Vaudeville, Broadway, TV, film &ndash Kaye Ballard has done it all
By Robert Faires,
5:54PM, Fri. Feb. 24, 2012
With seven decades of credits in every aspect of show biz, you'd figure a body could relax and call it a career. Not Kaye Ballard. This veteran of vaudeville, Broadway, television, cabaret, and film is still at it, and she's brought it to Austin: a song-and-dance spectacle with stage stars Liliane Montevecchi and Lee Roy Reams.
Doin' It For Love is a two-act tribute to standards that the trio will premiere in Austin prior to a Los Angeles run in March. Its Saturday night performance at the Paramount Theatre will not only show off Ballard's passion for the great music and comedy of the past but also her passion for animals; the performance benefits the Texas Humane Legislation Network, with all proceeds supporting programs that promote the humane treatment of animals. For tickets, call 474-1221, or visit www.austintheatre.org.
Given the opportunity to interview Ballard, I was at a loss as to where to begin. Her Broadway breakthrough in the cult hit The Golden Apple, in which she introduced the standard "Lazy Afternoon"? Her Sixties sitcom with Eve Arden, The Mothers-in-Law, a show notable not only for its production team (Desi Arnaz as executive producer and director and the writers of I Love Lucy) but a second-season switch of the actor playing Ballard's husband that rivaled the swap of Darrins on Bewitched? Being the first person to record "Fly Me to the Moon" (when it was still titled "In Other Words")? Appearing in the original Rodgers and Hammerstein TV broadcast of Cinderella? Performing in the Joseph Papp's pop reworking of The Pirates of Penzance? As it happened, Ballard gave me the starting point herself when, expressing her surprise at never having been to Austin before, she brought up her first big gig in vaudeville, as a singer and tuba player (!) for none other than Spike Jones.
Kaye Ballard: Spike Jones played every city in this country and Canada and how we missed Austin, I'll never know.
Austin Chronicle: I was going to ask you about Spike Jones, because he's been a favorite of mine since I was a kid.
KB: Oh, I'm impressed. Well, I'll tell you something. He was a genius. People didn't know that. He was a great drummer. He was Bing Crosby's favorite drummer. He was a genius. And the men he hired were so wonderful: Red Ingle and Carl Grayson. I had fun playing the tuba, and it was a trick tuba, so I'd play it and a big spittoon would empty out. [Laughs] It was funny. He gave me my start.
AC: And you toured for two years, right?
KB: One year. And I thought that's what show business was gonna be like: never an empty seat. Then I found out when I went out on my own &ndash [Laughs]
AC: I loved going back and looking at your remarkable career and all the different people that you worked with, all the different aspects of show business.
KB: The people I've worked with are amazing. I can't believe it. I worked with people I worshiped. I got to know people I worshiped. I mean, Rodgers and Hammerstein. I worked with Bert Lahr. I worked with Doris Day. I worked with Lucille Ball. One of my favorite people was Vivian Vance. Vivian Vance was truly brilliant. Never given the credit she deserved. I worked with Imogene Coca. That was a thrill for me. She never got the honor she deserved. And I worked with Sandy Dennis, whom I adored. And I worked with Siân Phillips, you know, the mother in I, Claudius [in a production of the Ronald Harwood play Quartet]. That was the latest thing I did, and it was the most thrilling thing I've ever done.
AC: Now that's saying something, given all the things you've done. So tell me a little more about what folks will see in the show.
KB: They will see great seasoned performers. Lee Roy is a tremendous song-and-dance man. His energy is great. And Liliane Montevecchi. She's one of a kind, there'll never be another like her. People should see someone who is so sophisticated and so so French. [Laughs] Very French! They'll see about 200 years of show biz, because I've been working since I'm 15, and I'm 86. So that tells you something. It's such a great show, and I'm so happy that I'm doing it because I want the kids today to see. I talk about Sophie Tucker, Jimmy Durante, people that really deserve the credit, and I don't want them to forget them. I mean, my nostalgia is them and Gone With the Wind. Theirs is Saturday Night Fever and what happened yesterday. You know what I mean?
AC: Do you do "Lazy Afternoon"?
KB: I took it out because it's too esoteric. I couldn't re-create the illusion of what that [show] was. It was incredible. It won every award imaginable, even the Pulitzer Prize.
AC: Why do you think it's never gotten a major revival?
KB: Too brilliant. You know, Jerry Moross. And the lyrics &ndash John LaTouche was incredible. Like where Mother Hare sings: "Good is a word that fools believe/Evil is a word that the wise achieve./Fools who are good fools try to deny/That evil exists, they pass it by./But life without evil is empty and strange/Without evil, how can the good ever change?" I mean, people don't want to listen.
