Danny Kaye is perhaps the only 67-year-old man who can turn any given roomful of people into 6-year-olds. The way he does it has something to do with talking funny, making faces, falling down if necessary, and impeccable, perfect, incredible timing. And also something he called "rapoport" with the audience.
It was not necessary for him to fall down last night. Accepting an award for his 26 years of work with UNICEF from the B'nai B'rith International, the all-time champion giggle-maker; took his audience of 1,000 or so grown-ups from seriousness to silliness in one half-hour of talk at the Sheraton-Washington.
He started by telling them to remain standing so they could adjust their shirts and skirts. He suggested they all sing "Happy Birthday" without saying for whom, and then asked them why they were standing up like fools. Then he made faces for the photographers "for 20 seconds" so they would go away.
"From the time I can remember, friends," he began in earnest, stentorian tones, "I think by osmosis, by indoctrination, by education and absorption, I have always been led to believe that the members of a particular faith are blessed with great intelligence, great creativity, great imagination, and an adorable kind of chutzpah . . . so I wonder, who was the committee, or the group of people, who in their intelligence, their imagination, their creativity" -- he paused just that second for the set-up -- "picked Washington in September for an international conference?"
Then he uttered a Yiddish phrase which those who knew said meant "you can get killed here."
Kaye, born David Daniel Kaminski in Brooklyn, was the son of a tailor who dropped out of school in his teens and went on to become famous by being the first man (as far as recorded history knows) to sing a song ("Tchaikovsky") in which he named 54 Russian composers in 38 seconds. He is of that small class of clowns who make their audiences laugh and cry in the same breath. B'nai B'rith president Jack J. Spitzer, in presenting the award, called him "the most loved human being in the world," which even the not normally modest Kaye looked embarrassed at.
His last movie was made in 1960; his last Broadway show was "Two By Two" in 1970. Although his Hans Christian Andersen is probably singing "Thumbelina" on screen somewhere, for the most part he devotes his time to co-ownership of a baseball team, the Seattle Mariners, to occasional guest "conductor" appearances, and to helping UNICEF.
There's something about UNICEF -- that bane of Halloween trick or treaters -- that conjures up an earlier time, a time when American kids watched films of little foreign children lining up for their bowls of milk and thought that the Cold War could be fought with large infusions of food and penicillin. A film that preceded Kaye's appearance underscored this memory -- a film so old that it included scenes of Yugoslav children giving Kaye presents for "Ike's grandchildren."
The award to Kaye followed a speech by Sen. Henry Jackson (D-Wash.) in which he thundered about Western dependence on foreign oil and the need for a strong national defense, and decried pessimism and quoted Reinhold Niebuhr on the "faulty strategy of idealists . . . "
The irony was not lost on Kaye. "Much of what Mr. Jackson said has validity," he said. "But countries do not succeed by their resources. The greatest natural resource that any country can have is its children. They are more powerful than oil, they are more beautiful than rivers, and far more determined that the world shall exist."
Earlier he told the convention delegates (the B'nai B'rith is a Jewish service organization founded in 1843) that when he first went to Israel 26 years ago, the first joke he heard was: "What is an anti-Semite?" Answer: "An anti-Semite is one who hates Jews more than is necessary."
The audience laughed appreciatively. "Funny joke, isn't it?" he said, and repeated the punch line. "Do you know what the implication of that is?" . . . It isn't so funny now, is it?"
But eventually it was time to stop the seriousness. "What time is it?" he said. "Why don't we have a kind of little talk fest. You ask me questions and I'll answer."
The first question was where was he from, as though everyone in the room didn't know he was from Brooklyn. "St. Petersburg," he answered."I came here when I was 41 and lost my accent in three weeks."
So it went on. Did he remember Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn, was he going to Israel, does he still do Chinese cooking ("yes, but mostly in Oklahoma.") Then, inevitably, would he sing?
"The minute somebody says sing this, or sing that," he closed, "then you know you have come to the close of the evening."