Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Kaye Ballard: The Show Goes On

Kaye Ballard’s sense of career-timing was either amazing or terrible. It is hard to tell which. She recorded a Fanny Brice tribute before Funny Girl and a Peanuts concept album before You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown. She was fairly famous during her Broadway heyday, but her admirers still think she should have been a much bigger star. Sadly, she did not live to see the release of her documentary, but she maybe didn’t miss that much over the last few months. Regardless, the vocalist-comedienne gets her overdue ovation when Dan Wingate’s documentary Kaye Ballard: The Show Goes On releases virtually this Friday, following special live-streaming premiere screenings today and Wednesday.

Ballard (then billed as “Kaye Ballad”) first came to prominence with the Spike Jones band, so you know she must have had a sense of humor. She gained critical acclaim during the original Broadway run of
The Golden Apple, a production that was probably a decade ahead of its time and maybe also overdue for a revival. She had longer runs on Gower Champion’s Carnival in the early 1960s and Joseph Papp’s Broadway Pirates of Penzance. In between, she co-starred on Rogers & Hammerstein’s TV Cinderella and two sitcoms that ran for two seasons: The Mothers-In-Law and The Doris Day Show (on the former she played the wife of Roger C. Carmel, who is probably best known as Harry Mudd, the Star Trek villain).

It is the sort of career that kept her in the public eye during her prime, but did not maintain her in cultural consciousness of Gen Xers and subsequent generations. Perhaps things would have been different if she had been cast in the lead for
Funny Girl. Ballard would have been the perfect choice, since she regularly performed a Fanny Brice tribute as part of her nightclub act, after recording an album of Brice songs. Instead, the part went to a mediocre performer, who has been trading off her fame from the show ever since.

Indeed, the career survey that unfolds in Wingate’s film allows us to track where things went right and wrong. Sometimes, Ballard just made the wrong decisions. However, if there is a bad guy in the narrative, it would be Phil Silvers, who was apparently out to undermine her throughout the out-of-town tour for
Going Bananas.

It really is fascinating to revisit the pop culture of yesteryear through Ballard’s recollections. She was a regular on Jack Paar and Steve Allen, whom Millennials have probably never heard of. She also helps rehab the image of Perry Como, who turns out to have been quite an encouraging boss for the younger repertory performers on his show, such as Ballard and Sandy Stewart (Bill Charlap’s mother).

Wingate assembles a battery talking heads could pass for the final season
What’s My Line?, including Stewart, Ann-Margaret, Rex Reed, Peter Marshall, Liz Smith, Carroll Channing, Harold Prince, and the “youngster,” Michael Feinstein (who of course, knows every song she ever sang). Most importantly, he had plenty of sit-down time with Ballard herself, who is an engaging and enthusiastic raconteur.

After watching
The Show Goes On, most viewers will be convinced Ballard was a unique talent who deserved a few more breaks, but we never hear any self-pity or regret from her. She was old school show biz, all the way. (The film would pair up well with Wait for Your Laugh, the Rose-Marie doc.) Recommended for the subject’s candor and the pop culture history entwined with her story, Kaye Ballard: The Show Goes On has a streaming premiere tonight (7/14), an encore live-stream tomorrow (7/15), and releases virtually this Friday (7/17).