2019-01-22 18:15:47 UTC
Kaye Ballard had a contented smile on her face as she watched herself, larger than life, at the Palm Springs International Film Festival screening of her documentary, “Kaye Ballard: The Show Goes On,” this month at the Palm Springs Cultural Center.
She had been greeted in the lobby by mobs of fans, taking pictures and congregating around her wheelchair like close personal friends. It made her caregiver nervous, and she advised Ballard to leave the theater early more than once. Her heart was weak. She needed to be in bed.
But Ballard waved her off as the audience broke into spontaneous applause seven times during the film. Ballard stayed for about an hour, until just before a scene depicting her conflict with her mother. Then her caregiver wheeled her out of the theater one last time. When she was gone, a reporter sitting across the aisle sensed she was really gone.
But there was one more celebration. A film festival official called her Saturday night, Jan. 12, and said her documentary had been named one of the Best of the Fest. Ballard was thrilled, said her closest friend, Myvanwy Jenn. Then she began to fade away.
Ballard, 93, died Monday night at her home in Rancho Mirage after lapsing into unconsciousness less than a week after being notified that “Kaye Ballard: The Show Goes On” would go on to have another festival screening as a Best of the Fest.
“I loved that she was at the theater the night the film opened at the festival,” said Festival Chairman Harold Matzner. “She received a serenade of applause from all the people who gathered from a sold-out performance. I’m sure she loved that. I’m glad it was finished in time for her to see it and enjoy it.”
“The irony of all this,” added actor Gavin MacLeod, “is, you can go back a year, a year-and-a-half, and PBS did a movie on Rose Marie’s life. And Rosie died I think three days later. Kaye said, ‘I want my movie to be better than Rosie’s.’ Then Kaye’s movie is shown at the festival, and then the award, and then she goes. It’s like these two dynamite personalities got a chance to see their lives flash in front of them on screen before they said, ‘Bye-bye.’
“Kaye was my favorite leading lady, and my favorite friend, and there is a vacancy in our lives because of her leaving that only God can fulfill.”
Ballard had one of the most illustrious careers in show business in the mid-20th century. She first exhibited her talents in Cleveland, where she was born Catherine Gloria Balotta to Italian emigrant parents. She was doing impressions of French entertainment legend Maurice Chevalier at age 5. She developed into a painter, singer, actor, musician and comic impressionist.
Ballard was offered a scholarship to Cleveland Art College, but chose to perform instead in vaudeville. A stage producer in Detroit was so impressed by her multiple talents, he recommended her to Spike Jones, the most popular comic big band leader of the Swing Era. Lee, who had novelty hits like "Cocktails For Two" and "Yes, We Have No Bananas," invited her to look him up if she ever got out to Los Angeles. So Ballard bought a one-way plane ticket to L.A. and landed a job as a singer and a comic tuba player with his band.
She was performing with the Spike Jones Orchestra at the posh Trocadero supper club in L.A. when Mel Torme came in to sing with Nat King Cole in the lounge, Ballard said. Torme had written a new Christmas song that started with, "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire ..."
When Jones' band stopped went on tour to New York, Ballard got a chance to see Laurette Taylor in Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie," which inspired her to get serious about acting, and Ethel Merman in Irving Berlin's "Annie Get Your Gun," which convinced her to go into musical theater.
Ballard made her Broadway debut in 1946 when she was invited by someone who had seen her with Jones to join the cast of the musical, "Three To Make Ready," with "The Wizard of Oz" star Ray Bolger and such future legends as Arthur Godfrey, Julie Wilson and Gordon McRae.
From there, she did such shows as "Touch and Go," which included a Royal Command Performance for King George VI, which got her an introduction to the future Queen Elizabeth; "Top Banana" with Phil Silvers, in which she replaced Rose Marie for the road tour, and "The Golden Apple," which landed her on the cover of Life Magazine and enabled her to introduce the standard, "Lazy Afternoon."
Throughout the rest of her life, with all of the other endeavors she tried, including film, record albums and and a book, Ballard always came back to the stage. Her list of theatrical credits in New York and around the country is remarkable, including:
"Carnival," "Gypsie," "Annie Get Your Gun," "Sheba," "High Spirits," a female version of "The Odd Couple," "Funny Girl," "Chicago," "The Pirates of Penzance," "Royal Flush," "Reuben, Reuben," "Follies," "Look Ma, I'm Dancin'," "Minnie's Boys," "The Decline and Fall of the Entire World As Seen Through the Eyes of Cole Porter Revisited," "Molly," "The Beast In Me," "Wonderful Town," "She Stoops To Conquer," "The Pirates of Penzance," "No, No Nanette" and "Over the River and Through the Woods."
