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December 14, 2007

Another "White Christmas"

Roy Meachum

Some cable channel I don't remember which has programmed "White Christmas." Again. The movie is a rework of "Holiday Inn," the wartime flick that introduced the world's greatest secular carol to the world.

The second time around the powers-that-be inked Danny Kaye as Bing Crosby's partner, to replace Fred Astaire. That was 1954, my third Christmas out of Army uniform, which I wore for seven straight holiday seasons.

By coincidence a few days before the holiday I encountered Mr. Kaye. Again. He was somebody's guest at the Washington National Symphony Ball. The world's greatest song-and-dance man did not appear particularly glad to see me. And I understood.

We had spent a week together during the Berlin Airlift. He was coming off of the first smashing triumph of post-war London. If you've seen him only in the movies, then you have no idea how sensational he was.

Danny was one of those performers who needed an audience as toys require batteries. His shows started in comparative low key, even though he pumped exhilaration off the stage. As the evening moved along, he became more and more energized, as that ad bunny beats a drum. Endlessly.

Of course, when the curtain lowered down and the dances and songs ended, he virtually collapsed. Directly he reached the dressing room, he tossed a towel around his neck and drinking great quantities of water, while looking wild-eyed while scarcely seeing the faces he met.

Danny Kaye's totally open personality turned into a suspicious, very withdrawn figure when the grease paint was rubbed off.

Bob Hope was not much different. When we worked Frankfurt's Palmgarten for a Sunday Armed Forces Network broadcast, he was utterly fantastic when the microphones were on.

Otherwise, he was exceedingly worried someone was out to steal his material. He mentioned Milton Berle, the first time I heard the name of the pioneering early TV hit.

Mr. Hope brought along an entourage outnumbering Mr. Kaye's pianist. Sammy Prager withdrew backstage into himself, emerging only occasionally when the star needed something.

At the first stop on our week-long tour, it was Sammy who told me Mr. Kaye wanted me off as soon as his introduction was done. I had worked the Rhine-Main air base crowd, thinking I was supposed to warm up the audience. Nope. He wanted me to say my piece and shut up! Nothing more.

We left the next morning for Berlin, riding a gooney bird, the venerable C-47, rising above the thick fog that smothered that part of Germany every autumn. Back in our bucket seats, we saw murky clouds as we climbed into the air.

The phrase "thick as soup" comes to mind when thinking about the atmosphere as we turn toward Berlin, around an hour away. We never saw them coming.

A flight of Red Star fighter planes popped up slightly below our wings, keeping pace with the gooney bird's slow gait. Initially, Mr. Kaye thought they were there for an escort; after all his "Kaminsky" family emigrated from the Russian pale, escaping pogroms.

Others aboard, namely the crew, were less sanguine. Some thought Stalin might have wanted to divert Danny Kaye into East Germany where he could become the communist's guest. Had the famous comedian died maybe the Airlift would be called off.

At six months old the Air-Bridge, to translate literally the German, showed no signs of folding up. To the contrary, new ships and crews homered in on Germany. Our people thought the Kremlin might be desperate.

We were well past Berlin, over Poland, when the pilot turned the C-47's nose and zoomed into Tempelhof. We were a little late and the escort took up straight to the Sports Palace, which Hitler built for the 1936 Olympics.

Later that same night we departed for Nuremberg's 19th century opera house and an audience that consisted mostly of men and women working on the Nazi war trials.

The show went on the following night: I made the introduction and slipped backstage. Danny Kaye had launched his routine when a woman far up in the highest balcony (peanut heaven) yelled each time he opened his mouth.

Suffering several interruptions, those watching the great song-and-dance man noticed how he shrugged his shoulders, signaling he had had enough.

Stepping down the stage's edge, the apron, Mr. Kaye looked straight up, to find the woman. He shaded his eyes, lifted a graceful arm in her direction and shrieked:

"Oh, it's you," he shouted, "I didn't recognize you with all your clothes on." The crowd roared and clapped and whistled, spied the spoil sport and pointed their fingers in her direction.

From that point on, we heard not a peep.

Daniel David Kaminsky went on, after his triumph in London's Palladium Theatre and his very successful tour of the first significant military action after World War II. He had them all: radio, television, records and movies, including "White Christmas."

But, as I said, until people saw him feasting on an audience, like Count Dracula lived off blood, they never really saw him.

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