A Prince of a Man
Singing actor Harry Danner ’61 has made a mark on stage and screen
by Sherri Kimmel
June 29, 2010
Harry Danner ‘61 has a lilting tenor voice
He's a regular at Dickinson’s Glee Club reunions, this blue-eyed guy with the sweet tenor voice and distinctive conducting style. Flip on your TV, and he’ll be the only Glee Club alum you’re likely to see acting in a prime-time series. Singing actor Harry Danner ’61 has been serenading presidents, prime ministers, opera buffs, Broadway enthusiasts and loyal Dickinsonians since his teen years.
Son of a mother who had “a wonderful soprano voice and a singing banker” father, as he puts it, Danner came to Dickinson from the Philadelphia suburbs and sang professionally throughout college. He’d already gotten a jumpstart performing around Philadelphia while attending the George School. Harry and his younger sister, the Emmy- and Tony-winning actress Blythe Danner, made the most of the Quaker school’s large theatre and music department, which also drew Stephen Sondheim and actress Mary Martin’s daughter.
“We had music everywhere,” Danner recalls of his early years. “Blythe and I were both involved in shows and acting. She went to Bard College, then right to Broadway with Butterflies Are Free.” Harry, however, beat her to Broadway, singing in the chorus of Bajour in 1965. The next generation of Danners boasts three more thespians—Harry’s daughter Hillary and his nieces Gwyneth Paltrow and Katherine Moennig.
Though majoring in political science, Danner made the most of Dickinson’s musical opportunities—playing trumpet in the pep band, performing in the Follies and conducting the Glee Club. He fondly recalls going to the President’s House to serenade Red Malcolm’s infirm mother-in-law. Danner was the tenor soloist when Assistant Professor of Music Lloyd Ultan’s “The Man with a Hoe” had its world premiere with the Harrisburg Symphony and further blossomed with the encouragement of another music professor, Jack Jarrett.
After graduation, Danner spent two years in the Army’s Honor Guard in Washington, D.C., leading the fife and drum corps, among other duties. Then Danner’s career took off. He sang at the White House for President Lyndon Johnson and the prime ministers of Australia and Great Britain, was tenor soloist at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, performed with the Boston Pops when Arthur Fiedler led the group and Richard Rodgers guest directed. He even provided the opera singing voice for Snuffleupagus on Sesame Street.
A memorable TV appearance occurred in 1969, when the U.S. premiere of Leos Janacek’s From The House of the Dead aired. This March, the magazine Opera News published a photo of Danner and an article about that program in which he sang the role of the boy Alyeya, which was written for a mezzosoprano.
But Danner’s favorite was the lead in The Student Prince. Beginning in 1967, Danner starred as Prince Karl Franz, touring the country for several years. At the Kennedy Center, he was pleased that his Dickinson friends, including George Shuman ’37, college treasurer, were there to applaud him in a role that required seven costume changes.
He aced that challenge with the help of the man who had dressed the original prince, Howard Marsh, in 1924.
As the years passed and his hairline receded, Danner moved from romantic leading roles like The Student Prince to character acting. That’s not all bad, he says. “If you’re playing a straight romantic part, you can’t cut up on stage. As a character actor, you can have more fun, depending on the role. No matter what the role, you need to be true to what you’re doing. I find great enjoyment being on stage no matter what I’m doing.”
Since his move to character roles he has concentrated more on acting and less on singing, with parts in the movies The Wedding Planner (he was the priest) and Van Wilder (as Dr. Beeverman). He spent 2001-09 in Hollywood “doing a lot of that stuff and occasionally some things in New York [like Law and Order SVU],” he says. But this last year he’s shifted back to the East Coast, overseeing the renovation of a Victorian home that he and wife Dorothy, an opera producer, bought in 1973.
Danner helps his wife direct her productions—often with the Philadelphia Opera—does the occasional commercial and happily plays the role of date to sister Blythe, whose husband Bruce Paltrow died in 2002. “I just saw the premiere of The Glass Menagerie with her in New York,” he says. “We’re very close.”
Blythe Danner confirms their closeness: “My brother Harry has always inspired me, from the time we were children, when his mellifluous voice filled our house with song, until he moved me to tears with his beautiful performance as The Student Prince many years later. Throughout our lives this exemplary man has made me proud to be his sister.”
Less often, he spends time with Blythe’s daughter, Oscar-winner Gwyneth Paltrow. “I see her children more often than I see Gwynny,” he says. “She’s all over the place but lives in London.” Paltrow, however, reflects on the importance of past gettogethers.
“My fondest memories of our family Christmases are of my dear Uncle Harry leading us in carol singing with his beautiful tenor voice,” she says.
Now with Paltrow’s husband Chris Martin of the band Coldplay a part of the mix, those sing-alongs are even more fun for Danner. “I sat at the piano one Christmas and played some carols and sang with Chris,” he says. “He’s a great entertainer, and he and Gwynny are both socially responsible people.”
Charlie Seller ’55, who knows Danner from his many appearances at Glee Club reunions since the late 1980s, makes a similar comment about Harry. “He has a delightful sense of humor and is a very sensitive guy to human conditions and needs. I look upon him as a major and delightful element of the reunion experience.”
View an audio slideshow of highlights from Harry Danner’s career.