Obituary: Stubby Kaye

Tom Vallance
Wednesday 17 December 1997 00:02 GMT

Stubby Kaye, actor and singer: born New York 11 November 1918; married Angela Bracewell; died Rancho Mirage, California 14 December 1997.

The genial and rotund singer-comedian Stubby Kaye secured a place in theatrical history on the night of 24 November 1950 when the classic musical Guys and Dolls opened on Broadway.

In a score by Frank Loesser full of musical gems, Kaye had the biggest show-stopper of the evening with the revivalist number "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat", the audience demanding several encores. He repeated his role with equal success in London, and recreated his performance in the 1955 film version. Though he had further successes on stage and screen, notably as Marryin' Sam in Li'l Abner, it is for his portrayal of Damon Runyon's jovial gambler Nicely-Nicely Johnson that he will always be remembered.

Guys and Dolls was Kaye's Broadway debut, but he had already had a long career in show business. Born in 1918 in New York, he was not christened Stubby, but always refused to reveal his real first name. In 1939 he won the Major Bowes Amateur Hour contest on radio, the prize including a job touring in vaudeville, where he was sometimes billed as "Extra Padded Attraction". He joined the United Service Organisation (USO) during the Second World War, touring battle fronts and making his London debut performing with Bob Hope.

After the war he continued to work in vaudeville and gained a reputation in night-clubs as Master of Ceremonies for the swing orchestras of Freddy Martin and Charlie Barnet before being cast as Nicely-Nicely (when asked how he is, he always replies, "Nicely, nicely, thank you") in Guys and Dolls. As well as his second act show-stopper, Kaye also led the brilliant opening trio, "Fugue for Tinhorns", in which three gamblers offer their conflicting racetrack tips: "I've got the horse right here . . ."

When the show opened in London in 1953, just five days before the Queen's coronation, Kaye again stopped the show with "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" when, as one of the gamblers attending a Salvation Army meeting because of a wager, he rouses the congregation with his account of a dream in which he was on a boat to heaven but was swept overboard when he tried to start a dice game.

If the Runyon charactors of Guys and Dolls were somewhat fanciful, those of Kaye's next Broadway musical, L'il Abner (1955), were literally based on cartoons - Al Capp's colourful inhabitants of Dogpath, USA, which had been delighting newspaper readers since 1935. As Marryin' Sam, Kaye was given only featured billing, but again had the major show- stopper "Jubilation T. Cornpone", a rousing tribute to the town's cowardly founder, plus two other highlights of the Johnny Mercer/Gene DePaul score, "The Country's in the Very Best of Hands", with a sharply satirical Mercer lyric, and a charming duet with the show's heroine Daisy Mae, "I'm Past My Prime". "Give him a musical fanfare like 'Jubilation T. Cornpone'," wrote Brooks Atkinson, "and he can sing it with that vaudeville rhythm and those vaudeville blandishments that turn song numbers into triumphant occasions." When the show was filmed in 1959, Kaye was again considered indispensable casting.

DePaul and Mercer also wrote the score for You Can't Run Away From It (1956), a musical remake of the Capra classic It Happened One Night. As a passenger on a bus carrying a runaway heiress, June Allyson, and a reporter, Jack Lemmon, Kaye provided one of the brighter moments when he promoted friendship by leading the passengers in the song "Howdy Friends and Neighbours".

In 1965 Kaye and Nat "King" Cole acted as Greek chorus in the acclaimed western satire Cat Ballou, and in Bob Fosse's film version of Sweet Charity (1968) led the company in the ebullient "I Love to Cry at Weddings". He also appeared in films which included 40 Pounds of Trouble (1963), Sex and the Single Girl (1964) and The Way West (1967), and lent his voice to the part-animated Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988). He was a familiar guest television performer in the days when stars such as Perry Como and Dinah Shore had their own shows and he had regular roles in two short- lived series, Love and Marriage (1959) and My Sister Eileen (1960).

He last appeared on Broadway in 1974, starring with Alice Faye and John Payne in a revival of Good News. As the football coach Pooch Kearney, his cherubic countenance unchanged since his days as Nicely-Nicely, he proved as infectiously jubilant as ever when he led his team in DeSylva, Brown and Henderson's ode to optimism "Sunny Side Up".

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