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). Continue reading

Ethics Hero Emeritus: Robert M. McElwaine, 1925-2010

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