The pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle; the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true… Danny Kaye in and as The Court Jester, 1956.
On Wednesday, March 4, 1987, seventy-six-year-old David Daniel Kaminsky, known to the world as Danny Kaye, died. Four years earlier, he contracted hepatitis as a result of receiving tainted blood during a transfusion while undergoing heart surgery. Kaye’s clown’s heart succumbed at four in the morning.
I remember when he was hospitalized. In the dead of winter, at three am, I woke with a start. In order to fill the disturbing silence, I opened a radio just in time to hear the hourly news; “In Los Angeles, Danny Kaye undergoes heart surgery…”
Six weeks later, my father was dead. I’d never known a world without my father, and I’d never known a world without Danny Kaye. They were born six years apart and died four years apart, short of a month, of hearts so full that they burst; both, on a Wednesday. The two men were manifestations of the same spirit.
I first saw Danny Kaye on his weekly television show in the early nineteen sixties. I was eight years old. It was a revelation. Here was someone as warm and fresh and funny as my father. The identification was so powerful that I took to calling him “Daddy Kaye.” When I was twelve, my parents purchased tickets for me and my little brother for a matinee of Kaye’s one-man show. He was past his prime; on the last of his world tours. No matter. I was entranced by Kaye’s dancing fingers, his twinkling eyes, and his witty rubber face. Later, I cut out the program cover and tacked it on the outside of my bedroom’s closet door, where it hung for years. Whether I was practising piano or reading in bed, Danny Kaye was always winking at me. Eventually, my mother had him laminated. Today Kaye is perched on the wall above my computer work station.
In the days before streaming, before DVDS and even before video, in my early teens there was a series of old MGM features being screened at a local cinema. Two of the movies being shown were those of Danny Kaye. There was a suggestion box in the lobby. With an assortment of multi-coloured pencils and the forged handwriting of non-existent fans, I demanded more Danny Kaye. I got it, too. I was a creative writer, even then.
On a business trip to Toronto, my father found a recording of the soundtrack to the film Hans Christian Andersen, and a double album filled with musical monologues and tongue-twisting patter songs going back forty-five years. My father handed me the records and scratched his head. “Nu, ein Gott und ein Danny Kaye.” I can still reel off, by heart, the lyrics to Anatole of Paris and Tschaikovsky.
When I was fifteen, my mother took me down to New York and Broadway to see the musical comedy-drama Two by Two. Kaye played the bible’s Noah as a beleaguered Jewish patriarch harassed by a demanding God and equally demanding children. Just before the houselights dimmed, over a loudspeaker a disembodied voice intoned, “Ladies and gentleman, there will be a change in the program tonight…” I gripped my mother’s hand, and I think I heard her heart stop. An understudy was replacing Joan Copeland, who played Noah’s wife. (In real life, Joan Copeland was Arthur Miller’s sister.) I released my mother’s hand, and we both began breathing again.
At the curtain call, Kaye singled out a young actress in the cast, and brought her downstage to say hello to her parents, who were in the audience that evening.
Two years later Kaye was back in Montreal to receive an award at an Israel bond dinner. Through back channels, my mother wrangled a ticket for me. Imagine, I got to spend an entire evening watching Danny Kaye eat! I also got to attend the kind of function which was one of the prime targets of my father’s merciless mockery. This particular evening outdid even his wild satire. It was an Anti-Semite’s Delight of boorishness and vulgarity. At the end of the evening, Kaye rose to give what one assumed was going to be an acceptance speech. Instead, he launched into a maniacal impromptu monologue parodying the idiocies of the evening. He was screamingly funny. Everyone was howling so hard that they failed to recognize how savagely they were being insulted.
Two years later, Kaye returned to give a benefit concert with and for the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. I couldn’t attend because I was out of town. I got in the same evening, and in the morning read how Kaye had entered from the rear of the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier auditorium, tossing batons at the two-thousand seat audience. And I missed it.
I have thought it would be interesting to compare notes with Danny Kaye’s daughter. People would tell me what a riot it must be to live with my father. They did not perceive the underlying fury that fuels greet satire, nor that this radiant form of outrageousness is also a form of transcendence. The difference between a village idiot and a court jester is awareness, and these two jesters were shrewd enough to mask their brilliance in controlled lunacy, knowing that in a mad world, playing the madcap is the most creative way of staying sane. When I’d be asked what my father was like, I’d answer, “An East European Danny Kaye.” The parallel took on poignant irony in the TV movie Skokie, when the zany who occasionally took on dramatic roles, here, played a Holocaust survivor.
My paternal grandfather did not have the foresight of Dena Kaye’s—or perhaps it was desperation. Mine was a merchant in Poland; hers was a tailor who’d emigrated from the Pale. My grandfather stayed in Eastern Europe and most of my ancestors were murdered there. When Kaye’s father was becoming a star on Broadway, mine was hiding in Central Asia. They entered each other’s orbits but once, at an Israel Bond Drive in 1949, when the refugee from Hitler’s Europe approached the American entertainer and shook his hand. Struggling to carve a new life in a new land, my father shortened it, but he left my mother, my brother and me the legacy of laughter. It is the same legacy his American counterpart left to the world.
My father wasn’t famous, and the only celebrity he knew was as a Pied Piper to his children and their friends. When David Kaminsky died, I fantasized that when he reached the place my dad called The Other Side, Abram Zajdman was waiting at the gate to shake his hand, and this time he would be recognized as a kindred blithe spirit, and a chorus of jiving angels would be snapping their fingers and flapping their wings, while Louis Armstrong wailed on his trumpet as rapturously as he did in the film The Five Pennies, and what mischief and merriment there promised to be as these two saints went marchin’ in.