Other notable productions included "Nunsense," which won a Carbonell Award for South Florida theater, "4 Girls 4," which she performed at the McCallum Theatre," "Crazy Words, Crazy Tunes," which she performed for most of a season at the Springs Theater in the Palm Springs Convention Center, "From Broadway with Love," with Donna McKcKechnie and Liliane Montevecchi, and "The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies," where she appeared as a guest artist as an opportunity to sell copies of her book, "How I Lost 10 Pounds in 53 Years: Kaye Ballard, A Memoir," in the lobby in 2004.
She toured with two critically acclaimed one-woman shows, "Kaye Ballard — Working 42nd St., At Least," and "Hey Ma... Kaye Ballard," which she also brought to the McCallum. She did her last touring production in 2012 at age 86, "Doin' It For Love," a tribute to Broadway standards and performers, and the stories behind them with Montevecchi and Lee Roy Reams.
She said she was proud of having always been a working entertainer, without ever having to take a job outside of show biz.
"I’m very happy because I’m doing the things I’ve done for 60 years," she said in 2012. "I’m just doing the best of the things, like Sofie Tucker and Jimmy Durante (material), and telling things that were in my book. It’s really wonderful."
After her first Broadway show, Ballard next went into cabaret, headlining New York's finest supper clubs, such as the Blue Angel and Bon Soir. She had a voice that rivaled Judy Garland's and, with her comedy and acting skills, she became a magnet for New York music publishers and their "song pluggers." In 1954, she introduced a Bart Howard song called "In Other Words" for Hampshire House Publishing, led by her future Rancho Mirage neighbor, Howie Richmond. It became known as "Fly Me To the Moon" after Frank Sinatra recorded it.
Gretchen Reinhagen, a New York singer-actress whose family has long been part of the Coachella Valley theater community, did her own New York cabaret show saluting Ballard, called “Special Kaye: A Tribute to the Incomparable Kaye Ballard,” and performed it at the Annenberg Theater with Ballard in attendance.
“There is a huge fan base for her and deservedly so,” Reinhagen said at the time. “I saw her a couple of years ago with 'The (Fabulous Palm Springs) Follies' and it was like seeing a master class. I don’t think people know her as the incredible musician she is. I think people in the theater world or cabaret are very familiar with her cabaret work, as well as her Broadway career. I think some of the broader population that know her from ‘The Mothers-In-Law’ don’t know about ‘Working 42nd Street At Last.’”
Ballard made her first television splash in the 1957 made-for-TV Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, "Cinderella," starring Julie Andrews. She became part of the Kraft Music Hall Players on NBC's "The Perry Como Show" with Don Adams and Sandy Stewart in 1961-62. But it was the 1967-69 sit-com, "The Mothers-In-Law" that made Ballard a household name. She starred with Eve Arden as two very different neighbors who were forced to become in-laws when their kids surprised them by marrying one another.
Desi Arnaz directed the shows and the writers of "I Love Lucy," Bob Carroll Jr. and Madelyn Davis, wrote the brilliant scripts. But Roger Carroll, who played the husband of Ballard's character, left the show after the first season in a salary dispute and the show didn't work with Richard Deacon playing Carroll's character.
Ballard moved on to a recurring part "The Doris Day Show" in 1970, with Rose Marie again in a higher-profile featured role, and she made an appearance on "Here's Lucy," starring Lucille Ball and her two kids, Lucie Arnaz and Desi Arnaz Jr.
Lucie, now living in Palm Springs, remembers Ballard coming to the desert to visit her family, with her father and his second wife, Edie, during "The Mothers-In-Laws."
"I have know her for over 50 years," Arnaz said. "My father produced her series and she bought his house here in Rancho Mirage. She has always been very supportive of the direction I wanted to take in this business, even mentioning me in her autobiography, saying I would make a great director one day — years before I actually started directing. I always appreciated that. Kaye was a force to be reckoned with and I will miss her."
Rancho Mirage was home to some of the greatest female talents in the history of show biz in the 1970s. They included Ball, the biggest name in television, Dinah Shore, the leading female recording artist of the 1940s; Mary Martin, a rival to Merman as Broadway’s top stage musical actress; Alice Faye, the biggest star at 20th Century-Fox before walking away from the movies, and Ruby Keeler and Ginger Rogers, the top female movie dance stars of the 1930s and ‘40s, respectively.
