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On 100th anniversary of Danny Kaye's birth, daughter Dena seeks to spread his legacy

NEW YORK, N.Y. - Dena Kaye frequently hears from people who have vivid stories about how her legendary father, Danny Kaye, affected their lives.
This undated publicity photo provided by PMK-BNC shows journalist and TV broadcaster Dean Kaye in Paris. (AP Photo/PMK-BNC, Philippe Lavieille)

NEW YORK, N.Y. - Dena Kaye frequently hears from people who have vivid stories about how her legendary father, Danny Kaye, affected their lives.

Whether it was through his movie performances, which ranged from slapstick to dramatic, or his crooning voice, his effortless dancing or his charitable works, for many, Kaye provided indelible memories that continue to be cherished to this day.

But as Dena Kaye explains, those comments are usually from those of a "certain generation" — translation, an older generation. Those fans were around when classics like "White Christmas" or his television shows and specials or his music were in the public consciousness.

Now, in the 100th year of his birth, Dena Kaye is determined to help a new generation discover the genius, and the generosity, of her father, who died in 1987 at age 74.

"That's one of the reasons why I am putting my heart into this centennial," said Kaye, her father's only child, during an interview. "My goal is the centennial is a springboard. And that if parents knew him, the fact that there's going to be more interest in him, that they'll take their children, their grandchildren."

So, Danny Kaye is now on Facebook with an official page. His website has been relaunched with plenty of multimedia. The Library of Congress unveiled its new Danny Kaye and Sylvia Fine Collection, where countless documents, including video, audio and photographs from Dena's parents' own collection, are available for examination on the Internet.

"We have a big following on Facebook and his website is getting a lot of attention," said Scott Mauro, a producer who is working with Dena Kaye to co-ordinate the centennial celebration.

There are also numerous concerts, tributes, and film screenings planned throughout the yearlong celebration, which officially kicked off last December (and included a Los Angeles-area screening of the classic "White Christmas," complete with man-made snow).

"Ultimately what's going to make this centennial successful in my mind is that the movies are out, the DVDs are out — that people see him," said Dena, a journalist. "You know, it's one thing to be honoured at a dinner, but really, the point is for people to experience (him)," she said.

Michael Feinstein, the singer known for his interpretation of the Great American Songbook, remembers singing as a child to Kaye's children's album, "Mommy, Gimme a Drinka Water." That started a lifelong love of Kaye for Feinstein, who paid a musical tribute to him during the Library of Congress unveiling this month.

"For the enormity of his talent, he is deeply neglected because — it may sound cliche — but there has never been anybody as unique as Danny. He has so many talents in the arts, so many disparate gifts, that by comparison, you'd have to name 10 different people with individual skills, all of which he could do.

"He had the comedic flair and elasticity of Jim Carrey, he had the grace of Fred Astaire as a dancer. He could sing like Bing Crosby, he was linguist, a conductor, a chef, an orator, a humanitarian — he also was a spectacular actor, a great dramatic actor. ... And there is nobody to whom he could be compared today, there's nobody who can do all of it," said Feinstein.

When Dena is asked about her father's gifts, she, like Feinstein, recounts his brilliance in many areas, like his penchant for conducting. And she also notes his passion for helping others, becoming Unicef's first celebrity ambassador and setting the modern-day model for today's charitable stars.

But she also likes to talk about a side not seen by his fans: his skill in the kitchen (he could make an amazing key lime pie, apparently), his intolerance for lateness, his refusal to put himself on a pedestal because of his fame: "He wasn't a snob. And he gave as much attention to a royal as he would to the milkman."

Dena recalls her father as tender, warm, and the "least judgmental person in my life.

"What he wanted was that I was a full human being, and however I got there, that was OK with him," she said, tearing up. "It's so hard, because it just makes me miss him so much."

Next month, the Museum of Moving Image in Queens, N.Y., will hold a gala tribute to Kaye, and later, the New York Pops will celebrate their 30th anniversary with a concert that will in part honour Kaye. Conductor Steven Reineke said the Pops plan to have a lot of young people in the audience so they can learn more about Kaye: "(We want to) keep the legacy of some of these great performers alive."

Even though Kaye spent her entire life with her father, she says that she has benefitted from the effort to have the public rediscover her father.

"You don't realize when someone dies until very much later that they're gone forever, and I feel, I must say, even though this is very emotional for me, I've been living with my father and mother in a way in the past year that I haven't done for my whole life," she said, "and it's wonderful to see him and to listen to him."




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