AC: I think I saw you for the first when The Mothers-in-Law was on.
KB: That was a joy.
AC: I don't know what drew me to that series as a kid, but I remember watching it faithfully. I remember the switch of your husbands from Roger Carmel to Richard Deacon.
KB: Roger Carmel was my husband. I adored him. Richard Deacon [points her thumb down]. He was, "I'm here for the money, because The Dick Van Dyke Show closed, and we had The Dick Van Dyke Show." That was his attitude. And when I'd hit him, he'd go, "Ow." Sissy. 'Cause Roger Carmel and I [snarls with a smile]. He was an actor.
AC: You two had a great chemistry on that show. There was a lot of terrific chemistry on that show.
KB: Eve Arden was I was so thrilled. I said, "Eve Arden." I've always been in awe of people that have made it. Better Davis was a good friend of mine, also Barbara Stanwyck, and when they'd call me, I'd think, "I'm talkin' to Bette Davis." [Laughs]
AC: You must be back and blue from pinching yourself. "Is this really happening?"
KB: I guess that's why I love show business so much.
AC: I've never known how you came to do The Mothers-in-Law.
KB: I can tell you. They wanted Ann Sothern, who I adore. Ann Sothern gave me great advice: "Get rid of your agents and just get a lawyer." [Laughs] But they thought she was too similar to Eve Arden. It so happened that Lucille Ball came to see me at the Blue Angel, and she called Desi and said, "I think I've found the right one for you." And that's how I got the job, through Lucille Ball.
AC: Had you met Eve Arden before that?
KB: You're gonna like this! This shows you how lucky I was and how insane things happen. While I was with Spike Jones, I played the Trocadero &ndash I've never told anyone this. I played the Trocadero, and she was in the audience. And I sang a song called "All of a Sudden My Heart Sings": "When I remember little things/Your finger stuck into my eye/That Mickey Finn instead of rye " And she says, "I like that. Can I have it?" I said, "Of course." And 25 years later, I'm starring opposite her.
But I never had an unhappy moment with that show. Never. I guess it's because Eve said, "Do you have a good side?" I knew nothing about that, and I said, "I don't know. "Well, this is my good side." I said, "That's okay." So every show, her good side is showing.
AC: And how was Desi as a director?
KB: Brilliant. Vivian Vance told me, "You're going to work with the most tasteful man in Hollywood," and he was. He took every script and did that. [Makes line marking gestures.] Every single script. He was a genius. People don't know that. hew as the one who edited every Lucy script, and every Untouchables, and every Mothers-in-Law and everything else. And he had the greatest joie de vivre. Lucille Ball, people don't know, she was nothing like she is in the show. Very tough. Very tough. Not that happy about anything, really. She was always worried about Desi. [Laughs] But Desi was wonderful.
AC: So I looked on the website and I saw that it took you four CDs to get all your memories out.
KB: I had a broken leg. I had a broken leg, so I said, "What am I gonna do?" So I talked into the tape recorder. "Let's do that then."
AC: I thought that was a true indication of how much you've done in your life that it took you that many CDs to get it all down.
KB: Well, I did a lot more than that. I just had so many accidental contacts in my life. Like going to Nijinsky's funeral. I didn't know who he was. I did two command performances, one when Queen Elizabeth was Princess Elizabeth, and the king &ndash That's why The King's Speech really grabbed me, because I did a command performance for him. It was the last one he saw. But I did two performances, one at Windsor Castle and one at the Palladium. When he stood up at the end, and I'm onstage singing "God Save the King" I still get goosepimples. It was applause like I'd never heard in my life. It was like a wall. I said, "Wait a minute, what is that?" They loved him so much.
If I want to name it, it's like 60% talent, 40% luck. Does that make sense? It's mind-boggling. It's all a question of right place, right time. That's how I got Pirates of Penzance. Joe Papp was my stage manager during Cinderella, and he used to sit and talk to me and say,"You know, I'm gonna do Shakespeare in the park." And I'd say, "Well, you can do it. Are you kidding me?" So when he came up with Pirates, he gave me a call and said, "You want to do it?" I said, "Absolutely." Everything is luck.
