"I believe deeply that children are more powerful than oil, more beautiful than rivers, more precious than any other natural resource a country can have," said Danny Kaye. "I feel that the most rewarding thing I have ever done in my life is to be associated with UNICEF."
Kaye was one of the world's most beloved entertainers. He was also the original UNICEF celebrity representative, a Goodwill Ambassador from 1954 until his death in 1987. And he proved a hard act to follow.
A pilot for UNICEF
Kaye's association with UNICEF nearly ended before it had begun. He was flying from London to New York in 1953 when one of the plane's engines caught fire. Maurice Pate, then UNICEF Executive Director, was also on board. Sitting next to Kaye on the journey back to the safety of Ireland and then on to New York, Pate talked to Kaye about UNICEF. One of the organization's problems, he explained, was recognition. Perhaps Kaye could help.
The result was a documentary, Assignment: Children, underwritten by Paramount Pictures, with profits going to UNICEF. It was a record of Kaye's tour of projects in Hong Kong, India, Japan, Korea, Myanmar and Thailand, and it is estimated to have reached more than 100 million people.
It was the beginning of an extraordinary commitment. Over the next 33 years, Kaye circled the globe, making speeches, giving performances, acting as master of ceremonies for special events and informing the public about children's needs. But though he pioneered the role, some of Kaye's exploits as celebrity ambassador are unlikely to be repeated. For instance, he promoted the 'Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF' campaign by flying his own plane on whirlwind tours to enlist children as volunteers. The last such trip, in 1968, touched down in 65 US and Canadian cities in five days and put Kaye in the Guinness Book of Records as the World's Fastest-Flying Entertainer.
Kaye's optimism about the future of the world's children, and his conviction of the vital role UNICEF could play in that future, never flagged. "The goals of the child health revolution can be reached," he said in a statement to UNICEF's Executive Board in 1983. "However discouraging it may look at any given time, it can be done when people of goodwill band together and strive for the best. UNICEF's work is a tribute to mankind and to the superior will of man."
A lasting legacy
Danny Kaye was born David Daniel Kaminsky in Brooklyn, New York, in 1913. His parents were Ukrainian immigrants, his father a tailor. After dropping out of school in his teens, Kaye got early experience as a performer on the circuit of summer hotels and camps in the Catskills in New York state.
In 1944 Kaye came to the attention of Samuel Goldwyn, who helped turn him into one of the cinema's biggest comedy and musical stars. Kaye was equally successful on the small screen, winning an Emmy for his long-running television variety series, The Danny Kaye Show.
Danny Kaye's legacy, both as an entertainer and as a campaigner for children, is set to endure.