An Act Of Kindness, Danny Kaye And Me : An Ethics Case Study

Brian Childers

This isn’t a Christmas tale exactly, but it is a deeply personal one that will always make a big difference in how I make decisions in my life. It is episode that taught me, once and for all, that when you do the right thing, the amount of good that can come from it is unpredictable and sometimes unimaginable.

Maybe it will inspire you too.

In 2001, my friend Bob McElwaine handed me a script and a CD of a musical he had been working on about his long-time friends and clients, entertainer Danny Kaye and his wife, song writer Sylvia Fine. Bob was in his 70s, retired, a former Hollywood publicist and later an association executive who had taken up writing musicals with his childhood buddy, legendary movie score bassist Bob Bain (that’s Bain you hear playing the famous bass instrumental on the “Bonanza” theme…

…and the melody line in “The Munsters” intro too.)

McElwaine knew I was a long-time Danny Kaye admirer. He had been a wealth of information for me about Kaye when I was directing “Lady in the Dark,” the Broadway show that had made Danny a star in 1941, for the American Century Theater years before. One day, Bob asked me, as a favor, if I would agree to workshop the new piece, direct it, and see how it turned out in front of an audience.

I was not enthusiastic about the project, not at all. I had my ethics business as well as the theater to oversee; I had just finished directing a show, requiring me to be out of the house every weekday night and all day Saturday, and I thought the piece itself was too old-fashioned and formulaic to work. Mostly, however, I didn’t see how anyone could be a credible Danny Kaye, since Kaye was a unique performer—he wasn’t exactly a comedian, or a singer, or a dancer, yet  all of these and more—that has never had a close equivalent since. I was trying to find a way to turn Bob down nicely when I watched a performance of the show I had just gotten up and running. A young man named Brian Childers who was only in his second professional role played the romantic lead, and that night, for some reason, he handled a scene differently than I had ever seen him do it before—and for maybe three seconds, probably because Bob had just put the late performer’s image in my short term memory, reminded me of Danny Kaye.

After the performance I asked Brian if he would be interested in playing Kaye in this new musical, and he enthusiastically agreed, saying he was a huge Danny Kaye fan. (Later I learned that he barely knew who he was).

All right: with a credible Kaye, though I knew my inexperienced Danny would require a lot of work to handle  the role, I was convinced for the first time that the project wasn’t impossible, just absurdly risky. I would do this show as a favor to Bob, and as I knew how much it meant to him, I wanted to. I refused to take a fee, for this was a kindness, I felt, for someone who had been so kind to me. Bob paid the production costs, and after some lobbying by me, the theater agreed to sponsor it as a no-cost way to get some publicity and exposure outside of Northern Virginia. Bob had arranged to do the show for a week’s run in Bethesda, using the small theater of a writers organization where he chaired the board. We would do five performances, and that, I was pretty sure, would be that. Bob would be happy; the theater wouldn’t lose anything, and Brian would have another profession credit and a (small) check.

My wife was not happy: we had a five-year-old, and directing shows meant my substantial absence in the evenings and my preoccupation with production issues during the day.  I also recruited two good friends and long time theatrical collaborators to help me try to make less of a bomb out of Bob and Bob’s creation. Tom Fuller agreed to do the musical direction and conducting; Loren Platzman agreed to work on the arrangements. Jacqueline Manger, who later took over (and nailed ) the role of Sylvia, handled the choreography and collaborated on the staging.

Brian was terrified before we began rehearsals, . When I played him recordings of Danny Kaye’s various novelty songs, including Kaye’s trademark scat-singing and patter numbers, and after he watched Kaye’s unique physical clowning on videos, Brian blanched and told me that he didn’t think he could do the role.

“I can’t do that!” he protested. “Nobody can do that!”

“You’re right,” I said. “But Danny Kaye is gone and almost forgotten, and if you can do 75% of what he could do the way he did it, that will be impressive enough.”

