Behind the Scenes with Danny Kaye and the Opening of EPCOT Center

Jim Korkis recently did a wonderful piece on Danny Kaye and the opening of EPCOT. Good ol’ Danny wasn’t all laughs and smiles it seems behind camera. Continue after the page break and have a look…





Beginning in the 1960s, Smith-Hemion were award-winning producers of musical specials for television, featuring such stars as Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand (My Name is Barbra, 1965), Bette Midler, Julie Andrews, Elvis Presley and more. They had worked with Kaye in a new musical television production for Hallmark Hall of Fame of Peter Pan (1976) featuring Mia Farrow as Peter and Kaye as Captain Hook.

Kaye was one of the most popular entertainers of his time. He received many accolades for his work as an actor, singer, dancer and comic. He was also a celebrated chef and airplane pilot. In 1954 Kaye began his long association with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and that same year won a special Academy Award for his humanitarian work.

Despite his well-loved films from the 1940s and 1950s and Emmy award-winning television series in the 1960s, his general popularity as a performer began to fade during the mid-1970 as he devoted more and more time to other pursuits. He died in 1987.

Kaye appeared in the made-for-TV Smith-Hemion-produced special, “Kraft Salutes Disneyland’s 25th Anniversary” which aired on March 6, 1980.

Filmed throughout Disneyland to celebrate the park’s 25th anniversary, a young boy (Adam Rich) takes his first ever trip to Disneyland and encounters many odd characters (all played by Danny Kaye) who tell him about the park’s history.

So it was not unusual that Smith-Hemion thought of using the multi-talented performer again two years later to host the opening of EPCOT Center.

On camera, Kaye seems enthusiastic, playful and generally delightful. However, even the very best of performers known for their very public charitable work, can have a bad couple of days. Working on the special celebrating the opening of EPCOT Center, Kaye was not as affable off screen as he appeared on camera.

Bob Woodham was the first Monorail pilot hired in August 1971 for the Magic Kingdom. By 1982, he was in the role of Operations Coordinator and assigned to assist with the Epcot television special:

“Kaye was a problem right from the beginning,” Woodham remembered. “I got a call from his agent declaring that Kaye had to have a limousine. Remember, this was Central Florida in the early 1980s, so there were not a lot of options around. I did manage to get a brand new Cadillac limousine and informed the agent. A little while later I get back a phone call with the guy saying, ‘A Cadillac is completely unacceptable for Mr. Kaye. He has to have a Mercedes.’ I had to tell him that they had two choices: take the Cadillac or nothing.”
“Do you remember that scene in Future World where Kaye is with Drew Barrymore and in the background there are some guests? We had roped off a huge area so the guests were nowhere near them but could still be seen in the background. Anyway, Kaye starts his lines and the people just got so excited, they started snapping pictures. Kaye abruptly turns to them and yells, ‘I don’t go to your work and interrupt you!’ Bob Matheison was a vice-president and was a great guy. He told me, ‘We are going to keep roping off areas, not to keep the guests away from Kaye but to keep him away from the guests.’

“The final shot done which was the first used on the special was Kaye on top of the American Gardens Theater. We got one of those trucks with a bucket to take him up so he didn’t have to climb or walk. We had this trailer for him out in the back of the American Adventure and a golf cart to ferry him from the trailer to onstage where the bucket was. It was just a quick, short shot.’

“It was a light sprinkle, what I would call just misting, but Kaye didn’t stop complaining. If you look, you see a huge uncomplaining crowd beneath and behind him. His cart was parked by the truck and by a wall with some bushes. While he was up top doing his intro which lasted a minute or two, Ron Miller came by in another golf cart with Lillian Disney. They parked nearby and Lillian stayed in the cart while Ron got out to take care of some business. Kaye comes down, gets in his cart and yells “Who the f*** is this blocking me in? I am getting wet!” Ron runs over and tells him, ‘Get your ass back to your trailer and be off property by tomorrow morning.’

