Interlude: Kaye Ballard, America’s ‘Golden’Standard

The incomparable Kaye Ballard
How often do you get a chance to talk with a genuine American treasure? I had exactly that pleasure when I spoke with Kaye Ballard. Probably best known for her role on the classic sitcom, “The Mothers-In -Law” which ran for two seasons on NBC from 1967 to 1969, MPI Home Video is at last set to release the entire show onto DVD on July 27, with all 56 episodes and lots of terrific bonus material (including the long, lost pilot.) Yet to think of this remarkable singer and comedienne simply as another “TV personality” is to overlook just how dynamic and versatile an artist she truly is. In fact, perhaps a better name for her would be Kaye-O because she‘s still such a knock out talent be behold.
 
Furthermore, for all the public recognition the series brought her, its the stage that still is Ballards’ true love. “Broadway is my heart” the Cleveland Ohio native confirms. “You know, when you’ve known Ethel Merman, Mary Martin and Carol Channing, I really was lucky enough to be part of the golden age of Broadway–and it was the ‘Golden Age.” Her first ground-breaking success was the 1954 musical “The Golden Apple”–an updating of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey set in turn-of- the-century Washington, This was the show in which she introduced “Lazy Afternoon”, which went on to be an established standard. “When I first heard ‘Lazy Afternoon’, and the lyrics: You hold my hand and sit real still, you can hear the grass as it grows, I thought, ’I have GOT to sing that song!” she reminisces; “I did eight auditions and finally got it.”

"The Golden Apple"

While “Golden Apple” was a professional triumph, “Carnival”, the 1961 musical was her biggest and most recognizable hit on the “Great White Way“. In it, she played “the Incomparable Rosalie”, the tempestuous assistant to a philandering magician. Then again, strong willed characters are no stranger to Ballard. Around this time, she also appeared as ‘Mama Rose’ in the ‘Dallas Summer Musicals’ presentation of “Gypsy”, starring opposite Jack Cassidy and most of the original Broadway cast. Likewise, For her efforts, she walked away with the ‘Rosenthal Award’ for “Best Actress“. “That was unbelievable!” she raves of the experience. “Rose is the greatest role ever written for a musical comedy.” As for dramatic work, the actress feels that her best was in 2006 when she performed in Ronald Harwood’s play “Quartet” with Sian Phillips, Paul Hecht and Simon Jones at the Bay Street Theater in SAG Harbor New York. “They’re all sensational actors” Kaye enthuses, “It was thrilling to be on stage with these English people who were so accomplished. I had to go to the school of hard knocks–they went to RADA!”

Revivals too, have been another aspect of this legendary performer’s career. In the early 90s’, Southern California audiences were delighted with her sensational portrayal of Prison Matron “Mama Morton” in the Long Beach CLO’s production of “Chicago”. Directed by Rob Marshall, he would, not coincidentally, go on to helm the bold ’’new’ Broadway version and eventual academy award winning film. Similarly, in 1997 Ballard was cast as Hattie Walker, the aging trouper who sings the show-stopping (and in this case, appropriately named–) “Broadway Baby” in the much lauded staging of “Follies” at New Jersey’s famed Paper Mill Playhouse. “When I did “Follies” at the Paper Mill with the greatest cast in the world–it was just incredible!” She recalls. “People came from all over the world to see that company.” In addition, she points to a review from John Simon–the notoriously hard to please critic for the New York Times who wrote “I understand THIS version of it better than I did the first!”

Kaye As "Molly"

For her many triumphs though, the disappointments have been just as keenly felt. For instance, “Molly”, another musical truly broke her heart. “Molly” didn’t get the chance–and it was a good premise,” she recollects. Based on “The Goldbergs”–a popular radio show that was later translated to television, the plot involved Molly Goldberg, the determined but loving matriarch of an eccentric family, coming to the rescue when her husband’s clothing business faces sudden disaster. “It was a cute idea” explains Kaye; “Being only left with remnants, Molly saves the day by coming up with the two piece bathing suit!” Nonetheless, despite a gifted cast and songs like “Go In The Best Of Health”, it simply didn’t work, which still puzzles her. Heightening the frustration was the fact that they were playing to packed houses– matinees, with evening attendance remaining low. “It was strictly a woman’s show,“ the star declares. “I worked so hard on it and the responsibility of having your name over the title was terrifying! But the truth is, once you open in New York and the word spreads that you’re in trouble, it’s very difficult to recover from that.”

