From Olive Drab Existence to Technicolor Twirl on Fifth Avenue in Playa del Carmen

Life is a great big canvas,
and you should throw all the paint on it you can.
– Danny Kaye, 1913-1987

Playa del Carmen, Mexico

Playa del Carmen’s Fifth Avenue unfolded before me like a vibrant, splashy mural of colorful characters and many moods. To shouts of “Hey, Paparazzi” I pirouetted, snapped and shutter-bugged my way along Quinta Avenida, happily absorbed in the rich tableau.

A mountain of a man precisely cut a cigar and lit it for a well-heeled customer, clouds of smoke billowing around their lowered heads. A trio of white-garbed musicians, complete with white cowboy hats, strummed a forlorn ballad and looked like they understood sadness. A tuxedoed-waiter stood between two man-size placards that advertised his restaurant, rhythmically folding napkins while he rocked on his heels, his eyes scanning the street for potential customers. A young woman sat outside a dress shop, holding her embroidery hoop up close to her face as she plied her needle. On opposing benches, an angry couple snarled at each other and the legs of a happy pair were intertwined—I knew what it was like to be part of each equation.

Leaving the main drag to go down a block to the beach, I passed a banana-yellow building with a string of gleaming black wet suits draped across the balcony. In the golden light of the photographer’s “magic hour,” hand-woven hammocks in bold hues hung in front of small shops, seemingly glowing. In a serendipitous still life scene, a bag of oranges was propped up against an orange chair. The turquoise tide gently rolled in between rocks bright with lime-green algae.

Playa del Carmen (Xaman Ha’ or Pláaya in Modern Maya) is a small city on the Caribbean coast in the northeast of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. Originally a tiny fishing town, “Playa” as it is casually called by locals, is the center of the Riviera Maya, which runs from south of Cancún to the Maya ruin of Tulum. Playa is growing rapidly and is now the third largest city in Quintana Roo, after Cancún and Chetumal.

The village was named for Our Lady of Mount Carmel, who is the patron saint of Cancún. The first recorded visitors to what was then called Xaman-Ha, or “waters of the north,” came during the Early Classic Period of the Mayan civilization, which was between 300 – 600 A.D. There is a significant European influence in Playa, with a number of local business proprietors drawn from the European expatriate community.

Born David Daniel Kaminsky to Ukrainian Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn, today’s author Danny Kaye spent his high school years on the comedy circuit in the Catskills. In 1935, he got his start in cinema playing a manic, fast-talking Russian. His feature film debut was in producer Sam Goldwyn’s 1944 comedy Up in Arms. Goldwyn reportedly had issues with Kaye’s ethnic looks and ordered him to undergo a nose job. Kaye refused, and in his efforts to make Kaye look more “All American,” Goldwyn gave him his signature red hair. Kaye went on to a career that spanned movies, radio, and television, demonstrating talent and versatility as a singer, dancer, and comedic and dramatic actor; he was the recipient of two Academy Awards.

True to the ethos espoused in his quote of today, Kaye had many and varied interests. He was an original owner of baseball’s Seattle Mariners from 1977 to 1981. Kaye was an accomplished pilot, rated for airplanes ranging from single engine light aircraft to multi-engine jets. In his later years he entertained at home as chef, specializing in Chinese cooking. The theater and demonstration kitchen underneath the library at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York is named for him. He served as an Ambassador for UNICEF and, said to have perfect pitch, demonstrated his ability to conduct an orchestra during a comical, but technically sound, series of concerts organized for UNICEF fundraising.

3 thoughts on “From Olive Drab Existence to Technicolor Twirl on Fifth Avenue in Playa del Carmen”

  1. i so enjoyed your talk last night…in between gigi’s explorations, of course. i’m always amazed with how much our paths and drives have in common. my father also died young (he was 58), and his aspirations for me and unfulfilled dreams for himself were a huge source of motivation for me to join the ranks of the professional world. the idea that he knew i had succeeded was tremendously important to me. as always, the more i learn about others, the more i learn about myself.

  2. I was so busy with my own selfish indulgent affairs that I miss your speech. But I do like your weekly publications in which I enjoy immensely. Been to Playa de Carmen love the area and people. Travel down to Tulum to enjoy the sites of the Maya ruins. Keep up the good work. Thanks Jerry

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