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Gift of Laughter

Posted on Wednesday, July 3, 2024
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by AMAC, Robert B. Charles
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23 Comments
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Sometimes looking back, we see reflections – of what could yet be. He was curious, intrepid, humble, and funny. He loved kids, and in a world shaped by two world wars, depression, waves of refugees, and millions of orphaned kids, he made people laugh. “All I want to be is funny,” he said – but he was far more, a marriage of hope and joy.

As if history repeats itself enough for a glimpse, his parents were Jewish-Ukrainian refugees, his early life was rough, but he loved America – and used the freedom he found to bring cheer. 

Naturally disposed to whimsy, a singer, dancer, and actor without ceiling, he loved life and helped others see what he saw, the value of laughter, our common foibles, follies, and unexpected turns of good fortune.

Those spiritually centered know his truth: You can only take with you what you give away. From his youth to old age, he gave and gave, laughter, an escape from life’s darkness, hope.

Youngest of three boys, he was generous, gentle, and irrepressible. When his mother died in his early teens, he ran away from home, aiming to make money in Vaudeville. He did, but not enough.

His misfortunes only prove success requires failure, greatness is built on pain, big things come from caring more about them than critics, and hope teaches hope. Doubting himself, he worked for an insurance company and got fired for a big mistake. Working for a dentist, he got fired again, using the drills on wood paneling. Kids do dumb stuff, and he did too.

He went back to entertaining, added pantomimes, funny faces, clever new steps, quick lyrics, and different accents. People laughed. In the 1930s, depression dogging America, and people still laughed.

They liked this kid, a big nose, and light hair, and took him on tour, the Far East. He brought his hope and laughter with him. Unable to understand Chinese, and hungry for chicken, he acted out being a chicken, nose in the pose. He got two eggs.

Catskills summers, film clips for nothing, a stint on Broadway, he finally got a movie in 1944, mid-war, “Up in Arms.” Nothing special, he got noticed. Producers said “Change your nose,” he said “No thanks,” volunteered for USO shows after WWII, made rattled men laugh, brought peace to broken souls, and helped the shattered get whole, something that became his life’s role.

Life is funny. He was funny. His life was funny. He wanted to be married but no luck. Years on, he met a pianist, fell in love, and eloped. His wife, Sylvia Fine, was the wind beneath his wings, herself the daughter of a dentist… the exact one who had once fired him.

A dozen times, he failed and got up with hope. He personified Churchill’s conviction, “success is moving from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm,” and Reagan’s tale of the boy shoveling the overfilled stall, “gotta be a pony in here somewhere!”

Here is the part you do not know because those of good heart so often leave it untold. From 1949 to 1987, he was the spokesman, a traveling source of comfort, for the world’s children – performing in refugee camps, disasters, warzones, impoverished villages, little publicity, just a herald of laugher.

Like an angel in comic clothes, he traveled and traveled, when not filming. He traveled so often that he learned to fly, and flew to hundreds of locations, with no glory. He was the spokesman for the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, what we called UNICEF, orange boxes at Halloween.

He became a force, a one-man show, joy married to hope, hope to action, giving no quarter to what drags others down, a believer in laughter’s power to heal. He saw it, believed in it, and made it his centerpiece. He called it “the most rewarding thing I have ever done in my life,” laughter to children.

Later he said, “I believe … that children are more powerful than oil, more beautiful than rivers, more precious than any other natural resource a country can have.” How true and timeless that heart is.

So, who is this man, whose love of life, laughter, and children – whose innate resilience, resolve to give, and desire to live is like a warm breeze on a chilly day, who quietly showed us the way?

Well, ten to one, you know him, just not who he really was. You laughed at a patter or rhyme, this husband of Sylvia Fine. You know him as the host for “The Wizard of Oz,” “Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” Bing Crosby’s pal in “White Christmas,” “Court Jester,” “Inspector General,” and “Hans Christian Anderson.”

