A madcap entertainer, Kaye was known for his tongue-twisters and his rubber-faced mimicry. Though his greatest success was in Hollywood, his recordings of 'Thumbelina' and 'The Ugly Duckling' (1952) have become perennial favourites with children.
The son of Russian immigrants, Kaye worked as a waiter in Florida, graduating to singing and comedy on the Catskills 'Borscht Circuit' in the early thirties. An Oriental tour in 1934 encouraged him to develop his scat singing and pantomime. In 1939 he made his Broadway début in The Straw Hat Revue and in 1941 nightly stopped Lady in the Dark with his version of Ira Gershwin and Kurt Weill's speciality song 'Tchaikovsky', in which he reeled off the names of fifty-four Russian composers, some real, some fictitious, in thirty-four seconds. He followed this with an appearance in Cole Porter's Let's Face It (1941), for which his wife, Sylvia Fine, who wrote much of his comedy material and songs, supplied 'Melody in 4-F'.
Kaye's first film was Up in Arms (1944), in which he sang Harold Arlen's 'Now I Know', and his first big success The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), in which he played James Thurber's timid daydreamer. His other major films include an adaptation of Gogol's The Inspector General (1949) in which he sang speciality material written by Fine and Johnny Mercer; Hans Christian Andersen (1952), in which he introduced 'Thumbelina', 'The Ugly Duckling', 'The King's New Clothes', 'Inchworm' and 'Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen', all written by Frank Loesser; White Christmas (1954), in which he partnered Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen on Irving Berlin's title song; and The Five Pennies (1959), in which he played Red Nichols.
His record success began in 1947 with 'Bloop Bleep' (Decca), the first of a string of novelty hits which included 'The Woody Woodpecker Song' (1947), on which he was partnered by the Andrews Sisters, and 'I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts' (1952), better known in Britain in the version by Billy Cotton. He also recorded a straight version of 'C'est Si Bon' (1951). In the same year he made the first of many appearances as a mock conductor with the New York Philharmonic; in 1985 he entered the Guinness Book of Records for 'leading the world's biggest band', 3,500 musicians and a marching team of 2,000. In the late fifties and sixties he was away from music and film, devoting his time to working for UNICEF. In 1970 Kaye returned to Broadway in a revival of Vincent Youmans' Tea for Two.
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