Kaye's Riveting 'Audio Memoir': 'My Life, In My Own Words, From My Own Mouth!"

Through everything though, she acknowledges that the sheer exhilaration of creating live theater has never gotten old. “You hear that overture, and then….its breathtaking! It was never boring for me–“Carnival” was never boring, “Golden Apple” was never boring–All of it was never boring!” Recently, she released a 4 CD set titled “My Life, In My Own Words, With My Own Mouth!” based on her autobiography, “How I Lost Ten Pounds–In 53 Years!” (co-authored by Jim Hesselman). Here, the lady herself tells her life story in a one-of-a-kind “audio memoir” featuring songs and bits of routines from long out of print recordings, as well as some hilarious, on-the-money impressions as only this funny female can do them! For those who love plenty of great inside stories about ’show biz’ back-in-the-day, this is a ‘must have’ for their collection! “I’m very proud of this CD,” she asserts. “I was recovering from a broken leg, so I just decided to talk into a microphone about my life–and I’m glad I did. Every word is the truth!”  

Given her tremendous enthusiasm for the stage, it is only fitting that, not too long ago, recently a theater was even named for her. “It’s in Joshua Tree,” she smiles. “It’s called “Kaye Ballard Playhouse”. Formerly the “Hi-Desert Playhouse”, the small auditorium houses 250 seats, and Kaye seemed the perfect choice due to her unwavering support over the years. “I saw so many talented people there,” she proclaims proudly; “so they asked ‘Can we use your name?’ I said, ‘Of course!’” Happily too, is how news of the event has brought surprising encouragement from old friends–and their children. “In ‘Golden Apple‘, the one who skated across stage–and who became one of my closest friends–was Jerry Stiller,” Ballard divulges; “and Jerry’s son, Ben Stiller, I’ve known practically from before he was born! When they heard about the theater, Ben sent a donation for it which was delightful!”

These days find the tireless icon in rehearsals with two of her “Follies” co-stars–Donna McKechnie and Liliane Montevecchi as they prepare a new review titled “Broadway Ladies”. “I’m gonna be eighty-five in November, and in December, I’m doing a show in Santa Fe New Mexico!” announces this bona-fide “Broadway Lady“. “It’s a show about listening to the words, and knowing the people there have really paid their dues! The woman that booked the three of us listened to my records, called me, and said, ’I love your voice, I would love you to do a show in Santa Fe. Who would you like with you?” The entertainer didn’t hesitate to name the two, stressing that together, this trio of stage veterans comprise “a very good combination”.

All in all, its definitely been a big year for Spike Jones’ former tuba player, the excitement shows no signs of stopping. “I’ve had a lot of disappointments but a lot of thrills–and I am proud to say, I never earned any money any other way,” details this self-professed fan of the footlights, adding, “MY awards are that the people I respected, were fans–the people that I got to know and work with, and who I really thought were superior at what they do–THAT’S been my award!” For more information regarding how to order “My Life, In My Own Words, With My Own Mouth,” as well as to keep up with the latest news concerning all of her other projects and appearances, log onto: www.kayeballard.com

 
   

Special “Thanks” to Paul Lambert, Mark Sendroff, Jim Hesselman, and to Ms. Kaye Ballard, for helping make this story possible.

 

 

2 thoughts on “Interlude: Kaye Ballard, America’s ‘Golden’Standard

  1. The Golden Apple takes place in Washington state, not Washington, D.C. Been a fan a long time. Saw Kaye in “Carnival!” at the DC tryout in, what, spring of ’62. Still have the program she autographed, along with everyone in the show, and David Merrick!

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