TheaterMania Logo
Theater News

The Ballad of Kaye Ballard

Kaye Ballard's new memoir leaves Filichia longing for more about the stars and shows that figured in her lengthy career. logo
Kaye Ballard
"My career has been a cornucopia of triumphs and missteps," says Kaye Ballard in the memoir that she wrote with Jim Hesselman: How I Lost 10 Pounds in 53 Years (Argent Books, 193 pages, $19.95). She's right. Broadway first gave her The Golden Apple and Carnival, but then came The Beast in Me and Molly. On TV, there was The Mothers-in-Law -- but there was also What a Dummy.

Then there were the roles she almost got but didn't (e.g., in the film of Lovers and Other Strangers), the ones she got because others turned them down (Carol Channing dropped out of The Girl Most Likely), and the ones she took that turned out to be mixed blessings. Case in point: She loved playing Lola in the musical version of Come Back, Little Sheba but wished that the venue was not the meeting room of a bank.

Ballard could sing "I'm Still Here" and make each member of the audience nod his head in recognition, so there is logic in her telling us about her good times and bum times in a book. As you have probably experienced with virtually all celebrity autobiographies, you may not feel that you're reading a book but, rather, that you're hearing Ballard talk to you over a meal. You'll feel like you're having Special Kaye for breakfast. There is much fun to be had here, partly thanks to the people with whom Ballard worked. Sandy Dennis castigated her for killing a spider; Keenan Wynn told her to drop a tasteless bit from her nightclub act. We learn why Desi Arnaz once fired Rob Reiner, how Gordon MacRae always checked the racing form, and that Dolores Gray had "not the best complexion," which prompted Bert Lahr to say, "She's got a face like a golf course -- 32 holes."

Cecil B. DeMille kicked Ballard off the set of The Ten Commandments. Sophie Tucker made a profane remark to her after she saw Ballard impersonate her. Ruth Gordon gave her good advice on how to handle The Beast in Me. And Ballard says a good deal about the Paper Mill Playhouse Follies, in which she played Hattie; she suspects that Sondheim was responsible for the production not getting to Broadway because he thought it "second-class."

There are other less-than-pleasant memories. While Ballard was singing in a nightclub, she spotted Shirley MacLaine at a table -- playing solitaire. She tells what material Charlie Chaplin stole from her and how she gave money to Fred Ebb on a regular basis while he was struggling; she felt that he later betrayed her, leading to a 20-year rift. She recorded an album of Fanny Brice songs and sent it to Ray Stark in hopes that he'd consider doing a musical about Brice's life. He did, but, as you know, she didn't get the part. On the other hand, there are things of which Ballard is understandably proud. For example: She encouraged Stiller and Meara to do an act, and she fixed up John Schlesinger with the man with whom he'd spend the rest of his life.

Ballard attended Nijinksy's funeral, refused to have dinner with Richard Burton, turned down Phil Silvers for sex (he never forgave her) but did give in to Marlon Brando. She also rented an apartment from Freud's daughter, who, when asked what her father was like, twirled a finger around her ear. Ballard is still astonished that Gypsy Rose Lee would only lend her sister (Dainty) June Havoc money if she paid interest. She admits that she used to be jealous of Carol Burnett and shares observations about Jim Belushi that won't make her a candidate for president of his fan club.

But the reader must plow through a lot to get to the good stuff. For one thing, Ballard and Hesselman have a severe case of BellePoitrineitis, for they put many a word or expression in quotation marks, such as "rock and roll." (We're used to that term by now, Kaye; it can stand on its own.) Then there are the inevitable errors, but in most cases, blame the editor at Argent Books. There are at least four times when "it's" should have been "its." The second "e" in Robert Benchley's last name is missing, while an "e" mistakenly shows up in Gwen "Verden." Best Foot Forward was not "Liza Minnelli's first Broadway show," but her first Off-Broadway show. The musical isn't called Showboat, it's Show Boat. Doesn't somebody at Argent know that the current Queen Elizabeth did NOT have Elizabeth I as a mother? Most scandalous and unforgivable of all is the one instance where the word "Broadway" starts with a lower-case "b." Ballard makes a good point when quoting John Murray Anderson's belief that "imperfection is perfection," meaning that the vagaries of a live performance are what makes a show natively exciting. But books should strive for perfection.