One reason I had allowed myself to be talked into this project was that Danny Kaye had already played a significant role in my life.  My father had seen him in several concert performances and was a great fan. The first non-child’s recording I owned was “Pure Delight,” an LP containing Kaye’s most famous ballads and patter songs. My father gave it to me as a Christmas gift was I was about 10, and I wore it out. Kaye’s lightning fast comedy numbers, all but a couple written by Sylvia, got me interested in Gilbert and Sullivan, which in turn got me interested in musical theater, which dominated my high school and college years. My strange law school career as the proprietor/director/founder of a law student musical theater organization was directly responsible for my first job (the Dean wanted to keep me around so the shows could continue, and created a job for me), and that job was where I met the remarkable woman who would become my wife, best friend and business partner. And it was a fellow grad’s memories of my directing that led him to engage me, 20 years later,  as a speaking coach for his new venture as a legal ethics trainer. His company, through many twists and turns, became mine.

Danny Kaye, in short, had been the butterfly whose flapping wings had helped determine the path of the storm of my strange existence. As it turned out, there was another flap or two left.

I worked hard to make Bob’s flawed show bearable in ways large and small. I cut, I re-wrote lines, devised wordless comic bits, even rewrote a song. I browbeat Bob into letting me added two more Kaye standards to the original score, which originally only had one, the Ira Gershwin list of Russian composers that Danny had spit out, clear as a Russian bell, as the showstopper in “Lady in the Dark,” making him a Broadway star in 1941.

Meanwhile, Brian was demonstrating taht I had made an incredibly lucky choice. He was an unusually dedicated and determined professional, and had talents I never imagined. He read books about Danny, watched all of his movies and TV shows, rehearsed his unique postures, movements, hand gestures and facial expressions for hours on his own after our rehearsals. Finally, just two days after the Twin Towers fell, “Danny and Sylvia” opened before a surprisingly large audience (with the wonderful Janine Gulisano as Sylvia). It was going to be reviewed, and I dreaded what I was certain was going to be a flop. With all of Brian’s work, and all of the massaging Tom, Loren and I had done to the material, I still didn’t like the show. Brian had made astounding progress at channeling Danny: he was getting very close to that 75% we had been aiming for, but many of the songs still seemed generic and derivative, and the dialogue and plot, despite all our repairs, were still tepid.

The audience, however, went bananas. They loved everything, and especially Brian. The mostly older audience, who obviously were Kaye aficionados, responded to him as if he was Danny Kaye. When he ended the show, as the real Danny ended all of his, with Kaye’s audience-response version of “Minnie the Moocher,”—one of my best additions to the script, if I do say so myself—the audience cheered and rose to a standing ovation immediately.

I was shocked, and remained shocked, if pleasantly shocked, as the show sold out the brief run. All the reviews were flat-out raves, and the audience response kept getting even more uproarious as Brian gained confidence and nuance with the material. Bob, of course, was floating on a cloud.

The American Century Theater decided to begin its next season with the production, and the reaction was the same in Northern Virginia as in Maryland: raves, cheers, sold out audiences and standing ovations. Audiences couldn’t get enough of it. There were three more productions, all with Brian but several Sylvias, in the D.C. metropolitan area, New York, New Jersey, and eventually London, though the latter had a different (and lesser) Danny. After the dust cleared, the American Century Theater had made nearly $40,000 in profits on the show, making it, by far, the most successful in the company’s 20 year history. That $40,000 also made its last 14 years possible.

Brian, meanwhile, won the prestigious D.C. Helen Hayes Award for the outstanding performance by an actor in a musical, the only major award our company ever recieved.  He moved to New York to seek stardom and fame, telling me that he was so grateful for everything the show had done for his career, but that he had to move on. He had played Danny Kaye for the last time, he said.

Wrong. Neither Bob nor I knew it, but there was a cabaret Danny Kaye circuit, and Brian’s reviews and reputation had moved him to the top of it by reputation. He played Danny in a different musical in Florida, then was hired to do a Kaye set about the Brooklyn Dodgers at an all-star 100th anniversary of the Dodgers at the Hollywood bowl. Then came another New York production off-Broadway that ran for more than a year.

