The 86-year-old entertainer is planning a new show, to play at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency in New York, on June 17. But before that, on April 23, she will be honored at the 27th Annual Bistro Awards with a Bob Harrington Lifetime Achievement designation. The ceremony, honoring excellence in cabaret, happens at the Gotham Comedy Club in Manhattan (other Bistro recipients this year include Melissa Manchester and Dee Dee Bridgewater).
As a member of the Bistro committee, I was elated that Kaye was named 2012’s big winner. And it made me even happier that–as a writer for www.simply-showbiz.com–I was able to call her at her Palm Springs, California home and chat with her about her life as a singer and comedian. In a freewheeling hour-long conversation, we talked about the many milestones in her busy career.
Kaye Ballard began performing in her native Cleveland at a local Chinese restaurant while in her teens. Soon she branched out into tours on the vaudeville (RKO, aka Keith-Orpheum) and burlesque circuits. After that she traveled for a time with the Spike Jones orchestra, where she further honed her comic and musical skills. Later came performances on Broadway (The Golden Apple, Carnival!), in prestigious nightclubs (the Bon Soir, the Blue Angel, the hungry i), and in television (Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, the sitcom The Mothers-in-Law (paired with Eve Arden), and scores of variety shows).
She introduced a couple of classic songs: “Lazy Afternoon” (which she sang as a latter-day Helen of Troy in The Golden Apple) and “Maybe This Time” (long before Liza Minnelli sang it in the film of Cabaret). She also made the first recording ever of the standard “In Other Words (Fly Me to the Moon).” In fact, that number was the flip side of her “Lazy Afternoon” single.
Musical theatre has remained her greatest love. In 1998 I was lucky enough to see her perform in Stephen Sondheim’s Follies at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey, where she sang the number “Broadway Baby.” Her character told us that if she “stuck it long enough” she might get to be in a New York show. While Kaye Ballard has lived in the California desert now for more than 40 years (in a house she bought from Mothers-in-Law producer Desi Arnaz), a big part of her soul will always share that desire to once again tread the boards in a full-tilt Broadway extravaganza.
Her early stints in vaudeville and burlesque
I wanted to be in show business so bad, and that was the only kind of show business I could get into at the beginning of my career. That was show business to me…. But the minute I saw Ethel Merman and Laurette Taylor [in the theatre] in 1947, I said, “This is it. That’s what I want.”
And I was uneducated, from Cleveland. I never went to college. So everything was a training ground for me. Living was a training ground. I had the courage of innocence—of stupidity, really. I was willing to do anything to work and entertain people and act—to be in shows. I never argued about money. And, consequently, I haven’t got it.
It was [theatre impresario] John Murray Anderson who said it all to me. He said, “Kimmer…” (he used to call me “Kimmer”), “you’re gonna take the long road.” And, boy, was he right.
I went into [the revue] Three to Make Ready. He said, “You don’t have an image. You sing. You do comedy. You do everything.” He said, “No. You’ve got to stick to one thing if you really want to make it.”
But I wanted to pay for the things that I really couldn’t appreciate. I collected paintings. And I always wanted a nice apartment. And then I wasn’t in it most of the time, because I was on the road, earning a living to pay for it.
Early routines doing celebrity impressions
That was a means to get into show business at that time. And when you do them often enough, you find yourself.
Judy Garland was one that came easy. I used to do that “Ah, gee, Mr. Gable” [monologue]. Stopped every show. I thought, Ooh, that was fun!
Mob influences in nightclubs
Most of the Mafia came from Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, New York. And they were great guys. They were easy to work for. Like, at the Bon Soir—those guys! I met Genovese there, and everybody. But I thought they were just real nice guys. A gray suit, white shirt, black tie. I thought, Oh, spiffy, spiffy! They’d always throw a dinner party at the end of the engagement, and then give you a present. I thought, Oh, boy! This is great showbiz. I didn’t know that if you ever crossed them—goodbye! Cement boots in the desert.
I knew [what was going on] after I worked for them a while. But I never connected them with Murder, Incorporated or anything like that. They only killed their own, you know. They didn’t just kill people, like they do today. It was always within their own sphere.
Her Mob-connected agent, Joe Glaser
He was the most fascinating man. He handled Louis Armstrong and all the black [entertainers]. I loved him. I don’t know why a movie hasn’t been done about him. I signed with him in New York, very early. He was just a wonderful agent. You’d say, “I haven’t got the rent, Joe.” And he’d say, “All right, come pick it up, and you’ll pay me back in the next job.” He was a remarkable man. He was so tough, and yet he raised champion toy poodles. And he had a closet of fur coats—for the hookers. He was never married. He would just pick up a hooker and give her a fur coat. He never drank. He ate a lot of ice cream. But he was a toughie.