He was in “Knock on Wood,” “The Five Pennies” with Louis Armstrong, was Captain Hook opposite Mia Farrow in “Peter Pan,” the quintessential funny man. He was on “the Muppet Show” and “Twilight Zone.”  Perfect pitch, he could not read music, but topped the charts.

He loved to cook, fly, sing, dance, joke, and bring joy to all corners of the earth, performed for kings and queens, and those of no means. Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan, and he took his final bow in 1987.

So, who is this light-hearted wonder, wise man who played the fool, entertainer adored around the world, American Dream who reminds us the past reflects what can be? Who is this good heart from some latter-day – none other than Danny Kaye.

Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman for AMAC.

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Gary Bowling
Gary Bowling
11 days ago

I remember him well and always enjoyed Danny Kaye. But I wanted to comment on Robert Charles’ article and how beautifully written it is! Great job Charles!

mikem
mikem
11 days ago

danny kaye was truly heaven sent.

Rob citizenship
Rob citizenship
11 days ago

Danny Kaye — He set a good example , by being who he was — respectable, kind , thoughtful . This article is appreciated RBC , because although I saw Danny Kaye on. television many times during 1950’s and 1960’s never knew very much about his history. His respectful, uplifting sense of humor was a very positive influence on people. Caring for others as he did was truly admirable. These good qualities are needed in American culture today. Good character, a respectful sense of humor, helps to give purpose in life and is a strength builder for sure.

Jack Coupal
Jack Coupal
11 days ago

“The vessel with the pestle has the brew that is true”

Granny
Granny
11 days ago

I totally loved Danny Kaye and he was the perfect foil for everyone he acted beside…and boy could he dance!!!!!!!

Melinda
Melinda
11 days ago

Right now we could use a Danny Kaye to relieve the country’s depressing conundrums, but sadly, humor is no longer appreciated by those who need it most.

Jane Heinsman
Jane Heinsman
11 days ago

Danny Kaye—He was great! I loved his variety show when I was a teenager in the 60s, and my admiration for him has never diminished! Thank you for a beautifully written article!!

Broccoli Free Zone
Broccoli Free Zone
11 days ago

That, ladies and gentlemen, is how to build a mother lode of treasure in Heaven.

John
John
10 days ago

Loved watching him perform… was always entertaining, seemed light and happy, provided many of us with great pleasure.

anna hubert
anna hubert
11 days ago

Why is it that communist regimes are not able to laugh at themselves don’t like humor and if anyone dared he would become an enemy of the state Humor and laughter is not desirable Here we see it as well Left does not allow humor as if it were scared of it Perhaps because it holds the mirror up Everywhere where situation becomes intolerable jokes sprout It can’t be stopped

Mrs. B. L. Kirby
Mrs. B. L. Kirby
9 days ago

I loved the article on Danny Kaye. Am 95 yrs old, watched him as a child and enjoyed every minute of everything he was doing. Such a precious person. Was raised in a family that knew no difference between people of different backgrounds. My first playmate was a colored girl who lived diagonally across the street. When living in Colorado our home always had our black neighbor in for breakfast every Saturday and anytime during the week he wanted to come in. He was the only negro living in town and we were blessed to see his grandson visit him every summer. His grandson and my nephew were buddies all summer long. It reinforces the fact that the Lord made us who we are for his glory. Thank you so much for the great article and a wonderful reminder of a “time past”.

David
David
9 days ago

It’s not Christmas without watching White Christmas!

Mike
Mike
10 days ago

I loved Danny Kaye as a child. He made me laugh so hard and I’ll always remember his kind face. This article is spot on and he was a talented, funny man. God truly handed us down an angel when Danny Kaye was born.

Randall L. Beatty
Randall L. Beatty
10 days ago

I remember him he was a great actor I remember him in White Christmas great movie.But he has been in other movies that were also great.

Jimmy P
Jimmy P
10 days ago

Danny Kaye, an American Treasure.

rupright
rupright
11 days ago

I’ve always found Mr. Kaye to be vastly over-rated as a comedian and actor. He always hammed it up and over-acted, often diminishing the humor in the piece. Maybe he was a good person, but I never found him funny.

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