The Columbia Inn in Pine Tree, Vermont did not bear much of a resemblance to a Catskills’ hotel of that era, and Dean Jagger’s General Tom Waverly was definitely not much like a Sullivan County hotel owner, but the movie “White Christmas” has a strong local flavor nonetheless.
The titular tune of the top grossing film of 1954, of course, was conceived and written right here in Lew Beach, and the movie’s thin plot line was really little more than a vehicle for county resident Irving Berlin’s music. And then there is Danny Kaye, sharing the lead with the inimitable Bing Crosby – who sings Berlin’s most memorable song for the third time on screen– as well as Rosemary Clooney, and Vera Ellen.
But except for two separate twists of fate, Kaye may not have been part of “White Christmas” at all.
The movie was initially envisioned as a reunion of sorts for Crosby and Fred Astaire, who had starred a dozen years before in “Holiday Inn,” in which Crosby introduced film audiences to Berlin’s prototypical Christmas song, “White Christmas.” (He would later sing the song in the 1946 film, “Blue Skies” too.) But Astaire had already announced his retirement from acting, and declined to take the role, so it was hastily remade for dance man Donald O’Connor. O’Connor pulled out at the last minute, and producers finally settled on Danny Kaye as his replacement.
And despite all the Berlin tunes, it is Kaye who provides the film’s strongest Sullivan County link.
For all intents and purposes, Danny Kaye was born on June, 1929, at the White Roe Lake House in Livingston Manor. The Weiner family’s hotel was not only where the soon-to-be legendary performer got his professional start, but it is where he refined his trademark comedy routine.
It’s not that Kaye (real name: David Daniel Kaminsky) had never performed before. He and his partner Lou Eisen, better known in the Catskills in later years as Lou Reed, had been singing at parties and social affairs– as well as on street corners– in Brooklyn for over a year when discovered by Nat Lichtman, the entertainment director at the White Roe.
Lichtman was visiting his mother in Brooklyn one weekend, and stopped at a local candy store to use the telephone when he came across “Red and Blackie” as Kaminsky and Eisen had dubbed themselves, singing duets on the corner. He hired them on the spot to work for him that summer in Livingston Manor.
According to Martin Gottfried in his 1994 Kaye biography, Nobody’s Fool, Meyer Weiner brought his family to Livingston Manor to farm, and was so successful that in 1919 he purchased 750 acres “on the face of White Roe Mountain, sloping gently down to the town lake.” Weiner bought the land, not to farm, but “to create a summer place for young Jewish single people – ‘no families, no children, nobody under eighteen, nobody over thirty-five. Lots of athletics, all kinds of activities and all the food you can eat.’”
Meyer Weiner started out with ten rooms, and added thirty tents, each sleeping four, the second summer. Growth was steady, and by the time Lichtman brought Red and Blackie to the mountains, The White Roe was well established.
“The hotel had new and elaborate facilities, with accommodations for four hundred people, albeit, five and six to a room,” Gottfried relates. “The summer of 1929 was a gala one at White Roe. A new casino had just been christened, and it was as grand as any in the Catskills. A casino was not a gambling room, but a hotel’s social center, and this one was an imposing edifice, a three-story, gabled affair with brown shingles and white trim. Porches swept entirely around on two levels, offering panoramic views of the Catskills, and there was a recreation hall on the main floor. There was also a nightclub below, but it would not fully function until the repeal of Prohibition in 1933.”
With this backdrop, and Lichtman’s guidance, Eisen became Lou Reed and Kaminsky became Danny Kaye. The two sixteen year old singers had been “hired as tummlers, and their job was to tummle,” all day and as late into the night as necessary, in the dining room, on the front porch, and down by the lake.
“A tummler’s duties were broadly defined,” Gottfried notes. “Lou and Danny, besides being a harmony team in the Saturday night musical shows, were expected to participate in each night’s entertainment. And there was something scheduled every night.”
Danny Kaye worked for seven summers at the White Roe, eventually becoming the headliner there, and then spent the summer of 1936 at the President Hotel in Swan Lake, where he made $100 a week. From there, he moved on to the classy Tamiment in the Poconos. By that time, he had already appeared in a number of movies.
He spent the early ‘40s doing stage work, including one of Moss Hart’s works, and by 1944 was a favorite of Samuel Goldwyn, who helped make him a Hollywood star. He starred for Goldwyn in “Up in Arms” in 1944 and “Wonder Man” in 1945, and then excelled in “The Kid from Brooklyn” and “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” in 1946 and ‘47, respectively. Dozens of films followed, including “Hans Christian Andersen,” and, of course, “White Christmas.”
Danny Kaye died of a heart attack and complications from hepatitis in 1987. He was 74.
Photo: An aerial view of the White Roe Lake Hotel in Livingston Manor, where Danny Kaye spent seven summers honing his comedy craft.