Actress/singer/comedian Kaye Ballard established herself as a musical comedy queen in the 1940’s. She would go on to become one of the most recognizable, albeit most underappreciated, personalities in American entertainment culture for decades afterward. Ballard was a talented singer, but she was perhaps best known as an over-the-top funny lady. She starred in the now-classic television gems The Mothers-in-Law and The Doris Day Show, and made innumerable guest appearances on many other TV shows and feature films. She also appeared on Broadway, and in 2005 wrote her mirthfully-titled autobiography How I Lost 10 Pounds in 53 Years. Ballard performed on stage until her “retirement” at age 89 in 2015, although a new project soon came a-calling… In 2016 I learned that Ballard was working on a documentary about her life, prospectively named Medium Rare and Well Done. (You’ll learn more about how Kaye chose that name later…!), As an admirer of a performer who truly did it HER way, I really wanted to speak to Ballard about her upcoming endeavor.
Kaye and I were connected through one of the performer’s closest friends, the lovely artist/author Alexis Hunter, author of the critically acclaimed 2015 book Joi Lansing: A Body to Die For: A Love Story. When I contacted Ballard for the interview in July 2016, she was “taking it easy” at a friend’s guest house in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She laughed hysterically when I asked if she was in Santa Fe to escape the unforgiving heat of her native California. (Interestingly, It was about 90 degrees in New York City that day!) She told me she couldn’t walk very well due to bad knees. Her voice somewhat reflected her physical frailty. Nevertheless, she was as funny and as warm as could be. We spoke about the documentary– as well as food, animals, pop culture, and even politics (She REALLY wanted Hillary to win!) I promised her that I wouldn’t publish our interview until it came closer to the documentary release date. So, I waited, and waited, and waited…!
The documentary, directed by Dan Wingate and now named Kaye Ballard: The Show Goes On!, eventually made its debut as part of the Palm Springs International Film Festival at the Palm Springs Cultural Center. Sadly, Ballard would pass away shortly afterward, on January 22, at age 93. Entertainer/author Jere Ring, author of the 2013 book If The Shoe Fits, Buy Two!, was in the audience at the documentary screening– which would also be one of Ballard’s last public appearances. Ring tells me: “I was on the front row at the Camelot Theater in Palm Springs for the premiere of “Kaye Ballard – The Show Goes On!” on January 14, 2019. The packed auditorium looked like the cast of a Fellini film. The well produced documentary was followed by a delightful extempore Q & A which further enhanced the star’s remarkably brimming career. Kaye was multitalented and accomplished beyond measure. The event was discussed over lunch, cocktails, and coffee for ensuing weeks and even months. I would cherish the opportunity to view it again and perhaps again to pick up the tidbits I missed on the first go around. She was a delightful friend and a humble enigma and will be forever missed.”
Diehard Kaye admirers and prospective new fans will finally get the chance to watch Kaye Ballard: The Show Goes On! when the film will stream on Tuesday, July 14. The documentary recounts Ballard’s life and career through interviews with both Kaye and many of her showbiz peers, as well as many clips of her performing on stage, screen, and in TV appearances.
In anticipation of the documentary, here is my never-before-seen interview with Kaye from 2016:
JR: Hello! Thank you for speaking with me!
KB: How are you? I’m not going to call you “Jed”. I’m calling you “Jedidiah”!
JR: That’s fine with me! (Laughs) And how are you?
JR: (Laughs) That’s great! So, first off, what made you decide to do this documentary about yourself?
KB: I thought, “I’ve got to do a documentary about me, because nobody else will do it!” (Laughs) Because, people don’t realize what I’ve done. They think of you as just “on television”– and that’s not enough! I’ve been in every single medium of show business, and I wanted to show that. I did two command performances for Queen Elizabeth when she was just “Princess Elizabeth”! I played every big important supper club, and I’ve tried Broadway and all that. I thought, “Well, I’m gonna do a documentary before I die.” I’ll be 91 pretty soon! So, I’m doing it. I’ve got wonderful people. I’ve got Carol Channing, in what’s probably her last performance. She’s singing. Do you know that song where she whistles, Cecilia Sisson?
KB: She did that so brilliantly. I have her. I have Ann-Margret, who I’ve worked with; and Jerry Stiller, who I’ve worked with; Frank Langella, who I adore; and Rex Reed… To me, it’s important that I have the people who I love. They say I’m the “real show business”, and it’s true. People just know about the television, and that’s not enough for me! I did vaudeville with Spike Jones. I’ve done every vaudeville house in Canada and the United States. I just don’t like them to think of me as just “television”. I’ve done 40 movies. I’m giving my whole life story! (Laughs)
JR: Well, people love TV because they get to see Kaye Ballard in their own living room! And of course, times have changed. Now we watch TV and movies on our phones!