Ballard felt overshadowed by these women in terms of celebrity. But her activity in theater, where casts grow personally connected after weeks or months of working together, had given her an extended family that reached across the globe.
Ballard never married or had children. She wrote in her memoir, “I found an emotional connection with women like Liz (Smith, the admittedly bisexual syndicated columnist who was Ballard’s road manager in the 1950s) that I could never find with a man. I don’t know why or how it happened, but I do know it has kept me single my entire life.”
But Ballard’s show-biz family was always all welcome at her house in the desert. She became an unofficial ambassador enticing celebrities to visit and often move to the Coachella Valley.
“When I first met her, I was a big fan of hers,” MacLeod recalled. “We were doing ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ (in the early ‘70s) and I got a call. ‘Would I play Herbie with Kaye Ballard at a real burlesque theater in San Diego.’ I said, ‘Are you kidding?’ That was the beginning of our relationship. We spent a lot of time with Kaye and I had never been to Palm Springs. She said, ‘I live in Rancho Mirage, in Desi’s old house.’ So, (wife) Patti and I came down here and fell in love with it and we’ve had places down here since the ‘Mary Tyler Moore’ days. First in Palm Springs and then all over. It was because of Kaye. I don’t know if we would have come down here (otherwise). Now we have our burial plots right down the street from us.”
Photographer and event producer Michael Childers, who saw Ballard in "Carnival" when he was 16, credits her with introducing him to the desert and his life partner, John Schlesinger, the director of films such as “Midnight Cowboy” and “Marathon Man.”
Childers said he got to know Ballard while taking still photos of “The Mothers-In-Law.” She told him Schlesinger had just come to Los Angeles and was lonely. He was “very nice and very charming,” Ballard told him, and she suggested they meet for a drink at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel bar. Childers read that Schlesinger could be “mercurial and difficult on the set,’ so he asked an actor friend to come along. But he soon told the friend to get lost.
“He was charming, delightful and wonderful and I thank Kaye Ballard for introducing me to my partner of 38 years,” Childers said. “It wouldn’t have happened without Kaye Ballard. And, when we moved here in 1998, she was the first person to take us under the wing and introduce us to all the locals — the movers and the shakers.
“She loved the desert. She was the first great desert booster that I met.”
Ballard performed at two of Childers’ “One Night Only” benefit variety shows at the McCallum, and Childers said, “The audience went crazy when they saw her.” She regularly attended charity events and performed at a few of them, including a roast of the late journalist Gloria Greer to benefit ACT For MS, and a tribute to Merv Griffin to benefit the La Quinta Arts Foundation. She received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Palm Springs Women In Film & Television in November for helping to break the glass ceiling marginalizing women in show business.
But her passion was the Palm Springs International Film Festival. She served on the board of the Palm Springs International Film Society under Camelot Theatres founders Ric and Rozene Supple in the 1990s after being a regular at the foreign film screenings since the festival’s inception in 1990. She was no longer on the board when Matzner joined, but he noticed how much the other celebrities at the gala liked her.
“When I arrived on the scene in 2000, the gala had a green room and she was in it and she knew everybody,” he said. “We very quickly eliminated the green room after my first year because we wanted the stars to be part of the audience. But, Kaye has always been very, very helpful to me personally and to the film festival. She is a real ambassador for this film festival and always has been. So, when she got to the point where she really couldn’t walk, we treated her as a member of our film festival inner circle. Her star status qualified her for the red carpet, and she was always invited.”
Matzner recognized how happy Ballard seemed to be “in that milieu” of show biz people. Childers saw it, too.
“She needed people around her all the time,” Childers said. “She was no good alone. She loved entertaining, giving parties, and the days in Hollywood, when she had lots of money, she had lots of parties where I met everybody in Hollywood. She was a people person.”
But Ballard was in awe of people with great talent. She originally planned to call her autobiography, “I Just Happened To Be There” because she was so impressed by all the people she met from the pantheon of show business. She said after meeting French chanteuse Edith Piaf, and then seeing her in concert, “I couldn’t talk to her normally ever again.”
“I met Elvis Presley in Palm Springs,” she said. “I was driving along Palm Canyon and I pulled right upside his black (Stutz Blackhawk), and I said, ‘I love you!’ He said, ‘I love you, too, Miss Ballard.’ I said, ‘Ah!’ I almost drove off the road. I thought, ‘Elvis Presley said my name! He knows who I am! That was the thrill of a lifetime.”
