a vacation in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, just after they closed performances of The Straw Hat Revue in New York. Three years later, Kaye and Fine held a formal wedding in New York City on February 1943 for friends and family.

Danny Kaye and Sylvia Fine walk down the aisle in a formal wedding ceremony, February 22, 1943. Photograph. Music Division, Library of Congress (034.00.00)

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Dena Kaye

Danny Kaye and Sylvia Fine had only one child, Dena Kaye, born December 17, 1946. Kaye often referred to Dena in his television and stage shows, which allowed him to connect to the audience using a personal story. In the early 1950s, Kaye and Fine created a production company—Dena Productions—named after their daughter. This company co-produced his films and television shows thereafter.

Sylvia Fine, Danny Kaye, and Dena Kaye, July 8, 1947. Facsimile. Music Division, Library of Congress (035.00.00)

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Sylvia Fine and Films

Sylvia Fine’s career in the film industry hit its stride in 1949 when she wrote a majority of the songs for Warner Brothers’ film The Inspector General (1949) starring Danny Kaye. Prior to this, she had written or reworked songs for Kaye’s Samuel Goldwyn pictures, but never to this extent. For The Inspector General, she was able to employ two different styles of songs: ballads (“Happy Times”) and theatrical numbers (“Soliloquy for Three Heads” and “Medicine Show Number”).

Sylvia Fine. “Happy Times,” from The Inspector General, 1949. Holograph manuscript. Music Division, Library of Congress (038.00.00)

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The Five Pennies, 1959

The 1959 film The Five Pennies, co-produced by Paramount Pictures and Dena Productions, was a semibiographical movie about the jazz trumpet player Red Nichols. Danny Kaye starred as Nichols. As in many previous films for Kaye, Sylvia Fine wrote several musical numbers: “Follow the Leader,” “Goodnight Sleep Tight,” “Lullaby in Ragtime,” and “The Five Pennies.” The most famous number from the film was an adaptation Fine wrote of “When the Saints Go Marching In” that Danny Kaye and Louis Armstrong performed.

Sylvia Fine at the piano composing music for The Five Pennies, ca. 1959. Photograph. Music Division, Library of Congress (039.00.00)

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"Delilah Jones"

In addition to writing material for Kaye, she also wrote music for two Otto Preminger films: The Moon is Blue (1953) and The Man with the Golden Arm (1955). The Man with the Golden Arm was a departure for Fine who generally wrote music for comedic performance. The film, starring Frank Sinatra, Eleanor Parker, and Kim Novak, was a drama telling the story of a heroine addict’s struggles after being released from prison.

Sylvia Fine, lyricist, and Elmer Bernstein, composer. “Delilah Jones” from Man with the Golden Arm. Sheet music. Hollywood: Dena Music, Inc., 1955. Music Division, Library of Congress (036.00.00)

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Theme from The Man with the Golden Arm

In addition to writing material for Kaye, she also wrote music for two Otto Preminger films: The Moon is Blue (1953) and The Man with the Golden Arm (1955). The Man with the Golden Arm was a departure for Fine who generally wrote music for comedic performance. The film, starring Frank Sinatra, Eleanor Parker, and Kim Novak, was a drama telling the story of a heroine addict’s struggles after being released from prison.

Sylvia Fine. Main theme from The Man with the Golden Arm, ca. 1956. Holograph manuscript. Music Division, Library of Congress (037.00.00)

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Sylvia Fine the Scholar

In addition to being a composer, lyricist, and producer, Sylvia Fine was also a scholar of the history of musical theater. In 1972 Fine taught a class on the subject, as a guest lecturer, at the University of Southern California. She later taught a similar course at Yale University. After these engagements, she used her research to create a 1979 PBS special, Musical Comedy Tonight. The show, a history of musical comedy, was narrated by Fine and included live performances by Broadway stars of scenes from musical productions. The special was such a success that two more shows were produced, in 1981 and 1985.

Sylvia Fine. Script for Musical Comedy Tonight, ca. 1979. Typescript. Page 2. Music Division, Library of Congress (040.00.00 and 040.01.00)

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Peabody Award for Musical Comedy Tonight

Sylvia Fine received much praise and awards for her 1979 PBS special Musical Comedy Tonight, but perhaps the greatest honor was wining a George Foster Peabody Award in 1980. The special traced the history of American musical comedy. It included performances by Broadway actors, lectures by Sylvia Fine, and interviews with historical figures.

Bob Deutsch, photographer. Danny Kaye and Sylvia Fine hold Sylvia Fine’s Peabody Award, 1980. Photograph. Music Division, Library of Congress (041.00.00)

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Sections: Danny Kaye Onstage | Danny Kaye in Film | Radio, Television, and Recordings | Sylvia Fine: The Woman Behind the Curtain | Humanitarian Efforts