Being on the road
I loved touring in [theatrical] shows. Nightclubs? I wasn’t too happy doing that. Although I had the greatest accompanist, you know: Arthur Siegel. All we did was laugh and eat—in the best restaurants. I said, “We should write a book called Restaurants I Have Known.” It’s true. Because that was the thing that would please me on the road. And I would meet people. I like people. And so it was fascinating….
But I loved touring in a show with the theatre—you didn’t have responsibility for everything. There was a camaraderie about show business when I was touring—in Three to Make Ready and Top Banana and all those shows. It was fun. Today it’s so different. The kids don’t care about what was. And I always cared about what was. I was lucky. I feel my nostalgia is better than theirs. Theirs is yesterday. Mine is back to Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz.
Musicals then and now
I was lucky enough to go with [lyricist] John LaTouche to his house for dinner, where he played the score to The Golden Apple.
You know what’s something interesting? I was always led to the more esoteric lyrics. They appealed to me. Like in Golden Apple—my God!
For some reason, I’m influenced by intellectual things, without having the education.
Golden Apple was way ahead of its time—and wonderful. I mean, today…? Heh-heh-heh. You know what I mean? It’s kind of funny that we honor people that don’t have Stephen Sondheim’s talent. Broadway musicals [today] are…I don’t know.
Of course, I worship Hugh Jackman. I worship the way his pants fit him. He’s just the best-looking man and the most talented man in the world!
“Lazy Afternoon”/”In Other Words” (Fly Me to the Moon)” 45rpm single
“Lazy Afternoon” was a separate recording from the one on the [Golden Apple] cast album. I recorded it with Gordon Jenkins. And then “Fly Me to the Moon” was on the other side. I recorded them both in the same session—of course! Today it’s a joke. It was four hours for both songs. That was it. Twice through both, and that’s it. Now they just pamper themselves—I don’t know. They come in eight months later to do two lines.
I didn’t know what “In Other Words” would become. When Joe Harnell did it, or Frank Sinatra, I said “Oops!” My timing was a little off.
Marlene Dietrich and Debbie Reynolds.
They called me in the wintertime and said “We’re coming to the Bon Soir tonight. Will you sing “Lazy Afternoon”? I said, ‘There’s snow up to my ass. I’m not gonna sing “Lazy Afternoon.”
First of all, I never sang that song outside of the show—because it was so dear to me. It was so exceptional in the show—and it [depended on] the setting. It was hard to recreate that.
Oscar Hammerstein II on the set of Cinderella
We had a staged reading, and he just read the lyrics while Richard Rodgers played. Tears ran from my eyes. Especially when he said, “Do I love you because you’re beautiful, or are you beautiful because I love you?” Oh, my God!
Oh, that was a fabulous experience. Except my leading man [James Mitchell] never spoke to me for those whole 16 months, and I don’t know why. He was very difficult to get to know. After the show closed, he spoke to me.
It was a wonderful experience. But I tell you—I’ve never been unhappy in a Broadway show. Even in the flops. I was so thrilled to be onstage. When I started, there was only the Curtain Pullers, [a program for young performers] at the Cleveland Playhouse. Other than that, there was nowhere you could do off-Broadway things. So, consequently, I performed in nightclubs and vaudeville. That was the closest thing to a stage. But musical comedy is my heart. It’s a thrill when you hear that overture.
[Director/choreographer] Gower Champion was my champion. He hired me for Carnival!. He just said, “Go ahead and go through the auditions. But you’ve got the job.”
TV variety shows
Oh, I did 150 of ’em. But [people] don’t remember. That’s gone. I was on Perry Como’s show for a year and a half, with Paul Lynde and Sandy Stewart and Don Adams and Jack Duffy. That was a wonderful company.
The Mothers-in-Law was both successful and fun. But then it was a stupid thing, because the second season they were arguing about money—and that was over a $250 raise. Eve Arden and I were willing to say, “Forget it. Let’s just move on.” But Roger C. Carmel—who was a brilliant actor, my favorite husband—said, “No it’s the principle of the thing.” And that, of course, destroyed the show as far as I was concerned. Because they gave me a new husband, and everybody thought, Now why did that happen?
1970s TV shows like The Love Boat and Fantasy Island
It’s self-preservation—you do anything. Colleen Dewhurst called me and said, “Kay, they offered me Love Boat. Will it ruin my career?” I said, “I don’t think so. Ethel Merman and everybody’s doing it.”