But she was just as proud of recognizing up-and-coming talent and helping them with their careers. She boasted of introducing comic actor Paul Lynde to producer Leonard Sillman, who launched his career by putting him in “New Faces Of 1952.” She suggested Jerry Stiller and his wife, Anne Meara, do a comedy act together. They became famous as Stiller & Meara before they became famous as Ben Stiller's parents.
Satirist Paul Krassner, who edited the pioneering comic Lenny Bruce’s autobiography, “How to Talk Dirty and Influence People,” credited Ballard with getting Bruce one of his first big New York gigs at the Blue Angel.
“I think every person who understood Kaye at all would agree that the most salient fact about her was that, in a profession where the ego is most often supreme, she thrived on finding genuine happiness in the success of others, whether they happened to be huge stars or simply people she took pleasure in knowing,” said her Rancho Mirage friend, Hal Wingo, one of the founding editors of People magazine.
“As much as she sought out and enjoyed the limelight of show business in a very long and diversified career, she equally enjoyed the company of other talented performers she respected and admired, even to the point of refusing top billing every time she thought another person was more deserving, though very few were.”
Ballard also had regrets about things she didn’t accomplish. In 2003, she told The Desert Sun she needed to work and, “I would give anything to be on a television show.” She auditioned for “Becker,” she said, and sent a tape in for “The Sopranos.” Neither panned out.
“If I had my life to live over, I would live my life differently,” she said. “I would have gone after Howard Richmond!”
But friends said Ballard could be her own worst enemy.
Childers recalls the time he booked Doris Roberts to perform at his “One Night Only” and Ballard was upset. He later discovered Ballard had wanted the role of the Italian mother in “Everybody Loves Raymond,” which Roberts got.
“She would have been great as the Italian mother,” he said, “but she refused to go in to L.A. to do a screen test. She said, ‘You can look at my old TV footage on ‘The Mothers-In-Law.’ Well, that’s not how the business works.’ That was sad to see she didn’t get that.”
“Kaye was not always easy to understand,” added Arnaz. “She could be abrasively cruel and then hilariously compassionate to the same person within minutes. She was a superb entertainer, a sensational vocal talent who, sadly, never believed she got the breaks she deserved, and it ate away at her.”
But Ballard was beloved in the Coachella Valley. She was the only local celebrity to receive two lifetime achievement awards from the Desert Theatre League. She has a star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars at the corner of Palm Canyon and Tahquitz Canyon drives, next to the marker for Marilyn Monroe, with whom she took acting classes at Actors Studio in New York. The city of Rancho Mirage renamed the street on which she lived Kaye Ballard Lane in 2003, putting her in a league with Sinatra as probably the only local celebrities to live on streets named after them.
She did a “Going Out Of Business” show at the Camelot Theatre in 2014 with friends such as the late Carol Channing, Shecky Greene and Peter Marshall, and it sold out in two weeks. It was filmed for the documentary that was made about her and it provided a warm ending to a film that was primarily intended to inform people about the vastness of Ballard’s career.
Channing says in the film Ballard was the only friend she could talk to about her own personal let-downs.
“She and Channing,” lamented Childers. “What a loss. What an empty hole we have in this desert now without them.”
Matzner, who invested in the documentary that took three-and-a-half years to make, said he loved the movie more than he expected when he watched it at the film festival.
“I had no idea she had done all that work,” he said. “It covered so many years. It was the right thing for her to do to give people a chance to see how broad her work really was.”
"There is no dynamite talent like that," added McLeod. "In the movie, you can see what a multi-talented person she was, and she was that way as a friend, too."
Wingo, who was an executive producer of “Kaye Ballard: The Show Goes On,” said he'll remember Ballard for her work and the depth of her friendship.
“When self-interest and ego satisfaction were being dished out to humans,” Wingo said, “Kaye was still in the line waiting for a second helping of awe and wonder. Those traits were her constant companions throughout a career of comedic brilliance and stunning vocal competence in every arena of show business, from vaudeville to Broadway, television and films.
“But, what must be remembered now is that none of those achievements were any match for the grandeur and strength of her own generous heart. That's the great loss we all experience in losing her.”
Wingo, serving as a family spokesman, said Ballard did not want any form of funeral service and her body will be cremated. Her nearest relatives, he said, are nieces and nephews, In lieu of flowers, Ballard asked that donations in her name be made to the Palm Springs Animal Shelter, the Coachella Homeless Shelter or any Coachella Valley veterans groups.