The funny-faced young nightclub performer needed seasoning—but he had great material. His shy, gum-snapping accompanist agreed. She not only played the piano for his act but wrote his songs too. “He couldn’t afford me,” jokes Sylvia Fine about her husband, Danny Kaye. “So he married me.”
That was 39 years ago. After countless tunes for Danny (including hits like Anatole of Paris and Lullabye in Ragtime), Fine, 60ish, is now the one on center stage. She is writer, executive producer and host of Musical Comedy Tonight, Oct. 1 on PBS. The 90-minute TV special, which recreates scenes from four historic Broadway shows (Good News, Anything Goes, Oklahoma! and Company), stars Ethel Merman, Bernadette Peters, Carol Burnett and Rock Hudson, among many others. Inspiration for the show was a course on the history of musical comedy that Sylvia has taught at USC and Yale. It was so popular at New Haven that 250 students applied for a seminar designed for 15. Fine’s standing within show business is just as impressive. For her TV show, PBS offered an honorarium of only $1,000 to the stars, and some waived even that. “She’s terrific,” says composer Stephen (Company) Sondheim. “When I was a kid I memorized all her lyrics.”
The daughter of a Brooklyn dentist, Sylvia at 11 wrote parodies of both pop songs and Gilbert and Sullivan for family parties. While a music major at Brooklyn College, she sold her first song for $25 to a Romanian nightclub singer. “It was repulsive, something about l’amour,” she grimaces. After graduation, she was asked to play some of her material for the producers of an ill-fated Off-Broadway revue. “I walked in and saw Danny doing a song called Vultures of Culture,” she recalls. “He terrified me. I was very naive and before I had left that day, he made offers of a suggestive nature.”
A year later, she did take up his suggestion of marriage. “I was afraid to tell my family I was marrying an actor, so we eloped,” she says. Before the birth of their daughter Dena, now a 32-year-old magazine writer, the Kayes lived in New York where Danny rose to Broadway stardom in Lady in the Dark and Let’s Face It. Hollywood then discovered him, and Sylvia helped produce some of his films like The Five Pennies and The Inspector General. She got Academy Award nominations for the song The Moon Is Blue and three numbers in Five Pennies.
Fine refused to play Hollywood sex kitten. She recalls Ida Lupino telling her, “You’re silly. You don’t use any of your ammunition. You come in with no makeup and wearing slacks.” Sylvia explains, “I wanted the men to accept me as a fellow writer.” Celeste Holm, who worked with Sylvia, adds: “In Hollywood, they don’t like women—only girls who can be pushed around.” Fine was no pushover. “She scared me to death,” says Holm. “She was assertive and brusque.”
Danny, now 66, is a tireless traveler, entertaining troops and plugging UNICEF. “Danny says if I were married to a traveling salesman, it would be the same,” Sylvia shrugs, “but I really love him.” Many tumultuous moments? “There have been rumors of our divorce since the first year of our marriage,” says Fine. “People said I was the head on his shoulders. He didn’t like that, and I didn’t. It’s hard living in somebody’s shadow. Someone will say: ‘As Danny Kaye said’ and I’ll know it’s from a number of mine.’ ”
They separated once, for four weeks in 1947. “The first week Danny sat in the car outside to see who I was going out with,” Sylvia laughs. When the two of them are in town at the same time, which is infrequent these days, they share a white brick Georgian house in Beverly Hills, equipped with a Chinese kitchen (Danny’s specialty).
On the evening that Henry Kissinger, Lee Radziwill, Richard Rodgers and Angela Lansbury (but not Danny, who was in Europe) turned out for a Manhattan screening of the PBS special, Sylvia was exuberant. Until now, she notes with a smile, “Someone has called Danny ‘Mr. Fine’ only once.”