You know, what’s funny? When I was doing television, you couldn’t get a Broadway show or a movie. That was below their comprehension, to hire you. Today it’s the reverse. If you’re not doing television, you can’t get Broadway.
Stephen Sondheim’s Follies at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey
That, to me, was the ultimate. I think it was the best company, aside from the original, which I adored. It came close to the original. And it was well-cast… I mean, Ann Miller–it was a thrill to see her there. It didn’t transfer [to Broadway], and in my heart I don’t know why it didn’t—unless Mrs. Goldman [widow of librettist James Goldman] didn’t want it to say it came from the Paper Mill Playhouse.
I’ve done three shows there, and they were all superior. I saw Gigi there with Liliane Montevecchi. And I thought, if that had gone to New York, it would have been a big hit. Because she is the ultimate courtesan—the ultimate!
The proudest I am of something I did in the past 20 years is [the Ronald Harwood play] Quartet up at Sag Harbor [at the Bay Street Theatre in 2006], with Siân Phillips and Paul Hecht and Simon Jones. And it was thrilling to be onstage with people of such excellence. And I did it for scale because I didn’t care. I was thrilled to be onstage with these people.
Martha Raye went overboard a little bit. But she was the first [female comic] that was from-the-heart funny. My idols were Judy Garland, Martha Raye, and Bea Lillie. You can’t do better than that.
I knew both Gypsy Rose Lee and her sister, June Havoc. They were superior. But, you see, those were the kind of people I found so fascinating. They really had something about them that was, I don’t know, superior.
Gypsy was my favorite show to do. Gypsy Rose Lee never saw me do it but June Havoc did. Gypsy is about as perfect as you can get, as far as a musical is concerned. And I won an award in Dallas for “best actress of the year” when there were some pretty great people there, like Ginger Rogers and Carol Burnett.
I knew Ethel Merman well. I have a little thing she crocheted: “Ethel’s Kitchen.” And I have a pillow, where she has two frogs—screwing. She was class. She’d always come see me and say: “Hey, Ballard. Where’s the john? I’ve gotta take a piss.” Always a lady! She was wonderful, though. My idol.
Today’s comic talents
I love Kristen Wiig and Catherine O’Hara. They’re my two favorite comics—because they have subtlety. Believe it or not, I believe in subtlety. People think, oh, because I have a loud mouth or I sing loud, that I don’t have it. I do.
The one who I think is the greatest around today is Christopher Guest—now, that is my kind of comedy. I think he is brilliant, and his company of stars is brilliant: Parker Posey and all these people. Eugene Levy—oh! Satire—I love that kind of comedy. Like Saturday Night Live. It’s so wonderful at times. I love Fred Armisen.
I don’t like mean comedy. I don’t like the jokes about Lindsay Lohan and people like that. They have it bad enough, without people making it worse.
The person she most would like to have worked with but didn’t
I would love to have had a line or two in a Meryl Streep movie. [Laughs.] She’s the best we have at the moment. I think so.
The decision to never take a job outside of show business
I wouldn’t. That’s why I played all the dumps and places I did throughout the country. Because I said, “No. That’s my business. That’s what I want.” I was too fat to wait on tables. I would have dropped everything.
Keeping memories alive
The show I’m doing this June at Feinstein’s is really “The Best of the Past Is Meant to Last.” That’s the way I feel. I don’t want people to forget Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker, Jimmy Durante. And I don’t want them to forget my mentor, who was Henny Youngman. He gave me all my jokes. I don’t want people to forget them. So I [remember them in the show]—whether audiences like it or not. So far they really like it. It’s a difficult road to hoe because young people are too interested in texting each other while they’re watching you.
The Sophie Tucker number I do, which Charles Strouse wrote with Lee Adams, is truly a masterpiece, as far as giving the essence of somebody. I still owe them $150 for the number!
When I think of how much I worked in New York, it’s astounding. I played the Strand, the Loew’s State, then I played Broadway. I’ve been lucky. But I still haven’t done what I want to do—isn’t that sad? And that would be [another] movie or a Broadway show. It’s too late for a Broadway show. I can’t do “8 a week” now. But a movie? I would love to do one thing where I can say, “That’s the best I can do.”
No more holding back
If you come to Feinstein’s on June 17th, you’ll hear a lot. Because I feel that at this point in my life, I can tell it exactly like it is.
I think you’ll like it. If you care about those old people, you’ll like it!
For more about Kaye Ballard, read her memoir, How I Lost 10 Pounds in 53 Years.
And for more information about the 27th Annual Bistro Awards show, visit bistroawards.com