Danny Kaye and Me

It’s interesting the way one word or phrase can trigger an entire memory. Here’s an example.

Surfing websites, I came across a site advertising Callaway golf equipment, and it immediately reminded me of an essay I’d once read by a man who had grown up listening to Danny Kaye’s version of the classic Cab Calloway song, “Minnie the Moocher,” had practiced it with his brother, and had gone to one of Kaye’s concerts to prove how good he, himself, could be. I don’t remember the author, but I remember the part about Danny Kaye challenging the audience to a string of “Hi de hi de hi de ho” choruses.

I have a special fondness for Danny Kaye. Obviously I never met him, but whenever I stayed home sick, my mother would bend the “no TV before five pm” rule, and since I hate cartoons, and never got into soap operas, that generally meant reruns of Star Trek or old movie musicals. Since there are far more musicals than TOS episodes, I saw a lot of Danny Kaye.

My two favorite Kaye performances are the “pellet with the poison” bit from The Court Jester and the “Russian Composer song” from one of his other movies, in which he played a prize fighter. I think it was The Kid from Brooklyn.

I had, as a small girl, and have still today, a rich internal fantasy life. I’m rarely lonely, rarely bored. Escaping into a world where Danny Kaye sang about a gazillion Russian composers in 28 seconds was exactly the sort of thing I used to do. While we all have voices in our heads from time to time, mine don’t belong to my mother or my grandmother, but one of them belongs to Danny Kaye.

The last performance of his that I ever saw was an episode of The Cosby Show in which he played the best dentist ever. He died when I was in high school. I always regretted never having written him fan mail, even though I don’t believe in writing fan mail, generally.

There was a point to this piece, really, but it’s gotten muddled, because in my head, all I can hear are strains of Danny Kaye singing “Minnie the Moocher.”

Folk’s here’s the story ’bout Minnie the Moocher
she was a red hot hoochie coocher
she was the roughest, toughest frail
but Minnie had a heart a big as a whale