Brooklyn kid Danny Kaye (born David Daniel Kaminsky on this day in 1913) started out in small time vaudeville and Catskills resorts at the tender age of 13. After many summers working as a tumler, he met the woman who was to become his manager, primary writer (of both songs and comic material), and wife, Sylvia Fine (they married in 1940). It was she who penned the many tongue-twisting patter songs and foreign dialect routines for which he was most famous. Following smash success in Manhattan cabarets and the Broadway shows Lady in the Dark (1940) and Let’s Face It (1941-43), he began his movie career, largely modeled on those of Harold Lloyd and Eddie Cantor. Notable films included Up in Arms (1944, based on Cantor’s Whoopee!), The Kid from Brooklyn (1946, based on Lloyd’s The Milky Way), The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), The Inspector General (1949), Hans Christian Andersen (1952), White Christmas (1954), and The Court Jester (1956, in which he introduced his famous “pellet with the poison” routine — which no one ever seems to mention, is pinched from Cantor’s Roman Scandals). His last starring feature was The Man from the Diner’s Club (1963, written by William Peter Blatty, directed by Frank Tashlin). In 1953, he headlined one of the famous vaudeville revival shows at the Palace to great acclaim.
By the 60s, his box office appeal had wound down, and he became a non-stop presence on television, appearing constantly on variety shows and in guest spots in sit-coms and dramas. He was also a familiar face as the Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF, and a familiar voice in the 1971 Rankin-Bass special Here Comes Peter Cottontail. He passed away in 1987.
To find out more about vaudeville performers like Danny Kaye, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on slapstick comedy don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube