I first heard about Stubby Kaye in 2001 from Adam Gopnick, who was then interviewing me for a New Yorker feature (read it here). Not being a “musicals” person, I’d never heard of him. I’d seen Kaye’s energetic performances in the movies Guys and Dolls and Cat Ballou but the name never registered. Kaye had also appeared in a 1985 musical called Grind and Gopnick’s piece was about New Burlesque, so I think that was one reason he kept harping on Kaye, along with some vague idea that Kaye was a vaudeville and burlesque old-timer. But my research (admittedly minimal) hasn’t really uncovered anything of the sort. A couple of sources have him starting out on Major Bowes Radio Amateur Hour in 1939 and THEN going into vaudeville for several years. But since vaudeville was already dead by then, it’s hard to know what these sources mean by that. Presentation houses? Night clubs? Probably something along those lines. His breakthrough was the 1950 Broadway production of Guys and Dolls in which he essayed Nicely Nicely (“Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat). He was a familiar face on tv in the 1950s and 60s in children’s programs and game shows. His last screen role was in 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Born today in 1918 (with the given name Bernard Kotzin), he passed away in 1997.
To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.