KB: That’s right. But they don’t know EVERYTHING you’ve been on! I’ve done 150 Tonight Shows starting with Steve Allen! I get angry, because I haven’t won awards. So, I’m gonna tell ’em what I’ve done. And as you know, everything is connected with politics!
JR: Oh, yes!
KB: I knew Hal Prince, and when he sits on the Tony committee, I’m never gonna be nominated! You know what I mean? I was like, “I told you everything I wanted to tell you!”
JR: Well, I for one can’t wait to see the documentary! So, how has retirement– and I use that word very loosely– been treating you?
KB: Oh, I don’t retire! I’m doing this! The last four shows were my happiest shows. But I wasn’t my best. I had acid reflux. But I chose the people I wanted to work with. I chose Liliane Montevecchi and Donna McKenzie and Lee Roy Reams… We played in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. We did four shows. That’s something else I wanted people to know.
The interesting part is that the last part of my life turned out to be the best part of my life. Tennessee Williams gave an article where he talked about three singers, and he said that if you wanted a story told, it should be by me. John Simon, who you know from The New Yorker, had never paid any attention to me. I sent him a copy of How I Lost 10 Pounds in 53 Years: A Memoir, and he didn’t pay any attention to it. And then, about two years ago, he picked it up and he said, “Oh my, I wish I had read this book before!” Those are my rewards! Because in the last part, I’m recognized by people I truly respect, like Walter Cronkite and Horton Foote: They all gave me comments for my book. I thought, “Those are the rewards that really count!” And I’m truly grateful for Liz Smith, and those people who have been fabulous to me and treated me wonderfully. I also adore Rex Reed. He’s being interviewed for the documentary on the 11th or 12th of August. I don’t know what he is going to say! (Laughs) I always respected him. He thinks EXACTLY as I think! When he reviews a movie, I say, “Damnit, he’s RIGHT on the money!” We are both old-fashioned, I guess. And obviously YOU are, you little rascal!
JR: Oh, hells yeah! I still buy books. I don’t read them on a little tablet. And I still believe in seeing movies in the theater! They used to invite us reviewers to see movies in the theater. That’s actually how I met Rex Reed, by the way! Now they don’t even do that! They send us a link to watch it on the internet! (Laughs) Speaking of which: After all these decades on TV, in movies, on the stage… How does it feel to be in cyberspace? I love your website!
KB: (Laughs) Oh, and you’ll love this too: You know what I’m calling the documentary? “Medium Rare and Well Done.” Which means, I’ve been in every MEDIUM in show business. And it’s RARE that I entertained the Queen two times when she was Princess Elizabeth. And I feel I’ve done it well! WELL DONE! So, there you are!
JR: Wow! So by the way, who is the producer of the documentary?
KB: Me! (Laughs) ME!
JR: (Laughs) Of course!
KB: Me, and Dan Wingate, who worked at Sony, taking old films and restoring them. He’s wonderful. He’s a young man. He’s the one I wanted to produce it.
JR: Lucky guy! So, are we going to learn any new and surprising anecdotes? I mean, it’s hard to top what we already know about you and all that, but are we learning anything new in the documentary? You know, some celebrity gossip?!
KB: The people that I love speak, and I don’t know what they’re gonna say yet! But I hope they say good things. I know that Jerry Stiller will say just what I want him to say!
I know him, so I know how he thinks. When somebody asks him about me, he’ll say, “Well, she’s ‘the real deal’!”
JR: (Laughs) I briefly met his son Ben at a Broadway show, Allegiance, recently.
KB: Ben Stiller! My God, I changed his diapers! (Laughs)
JR: (Laughs) I wish I would have known that. That would have been a good conversation piece! (Laughs) “Kaye Ballard changed your diapers!”
KB: You could have said, “Kaye Ballard was the first one who put you on TV– as a baby!” It was The Mike Douglas Show. He was such a good ‘prop baby’! He looked just like his father!
JR: So I have to ask: We always use the cliché “Age is just a number.” Is it?
KB: You know something? My 90th birthday was my happiest… because I thought, “I made 90!” (Laughs)
JR: Congratulations! I’ll have a drink to your 90th birthday belatedly! (Laughs) So, besides “Stay tuned for the documentary!”, what will you want to tell your fans? Plus, you’ll have some new ones: A whole new generation is going to learn about Kaye Ballard now.
KB: Well, that’s what I want to tell them. That’s what show business was like. I did anything to keep working in show business. I earned my whole living. I never asked my mother or father for anything. You know? I gave THEM things! I loved my father. And I LEARNED to love my mother! My father was always the light in my life. And my grandmother. I guess everybody’s grandmother was the one that they love!
JR: Oh, yeah! My grandmother was truly a great woman, and she was also very glamorous. She never left the house without having her hair and makeup done.
KB: Oh, that’s funny! I’m sort of that way. I like to put on makeup. Today, it’s a different story. Every day is Halloween today! (Laughs)
JR: I also remember my grandmother having that long cigarette holder!
KB: Oh my God, I love your grandmother! She must have been from New York!