Brian is a lot more than Danny Kaye today: he’s a successful working actor in New York, and sufficiently respected and recognized by the Broadway community to be invited to be part of all-star events like this one, just last week:

Jews on Broadway

Last year, as a favor to me, Brian brought Danny Kaye back to the American Century Theater in a one-man show he  developed for us, recreating the experience the of Kaye concert performances for which he was famous: it was one of these which hooked my father.

Brian was and is astounding: he has left 75% in the dust. Skeptical Danny Kaye lovers who had seen the genuine article returned to watch Brian again and again, and every performance ended with cheers, a standing ovation, and, of course, “Minnie the Moocher.” I must have watched the show 15 times. I have not been as happy since.

Now that show is being handled by a national booking agent: if it comes to your community, see it.

Looking back to 2000, when all this started, I still find the progression of events difficult to believe. One small favor, done for a friend as a kindness, exploded into so many good things. Bob McElwaine had a show business success that gave him so much enjoyment, pride and satisfaction in his last years, and also, as he told me, allowed him to give a final salute to  two friends and colleagues who were at the center of his career. Brian Childers got that fortunate break that allowed him to demonstrate his talents and to begin what is certain to be a long and storied career in one of the most competitive fields there is. The American Century Theater was strengthened and enriched, allowing it to complete its 20 year run. The company ended in the black, and four other deserving theater companies are receiving the funds to advance their impressive work. Without “Danny and Sylvia,” there would have been no money to give.

And thousands and thousands of people have laughed and applauded as they experienced the magic of Danny Kaye through Brian’s brilliance and artistry. That pays back some of my debt to Danny, too. So many audience members, after performances, talked to Brian Childers and were shocked to hear him say that nobody, not even he, could equal the original. “He was better than you?” they said, amazed. “How is that possible? I better check him out; he must be incredible.” They do, too. Danny Kaye was a tortured, miserable, insecure, bitter man who could only be loving, warm, giving and happy when he was performing. Thanks to Brian, that Danny lives. The good one. A greater gift to Danny Kaye, I cannot conceive of.

And me? I never made a cent off of any of this, nor did the show I directed for Bob open doors to theatrical fame and opportunity. My rewards were  greater and more durable than money or fame. Wisdom, for one thing.  I know that I set in motion a series of events that resulted in many wonderful things for  many people, just by saying “Yes” to a request from a friend for a favor, just by being kind without expecting anything in return.  I learned that I have the power to do it again. So do you.

Just look what happened!

Amazing.

You see, miracles still happen, if you give them a chance.

Here’s Danny.

27 thoughts on “An Act Of Kindness, Danny Kaye And Me : An Ethics Case Study

  1. I saw Danny Kaye in Boston in “Two by Two.” He had broken his foot and still performed with plenty of audience interaction. He mentioned flying during the show and I didn’t realize he was a pilot.. Former part owner of Seattle baseball team.

  2. My dad was in a doo-wop group during the 50’s that had a modest degree of success. They toured a little bit, cut a few records on one of the local labels, and were even invited to the Ed Sullivan show. That fell apart due to a jealous wife who, ironically, ended up being the unfaithful one in that marriage (not my dad’s). Anyway, my dad helped a young guy get his start, apparently introducing him to influential people instead of promoting his own group, realizing that their moment had probably passed. This guy was Gene Pitney.

  3. Wonderful story, Jack.

    My mom took me to see Danny Kaye at the Schubert Theater in Philadelphia. I don’t recall the particulars, but I do remember his physical comedy (think Dick Van Dyke) and how he led the audience from high comedy to emotional despair and back again. I remember being so engrossed that I actually rode the emotional roller coaster he orchestrated.

    • Danny was unpopular among his colleagues because he soft-pedaled his Jewish origins to the extreme, unlike Sid Caesar, Jerry Lewis, Milton Berle, Eddie Canter…despite doing yiddish and Russian dialect bits frequently.

      • That’s interesting. I guess assimilation is a tough thing. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t. It’s just amazing the way they all thrived. I always think of the story from the Old Testament where a prophet gets thrown in an oven (Joshua?) with his trumpet. They light the fire and next thing you know he’s strutting around in the flames conducting a jam session. ‘If life gives you lemons, make lemonade,’ has to be Yiddish.

