Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Remembering Kaye Ballard, 1925-2019

Yesterday, the world awoke to the news that the singer, actress and comedienne Kaye Ballard, famous for originating roles in Broadway’s “Carnival” and “Golden Apple,” and on the TV sitcom The Mothers-in -Law, had died at her home in Rancho Mirage, California, at the age of 93.

Kaye’s death comes just a week after that of one of her best friends, another beloved Broadway and comedy legend (and another fixture in the Palm Springs area), Carol Channing, who died just short of her 98th birthday.

with Kaye Ballard in the New York studios
of Sirius XM for "The Frank DeCaro Show"
September 28, 2010
I had the pleasure of meeting both Carol and Kaye when they guested on Sirius XM’s “The Frank DeCaro Show,” as well as in interviews celebrating many of their famous projects.  For my upcoming book on The Love Boat, I was fortunate enough to get a fun story out of Carol.  And two years ago this month, I spoke by phone with Kaye about The Love Boat and so much more of her career.  My fellow paesana, Kaye and I got along famously – and we even compared notes about Southern Italian cuisine.  After all, as Kaye would point out when giving out her phone number, the digits even had the word EAT embedded within.

Below, just a bit of our fun conversation, which I’m so glad I had the opportunity to have with a show business legend.

Must-Hear TV:  Tell me about the documentary you’re working on, about your life and career.

Kaye Ballard:  You will be shocked with some of the people who spoke on it! Hal Prince and Woody Allen – who never talks about anything.  I’m so thrilled he said yes.  I knew him when he first started. He’s been wonderful.  And I always write him after a movie and rate it.

I have worked with great, great people, honey.  All the people I worked with on The Perry Como Show.  Being this old and never stopping to win an Emmy or anything like that, I just kept working and meeting all these people, and getting to know them.

MHTV:  A few years ago, I saw a lot of your talented friends join you on stage in Palm Springs, when you gave your “Going Out of Business” retirement performance.

Carol Channing and Kaye Ballard
at the Camelot Theater in Palm Springs
following the performance of
"Kaye Ballard: Going Out of Business"
March, 2014
KB:  Oh, Carol Channing!  My Carol Channing.  She did a number in that show.  Oh god, I love that number [Cecilia Sisson].  And I genuinely laugh that hard at that number every time I hear it.  The audacity of her taking that long, and to keep whistling – she’s one of the most wonderful people in the world.

MHTV:  Other than The Love Boat, you’ve had so many great TV roles.  I talked with Bernie Kopell about working with you on The Doris Day Show.

KB:  And we worked with Billy DeWolfe, who was a very close friend of mine.  He was one of the funniest men who ever lived.  He called me “Rose Boozy,” and he called Doris “Clara Bixby.”  He was just wonderful, and had the kind of wit that I think is missing today.

MHTV:  And of course, it was on for only two seasons, but people still remember and love The Mothers-in-Law.

KB:  That was my favorite thing, because I loved Eve Arden and I loved my first husband, Roger C. Carmel.  Oh my God, what a great actor he was.  Do you realize that that show went off the air because they wouldn’t give us a $250 raise?  Isn’t that funny?  It was amazing.  Eve Arden and I said, “Forget the raise – we want to keep going!”  But Roger said “No, it’s the principle of the thing, Cutes,” and they replaced him, which ended up being a mistake for the show. 

MHTV:  In addition to this documentary, a few years ago, you also published your memoir, How I Lost 10 Pounds in 53 Years.

KB:  Every word is true, and I think you can get it on amazon for either $5 or $10.  It’s wonderful what happened last year -- I had sent it to [theater and book critic] John Simon, and he threw it aside.  But then he wrote in his blog, “I picked up a book that Kaye Ballard wrote 6 or 7 years ago, and I’m so sorry I waited that long.”  And he just loved it.  And so he made my old age!