JR: Oh yes, absolutely. And she always had her hair all swirled up to the top of her head, held in place with a pearl pin, and she always dressed elegantly. When I said, “Mom, Grandma is so GLAMOROUS!”, my mother was like, “How did you know that word?” Everybody was giggling. It’s all true!
KB: Oh, that’s adorable! But when you think about it, New Yorkers are the greatest. They have the greatest humor, the greatest everything. Like Bloomberg last night: How eloquent he was at that convention! What a class act! He’s the real thing…
JR: I guess he decided not to run for President himself!
KB: That’s exactly it! He should have been President. And I want Meryl Streep to win everything! (Laughs)
JR: (Laughs) I think she’d make a great Vice President, don’t you?
KB: Yeah. But you know, there are unknown people that haven’t made it who are spectacular. There’s a girl named Marina Re, who’s from New York. I saw her do Master Class. I’ve seen them all, and she was better than all of them. MARINA RE! She WAS Maria Callas! Marina is Italian, and you know, Italian is so much like Greek. She was just unbelievable. I saw her in a repertory company and she was making 300 dollars a week, and I thought, “Oh that breaks my heart!”– because there are so many great people in repertory who never get the opportunity to be seen. Her own agent in Palm Springs didn’t even come to see her. She was spectacular. I saw her twice in one week because I thought, “My God, this performance is something!” I love to help people who I feel are great. I don’t understand the people who DON’T help other people who are really great. You know what I mean?
JR: Oh yes! Well, she’s lucky that you are spreading the word, because when Kaye Ballard talks, people listen!
KB: Oh, you’re so sweet! I don’t think so, but that’s OK! (Laughs)
JR: That’s why YOU should run for President. Yes! Kaye Ballard for President! You know you got MY vote!
KB: I learned a little too late! When you think of Ellen Degeneres, who makes 100 million a year! (Laughs), you think, “Wow!” She should thank God and light candles every day!” (Laughs) Everything is strange today. There are like 7,000 Jennifer Anistons in People Magazine. They all look like Jennifer Aniston! They all have their hair the same way! I don’t know…
JR: True! So, when can we expect to see your documentary? It’s still in the works, I take it?
KB: Well, they are still interviewing people! I must tell you: Ann-Margaret is the most adorable person. She is like Marilyn Monroe. She’s still gorgeous, and she’s still loyal to that that husband of hers, that wonderful Roger. You know, she’s going to be married 50 years and she looks like a child. Wait till you see her! She was trying to imitate Carol Channing with the whistle! (Laughs) And she was doing it! Carol Channing is an icon, and I will never forgive the Kennedy Center for not honoring her. I will NEVER forgive them!
JR: You know, I asked Carol Channing a few years ago– I think she was only in her early eighties at the time– if they made a movie about her life, who would play her? She said that of course, she’d play herself! (Laughs) But she didn’t know who would play the OLDER Carol Channing! (Laughs) So, if I asked you the same question, of course, you could play yourself… but who would play the OLDER Kaye Ballard?
KB: I don’t know. I’m sure there’s a lot of people, but I don’t know! (Laughs)
JR: I have one last question for you: What do you like to do for fun now?
KB: I love to go to movie theaters. I love to have a great lunch and dinner. I love friends– and I have good friends here. It’s nice. I love Liliane, and Donna, and Lee Roy. They’re so wonderful, because I call them and they come running. And the lady who produced the show is spectacular. Her name is Marguerite Gordon and she loves animals. Anyone who loves animals, I automatically love them.
JR: Oh, I hear you!
KB: That’s what I didn’t like about Johnny Carson. He wasn’t crazy about animals. He just really lost me when he said, “I just eat to live.” I said, “Really? I LIVE to EAT!” (Laughs)
JR: That makes two of us!
KB: That’s good! Jedidiah, I don’t trust the world. I certainly don’t trust it now! I hope Hillary, with all my heart, gets in. I was on The View with her, and she autographed something for me. I thought, if she becomes the first lady President, I can frame this and sell it! (Laughs) She’s wonderful. I hope she has the chance to show us. And I love Obama. I loved everybody on that show last night. Joe Biden, the Vice President… I just don’t know how Giuliani could have gotten on the show and said, “She’s never done anything in her life”. Is he cracking up? What is this?
JR: Politics makes you crazy!
KB: (Laughs) Politics is the lowest, I think!
JR: I certainly don’t watch politics for entertainment! You said before I was old- fashioned. It’s true! Give me sitcoms. Give me game shows. Give me variety shows. And give me… Kaye Ballard!
KB: Awwwww, thanks honey! Keep in touch!
JR: I certainly will. Thank you for speaking with me!
Kaye Ballard: The Show Goes On! will premiere Tuesday, July 14 at 5:00 pm PST with a repeat on July 15 at noon PST. RSVP’s are needed! For more information, visit http://www.KayeBallardMovie.com.