“Then there is the great story where Kaye is directing the West Point Glee Club and Dick Nunis shows up touring some executives from a foreign country and Kaye moons him while the singers are laughing. I didn’t notice it at first but my assistant nudged me and it was pretty obvious. Nunis never saw or never acknowledged that he saw it.’

“Nunis hated the Smith-Hemion people. Absolutely hated them and I could understand why. Nunis was never shown the script and had no OK over it even though he was in charge of the Disney parks. Sometimes, they would do things that might put Disney in a bad light or have the person playing the cast member do something wrong, like a server tipping over a tray of food and drink.’

“Nunis was especially upset with the Smith-Hemion production Kraft Salutes Walt Disney World’s 10th Anniversary that ran in January 1982. It had Michael Keaton as this long-haired, incompetent, snarky cast member doing things a cast member would never have been allowed to do, including having long hair and trying to pick up on barely legal Dana Plato. Nunis was still steaming from that special when the Epcot thing got underway.’

“Here’s an example of how upset he was. Marie Osmond was in the Epcot special and she was a doll. Everyone loved her and she had just discovered she was pregnant so between breaks with the dancers, she sat in a chair with an umbrella and was knitting.

“During one of the breaks, the cast members were given their opening day medallions and she saw them. She said, “I’d love to have one of those. I would be willing to buy it.’ I found out that Nunis was in charge of the medallions so I went to his office and told him that Marie would like one and had offered to pay for it and he hit the roof. ‘This is a trick! Smith-Hemion want it and they are not going to get it!’ So I had a long discussion with Dick and finally convinced him to begrudgingly give me an extra one for Marie. As I was leaving the office, he said, ‘If I find out it ended up with Smith-Hemion, I will track you down and kick your ass!’ Marie was very nice and appreciative.’

“I did have to clean up my language a little to tell these stories.”

Ron Miziker has a long list of accomplishments in his still thriving entertainment career. He joined the Disney Company as director of Entertainment and Show Development shortly before the opening of Walt Disney World. He was responsible for the elaborate October 25 dedication ceremony of the Magic Kingdom in 1971. He was also the producer of the EPCOT Center television special.

“At one point during the shooting, I was standing right next to Kaye who was waiting to make his entrance,” Miziker told me. “This sweet little old lady came up and said, ‘Mr. Kaye I have loved your work for so long. I’m a big fan. Is it all right if I get a picture with you?’ Kaye took her camera, threw it down to the ground and then stepped on it and walked away without saying anything.’

“Yes, Nunis really hated [director and producer] Dwight Hemion. Nunis was also angry at the reports he was getting about Kaye’s behavior. He was so angry that he insisted that Kaye not set foot on Disney property ever again. However, I needed Kaye back on property to finish filming a scene where he is conducting the West Point Glee Club and the All-American College Marching Band. So I had to call Ron Miller to get permission to get Kaye back on property.’

“So I am in this area near the fountain with Spaceship Earth in the background and Kaye is on a raised platform. Nunis storms in and is really steamed that Kaye is there. He comes up to me and starts poking his finger in my chest and his back is to Kaye.’

“Nunis yells at me, ‘You are ruining this park letting that b*st*rd in here!’

“Kaye drops his pants. He is in his skivvies and he is pretending to conduct the band and the singers. He is bending over, mooning Nunis who is so intent in chewing me out that he does not even glance behind him. The performers start giggling and then laughing.’

“I am looking at Nunis and not saying anything but I can see all of this going on behind him. When Nunis finishes, he is so upset that he storms away without ever looking behind him to see Kaye or what he was doing.”

There could be any number of reasons that some people didn’t think that Kaye was as gracious as his screen persona or misinterpreted his behavior. Unfortunately, like much of Disney history, many of the principal players involved including Kaye and Hemion are not longer around to share their side of the story. If Kaye was out of sorts doing the special, it certainly wasn’t evident in the final show.

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