Many performers believe that telling us about their families and their growing up will help us get to know them. But though I'm glad that Ballard had a wonderful relationship with her grandmother, I suspect that readers won't be interested in her Nana for a nanosecond. We all want to hear about the shows, their casts and creators. And if Ballard is going to tell us about her life off stage, she should go all-out. Instead, she says of her parents, "I suppose when I felt I wasn't getting that approval, I resented it and so later I took that resentment on the road with me and applied it to my future bosses, critics, friends, and lovers." She leaves it at that. Detailing one's mistakes is difficult and humiliating, but this line suggests there are many salty stories that Ballard isn't telling us, lest she make herself look bad.

We must settle for nuggets about the shows. Ballard originally sang the showstopping "If" in Two on the Aisle until Dolores Gray took it from her, prompting Ballard to quit the show before it reached New York. Audrey Meadows was offered the chance to take over for Rose Marie in Top Banana but she opted to do The Honeymooners instead, so Ballard got the part. Ballard's main competition for The Golden Apple (for which she had to audition seven times) was Lisa Kirk. There was the time when the conductor of The Golden Apple slipped up, causing Ballard to have to improvise for two whole minutes onstage. She mentions Pleasure Dome, a 1956 musical that closed in rehearsals. There was her battle with Carnival's director-choreographer Gower Champion over the profanity in "Humming." Oh, and when Ballard played Rose in a Dallas Gypsy, Jack Cassidy was her Herbie!

But there could be so much more. We are told that director-choreographer Jack Cole was a lush during Royal Flush, yet we learn little else about this musical that closed out-of-town in the 1964-65 season. There was once a 14-page magazine article on another of that season's musicals, Kelly, so there must have been a commensurate amount of drama on Royal Flush, especially considering that top-billed Eddie Foy, Jr. either quit or was canned. (Ballard doesn't mention him at all.) Royal Flush also featured Jane Connell, Kenneth Nelson, and Mickey Deems, all of whom were witty people who had to have had interesting observations on a dying show, but Ballard doesn't quote them. Indeed, she doesn't even tell what Royal Flush was about. I'll admit that, as a later musical of that same season would say, "There are so many things to remember, but the ugly things one must forget." Still, I'd prefer that Ballard tell about the good, the bad, and the ugly of the shows we never got to see.

There are, however, six pages on Molly, the musical version of the famous ethnic TV series The Goldbergs. The show only lasted a couple of months at the Alvin in 1973. Ballard includes the names of two Tony winners -- and one producer of the Tony Awards -- who walked out of it. And while she ever-so-lightly touches on the fact that she changed the spelling of her name to "Kaye" because of a numerologist, she should have taken us back to the session and show the inner struggle she must have had about the pros and cons of changing the spelling of the professional name audiences had come to know over the previous two decades.

Nevertheless, the book is always entertaining; Ballard has met too many luminaries for it not to be. Doris Day told her how she regretted not getting to do the movie of South Pacific. Lucille Ball complained to her that Joan Crawford was drunk while filming an episode of her sitcom. Shelley Winters used Ballard's swimming pool to ready herself for The Poseidon Adventure. And, most poignant of all: When Ballard played a nightclub years ago, the guy running lights had been a screenwriter and had even been nominated for an Oscar, but then he was blacklisted.

Though there's quite a bit in the book on how Ballard has never, ever been happy with her appearance -- one can infer that from the title! -- she does mention that when she recently saw herself as one of the stepsisters in the 1957 Cinderella, she was quite pleased at the way she looked. That's something we should all keep in mind as we disintegrate: We should be happy with the way we look now, because the day will come when we'll wish we still looked this way. All in all, How I Lost 10 Pounds in 53 Years is good beach reading -- if you've lost more than 10 pounds in fewer than 53 years and are willing to get into a bathing suit.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

Tagged in this Story