        My aunt was one of those rabid Danny Kaye fans of that generation. Fortunately, he was presented with an honorary degree by Hamilton College in 1973 at my class’s graduation. So my Aunt got to see him (“That’s Danny Kaye!) walking around the campus unobtrusively. He was a big guy it seemed. Over six feet four? Big shoulders. A surprisingly imposing presence and quite a physical specimen which probably accounts for his physical comedy. He must have been a natural athlete.

        • Danny looked big because he had long, long arms and legs (and broad shoulders that were emphasized by the shoulder padding of the period), but he was actually just a tad over 6 feet. He was an unbelievable natural athlete, like a lot of the great physical comics. When he was hired as an emergency to take over for Donald O’Connor in “White Christmas,” he was told that they didn’t have time to extensively re-choreograph, and Kaye had no dancing training or experience. Bob told me that Vera-Ellen, the dancers and everyone else were just flabbergasted how quickly he picked it all up

  4. My rewards were greater and more durable than money or fame.

    And deserved. And you’re the kind of guy who’d fully appreciate those rewards too, so they are utterly appropriate.

    After seeing that Otchi Chornya clip I got the homage to it – and Kaye’s other works – in Leher’s “Nikolai Ivanovich Lobachevski”. I am never forget….

    See also http://www.sing365.com/music/lyric.nsf/Lobachevsky-lyrics-Tom-Lehrer/D97B21BF6516390448256A7D0024B8B9

    My first original paper wasn’t on ” The Analytic and algebraic topology of
    locally Euclidean parameterization of infinitely differentiable
    Riemannian manifolds.” – it was a little broader, on Euclidean paramaterisation of non-Euclidean geometries generally, spherical and hyper-spherical (Riemannian) manifolds (surfaces). Basically, how a Flat Earth (Euclidean) model works pretty well on a spheroidal Earth as long as you’re only walking to a corner store.

    • Nice to see posts by people who’ve known and worked with you in your directorial capacity, Jack. Appreciation of another of your personae in each of those areas doubles your value to both … or triples, considering the entries of legal eagles … or quadruples considering the ethicists who have named, re-posted and argued with you (appreciation by respected adversaries is appreciation indeed).

      As far as this member of this audience is concerned, your varied contribution to the history of American popular culture is just as valuable as it is to informing on the ethics of the present.

    • 1. What a nice way to flag a typo!
      2. I fixed it, thanks.
      3. Gee, your typos deciphering must be in sharp declined. The phrase was “devided wordless comic bits.” What would “dividing” wordless comic bits consist of?. “Devised wordless comic bits,” in contrast, makes sense in context and in language.
      4. Another clue: the S and D are next to each other on my keyboard. I’d say about 75% of my typos are the result of this phenomenon.

      • Dividing them would be what would happen if they were broken up into smaller pieces, say by putting a bit of business in to allow time for something like a costume change to happen off stage. You know, the sort of separation that Hamlet’s soliloquy provides. So both adjustments to the typo made sense, and if only one springs to your mind, that is easily accounted for by the fact that it was the meaning that you already had in your mind. But that is not an attribute of yours into the workings of which you have given readers sufficient access to discern such things; we are hedged about by your words and the variations thereof.

  5. Jack, you drove me higher than I ever thought I’d reach, both onstage and as a tech designer; when I didn’t want to strangle you, I loved working with you. But maybe the best thing I ever saw with your name on it, even better than anything I ever did with you (and you know what my ego’s like) was “Danny and Sylvia”.

  6. Ive never been a fan of Kayes. He was extremely talented but I always found him annoying. Which is strange because I love Bert Lahr and they both are doing the same type of vaudeville borscht belt comedy and Kaye is even better at it.

    • You had lots of company. There was a significant group that found a lot of Kaye’s stuff cloying and smarmy, including some critics who saw him as desperate for love and attention (which he was). Lahr always had an edge. On the other hand, even Danny Doubters usually ended up cheering at the live concerts. In person, he was almost irresistible. You would also appreciate Kaye’s serious acting—like so many comics but better than most, he was a excellent at straight drama.

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