Tag Archives: Danny Kaye
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). Continue reading
I just watched“White Christmas” again when my wife wasn’t around (she hates it), and was again struck by how entertaining it manages to be while making no sense at all and containing one ethics breach or gaffe after another. Ethics Alarms did an ethics review of the film in 2012, and reading it now, I realize I was too kind. This is an update.
Yes, I still get a lump in my throat when the old general, played by Dean Jagger, gets saluted by his reunited army unit, which has gathered at his struggling, snowless, Vermont inn on Christmas Eve to remind him that he is still remembered and loved. Nonetheless, it is by far the strangest of the Christmas movies, and also the most unethical. Though everything works out in the end, the characters in the sloppy plot spend the whole movie lying, extorting, betraying, manipulating and generally mistreating each other, always with no recriminations at all, and usually with no consequences either.
The movie starts out with guilt extortion. Army private Phil Davis (Danny Kaye) rescues his smooth-singing captain, Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) from being crushed by a falling wall in a World War II bombing raid. (It’s not a plot feature, but the battlefield set for the entire opening sequence is itself unethical by being chintzy even by musical standards: it looks like they are filming a skit for a Bob Hope Christmas Special. I thought it was lousy when I saw it as a kid.) Phil then uses Wallace’s debt of gratitude to coerce him into accepting the aspiring comic as a partner in Wallace’s already successful civilian act. This is obviously unfair and exploitative, but Bing accepts the ploy with good spirits, and the next we see the new team of Wallace and Davis knocking ’em dead and rising in the ranks of stage stars. Now they have a show on Broadway, and as a favor to a mutual army buddy, they agree to watch the boonies nightclub act of “The Haynes Sisters” (Rosemary Clooney as Betty. and Vera-Ellen, of wasp-waist fame, as kid sister Judy. Did you know that in the “Sisters” number, Clooney sang both parts? ). Bing is immediately smitten with older sister Rosemary, but there is a tiff over the fact that younger sister Judy fooled them into seeing their act: she, not her brother, had sent the letter asking for a “favor.”
This is the first revealed of many lies woven into the script. This one is a double beach of ethics: Judy uses her brother’s name and contacts without his permission or knowledge, and lures Wallace and Davis to the night club under false pretenses.
Bing dismisses Judy’s cheat by noting that everyone “has an angle” in show business, so he’s not angry. Rosemary is, though, and reprimands Bing for being cynical. That’s right: Vera/Judy uses their brother’s name to trick two Broadway stars into watching their little act, and Rosemary/ Betty is annoyed because Bing/Bob (Bing’s bandleader, look-alike, sound-alike brother was also named Bob) shrugs off the lie as show business as usual. True, Betty is technically correct to flag the Everybody Does It rationalization, but shouldn’t she be grateful that Bob isn’t reaming out the Haynes sisters and leaving the club in a huff? OK, nice and uncynical is better than nice and cynical, but Bob is still giving her and Judy a break.
As we soon find out, however, Betty is prone to flying off the handle.
My least favorite website, the ethically challenged Gawker, became the latest media source to publish rapidly spreading tales of the gay sexual escapades of a well-known Hollywood leading man who is also married, has children, attracts a great deal of positive publicity because of his family life, and, to cap it all off, is a high-profile member of a church (the Church of Scientology) that has in the past treated homosexuality as a curable malady. A book is coming out, and the author is pumping up interest in the tabloids.
The ethical question: is this legitimate news? Should it be reported? If it isn’t news, but rather a vile and mean-spirited invasion of privacy, then Gawker, as usual, is wading in slime. If, however, it is news, then why is the mainstream media ignoring the story?
This is a messy ethical conflict. Continue reading
Kitty Kelley’s unauthorized, rip-the-mask-off-the-icon bio is out, and now Oprah Winfrey must weather the inevitable de-construction of some of her meticulously self-created image. Oprah is pretty much untouchable now; I was a guest at her “O” Magazine Expo last Fall in Kansas City, and it was clear that her status with he legion of followers is somewhere between a guru and a goddess. There aren’t many revelations, short of proving that she is secretly Dick Cheney in an elaborate disguise, that could do much to reduce her cultural influence or undo her popularity.
Still, it used to be that heroes, celebrities and cultural icons could count on the whole truth about their personal and career embellishments to surface only late in life, or more often, long after death. Thus it has been a standard tool of rising figures in America to carefully craft an inspiring story and an appealing persona that excite and engage the public, and the truth has had little to do with it. It’s worked, too. Continue reading
Every time I hear about a new tell-all book by a famous person’s former lover, spouse, political aide or appointee, full of embarrassing revelations about what celebrities, political leaders or admired (or reviled) historical figures did or said behind closed doors or in the dead of night, I admire Bob McElwaine just a little more. When he died this month, the Washington Post obituary described him as a man who knew how to keep a secret. He did, but he was much more than that.
Robert McElwaine was a gentleman. Continue reading