AC: But it's also planting those seeds. You have those relationships, and you do right by somebody and &ndash
KB: Some come through. Like George Clooney, who's adorable. I did just one episode of The Law & Harry McGraw with Jerry Orbach, and it was just three months before [Clooney] got ER. And he says, "You know, Kaye, I'm just having the hardest time." I said, ["You'll get something."] He said, "Well, I don't know." Then he got ER, and the rest is history. And he's gracious with it. That's why I want you to see that picture where he's hugging me. This year, I hadn't seen him since I did that thing with him, and he was at this film festival being interviewed by CBS, and he saw me, and he said, "Kaye!" And he ran over to see me. Gave me chills. Because he's &ndash what is the word? &ndash a mensch. He never changed. Well, I appreciate that.
Barbra Streisand [makes a face]. Well, you want the truth. She used to come see me at the Bon Soir. She worked at the Bon Soir right after me. And when she started to do Basin Street, I followed her with Duke Ellington. I called her. "No, she's busy. She can't be disturbed." Forget that.
And Woody Allen is wonderful. If you see the first program of Don't Drink the Water, he mentions that he wrote for me. So every movie I write him a little note, and I give him a rating. I said, "Midnight in Paris is it. If you had done this 30 years ago, you would have been a movie star." And he writes back: "You always remember. Thanks, Kaye." I just keep in touch with him 'cause I love him. He's crazy, and I love him.
And I love Louise Lasser. I say, "Louise, let's go have coffee." And she says, "Okay, you can meet me in the couch department at Bloomingdale's." [Laughs] She's so crazy. I love her. I love people who are creative and funny. And people who have wit, which is gone today.
There's one that's good, the one that's nominated for Moneyball, Jonah Hill. he's good. he has some subtlety. And I worship Christopher Guest. And my favorite comedienne in the world &ndash two: Catherine O'Hara and Kristen Wiig. So you can see that I've been cursed with taste. And I like Melissa McCarthy. But I wish I could talk to these people and say, "Don't go that far." She'll do something very gross. She doesn't need it. She doesn't need it.
If you read my book, you'll know the guy that taught me a lot was Keenan Wynn. When I was playing the Trocadero, I did [an impression of] Bette Davis, and I went [looks down at her bra] and I spit in it, and it got a scream. And he said, "You're not gonna do that." "It's my biggest laugh." I was young, like 19 or 20. He said, "No, you're not gonna do that. That's the wrong kind of laugh." And I never forgot that. Consequently, I've never done anything you can't do on television. But now on television, you can do anything! [Laughs]
See, my idols were Bea Lillie and Judy Garland and Martha Raye, who never got the credit. I was cursed with taste right at the beginning. In my book, I tell about Bea Lillie and Marion Lorne. They would have dinner with me. Bea Lillie knew I worshiped her. I have two of her hats. And we were watching television, and in the book I don't mention who it is, but it was Carol Burnett, and she looked at me, and Bea Lillie said, "Kaye." And I said, 'What?" And she said, "That's the beginning of mediocrity in this country." And she was right. Because Carol Burnett developed into something, through Harvey Korman, but at the beginning it was [with exaggerated expression] "Well! Me!" It was just over. No subtlety. Everything changed. Without taste. I don't get it.
AC: There are times you work opposite somebody and you have that comedic chemistry from the get-go and other times you get somebody &ndash like you were talking about Richard Deacon &ndash where it's just not &ndash
KB: I had it with Roger C. Carmel. I had it with John Dehner. I had it with with Doris Day. Billy DeWolfe.
AC: What a great character actor.
KB: Every time we'd go out, he'd say [high, pinched voice] "Why did we ever say yes?" "God, don't say that. We're going out!" See, there's no one around like that anymore.
AC: Was that something you felt immediately with Eve?
KB: Yes. But I was so in awe of these people anyway that I automatically loved them, you know. Sandy Dennis. I thought, "I'm on stage with Sandy Dennis!" It was wonderful. We did a tour of The Odd Couple. I'll give you an example. I'm supposed to play Oscar, so I'm supposed to be the one who's all rumpled up. And I was always kind of neat. And she's come in rumpled up, with sunglasses, crying. And I'd say, "Is something wrong?" And she'd say, [in a small voice] "No." The tears are streaming down her face. It was so wonderful. Wonderful.
And I worked with Nathan Lane. I did She Stoops to Conquer with him. One night the set fell down. Oh, you don't know how funny that was. We set up that set, all in English, very English: "Set up that piece, deah." Very funny.
I didn't win the awards that I should have won. Really. On Golden Apple. I got the cover of LIFE Magazine on that one. But it's all who you know. And in Carnival, I was pretty damn good, ya know? I didn't even get nominated. That hurts me. But I thought, "That's my reward in life, working with great people."