MHTV:  Tell me more about your documentary [titled Kaye Ballard: The Show Goes On, which premiered earlier this month at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, after which Kaye, suffering from heart problems just weeks before her death, received a standing ovation.]

KB:  At the moment it’s called “Medium Rare and Well Done.”  Because I’ve been in every medium of show business, and it’s called “Rare” because Carol Channing and I were maybe two of the people living who performed for the princess before she was queen.  So that’s pretty good.

MHTV:  Is that Princess Victoria, you mean?

KB:  Elizabeth!  Not Victoria, you cruel little person.

I say “Well Done,” because I think I have done it well.  Even though I didn’t win a Tony or an Emmy – that frustrates me to death.  Everything is politics, not only in show business, in every business.  Because I deserved one.  I certainly deserved nominations.  For “Carnival,” for “Golden Apple” – I should have won.

At that time, I was doing every medium, and they didn’t have respect for people who could do every medium.

MHTV:  Was there a stigma back then against actors who appeared on TV?

KB:  It’s not like that anymore, but it was then.  If you were kind of a hit in supper clubs, they didn’t think of you seriously as an actress or anything else.  But since then, I’ve proven it to myself, because I’ve done plays with Imogene Coca, Sandy Dennis – I could name many other people.  And so therefore, I know I was good.  That’s why I say “And Well Done.”

I thought I was pretty damn good in all the things I did, and I never resorted to any kind of vulgarity.  That’s what I resent today.  It was Jack Benny who told me that – he said, “Funny is funny, and you don’t have to go that far.”

And you know what was funny -- when I did The Mothers-in-Law, and I bit my fist, [the network censors] called the Italian embassy.  And when the Italian embassy came on the set, they asked them, “Hey, what does that mean?”  but you know, I say “Va Fa Napoli.”  That sounds like it could be vulgar, but it means “Go to Naples.”

I did the movie The Ritz, and I had to say “FUCK” in the last scene.  My mother wouldn’t talk to me for months.  I had to do that.  I said it once, and I got this long grief in this f-ing family.  My mother went into shock.

MHTV:  Was your mother very proper?

KB:  She was from Calabria.  She came over from Italy when she was about 8 or 10.  And talk about grief, my grandmother came over with five kids and one of them died of diphtheria on the ship.  It took them 30 days to come across.  It was the cattle boat.  I’ve had an interesting life.

MHTV:  Which we’re about to see on the big screen.

KB:  The documentary has all these interviews, and now the filmmaker will piece it together.  Michael Feinstein, Rex Reed, Liz Smith, wonderful people.  Donna McKechnie, Jerry Stiller – my best friend.  Oh, I love him more than I can tell you.

I’ve been lucky.  I’ve met all the people I’ve really admired, and got to know them, like Bette Davis and Cary Grant and Barbara Stanwyck, and another idol, Irene Dunne.  Clark Gable, I asked him for an autograph, and he said, “The heck I’ll give you an autograph, but I’ll give you a kiss.”

MHTV:  Did you take the kiss from Gable?

KB:  Yes.  It was when I first performed with [bandleader] Spike Jones, in 1947 or ‘48.  We were playing the Trocadero, and I went up to Gable and said “Oh my God, I’d love it – can I have your autograph?”  And he said no, but he stepped and kissed me on the cheek.  I thought “Oh my lord!”  It was wonderful.

I think people are going to say, “Oh, you didn’t know all those people” – but I knew much more than that!  When I went to England, I turned down a date with Richard Burton, because I was doing two shows a day.  But then I met his wife and Jean Simmons and Glynis Johns and Michael Wilding.  I was fascinated with anybody in show business who achieved excellence.

MHTV:  You mean you could have had those diamonds instead of Liz Taylor?

KB:    I doubt it.  I wouldn’t even know how to be a glamour queen.

MHTV:  They say that passion for something, like your appreciation of excellence in a performer, is what keeps people going.

KB:  That’s it.  I can get jaded today with some of the performances.  But I still admire.  I’m a fan.  I’m an eternal fan.