As we take time to remember some of our favorite television stars who passed away this year, Kaye Ballard definitely comes to mind.
Apparently, no one was surprised to learn that Catherine Gloria Ballota planned on a career in entertainment. Born in Cleveland in 1925, she was performing by age 5 and was known as the class clown. At age 16 she performed in a Cleveland USO stage production of Stage Door Canteen and began perfecting impressions of stars for her comedy act.
At the young age of 18, she received a job touring with Spike Jones and His Orchestra as the featured vocalist and flute/tuba player. When that gig ended in 1945, she made her way to New York and appeared on Broadway in Three to Make Ready in 1946. While appearing in other musicals, she earned a reputation in the nightclub circuit as a comedian/singer. She traveled around the country with her act, popping up in clubs such as The Bon Soir in New York, The Hungry i in San Francisco, and Mr. Kelly’s in Chicago. One of her catch phrases was something her mother often said to her, “Good luck with your MOUTH.”
During the 1950s and 1960s, she began appearing on variety and talk shows. You would tune in and find her with Ed Sullivan, Jack Paar, Steve Allen, Perry Como, Red Skelton, Carol Burnett, Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas and Johnny Carson. In fact, she appeared on The Tonight Show 150 times. She continued her Broadway career during these two decades as well. She made a name for herself playing Helen of Troy in The Golden Apple in 1954. This same year she recorded “Fly Me to the Moon,” a song Frank Sinatra would make famous. She also was part of the casts of Wonderful Town (1958), Carnival (1961), and Cole Porter Revisited (1965).
In 1957 Julie Andrews starred in a live telecast of Cinderella, the Rodgers and Hammerstein’s version of the fairy tale. Ballard, along with Alice Ghostley, played the wicked stepsisters. It was at this time that Hollywood brought Ballard to Los Angeles. She was one of the comic foils, playing the friend of Jane Powell’s character in The Girl Most Likely. Although she would appear in several movies during her career, television is where she was best known.
In 1964 she played a teacher for models on The Patty Duke Show. In 1967 she was offered one of the leads, Kaye Buell, in The Mothers-in-Law. The other lead was played by Eve Arden as Eve Hubbard. When Kaye’s son married Eve’s daughter, it caused conflict between the neighboring families, especially with their kids living in the garage. The two families had very different lifestyles. Herb Hubbard was a wealthy attorney and his wife was a champion athlete and very organized. Roger Buell was a television writer and Kaye a stay-at-home mom who is a lazy housekeeper and very unorganized. Desi Arnaz produced the show which lasted two seasons.
The show followed The Wonderful World of Disney and preceded Bonanza but never received the ratings the network hoped for. Desi agreed to pay most of the stars $2000 per week with the intent of giving them a $250 raise the second year. Because the show was not as successful as everyone thought it would be, the network agreed to renew it on the condition that all expenses, including salaries, were frozen. With the exception of Roger Carmel, all the cast members agreed to freeze their salaries. He refused, so he was replaced with Richard Deacon. With the change in the cast, the ratings went down even further, and the show was not renewed for a third year.
Kaye was asked if she thought the $250 raise was a joke, and Kaye said she and Eve didn’t care about the money. They wanted to keep doing the show. At the time, Arden was making $5000 a week. The show was originally written for Arden and Ann Southern but the networks felt they were too much alike, so Ballard was brought in. Kaye couldn’t get over actors receiving one or two million dollars an episode a couple decades later.
A long-time friendship developed between Ballard and Arden during the filming of the show. Ballard fondly remembered her co-star, “Eve was a joy to work with, and we never had an unpleasant moment. . . She could read a script once and know it almost completely.”
Another long friendship was made when Kaye worked with Shelley Winters on a film in 1964. Kaye relayed that when Shelley was cast in The Poseidon Adventure, she “used my (Kaye’s) pool to practice swimming underwater because the studio wouldn’t let her rehearse until they started shooting. She was a great swimmer but ruined all my flashlights by swimming with them.”
The 1970s found Kaye very busy. From 1970-1972 she was a regular on The Doris Day Show, playing restaurant owner Angie Pallucci. The series took some liberties with format. The first two years had Doris moving back to her dad’s ranch to raise her kids after the death of her husband. The third season found Doris and her dad and kids living in an apartment above the Pallucci’s restaurant. In the fifth and final season, the kids, dad, and the Palluccis all disappeared and were never mentioned!
In 1971 she guest starred on her friend’s show, Here’s Lucy. In 1970 Ballard purchased Ball and Arnaz’s home after their divorce. She would live there the rest of her life. Her friend Lucy would often stop by and talked about Desi whom she never quite got over.
Ballard won the trifecta in the seventies, appearing on Love American Style, Fantasy Island, and The Love Boat. She accepted a handful of random roles on television shows after The Doris Day Show ended. You might have seen her on Police Story or Trapper John MD.
The 1990-1991 season found Kaye trying her hand at a situation comedy one more time. The show was called What a Dummy. This show did stretch reality a bit. Ed and Polly Branningan inherit his uncle’s trunk of props which includes his dummy Buzz who has been in the trunk for 50 years. Buzz can think and talk and likes to give the family his unsolicited advice. Ballard was Mrs. Tavalony, their next-door neighbor. No surprise that it was cancelled after 24 episodes.
In 1995, Ballard was rewarded with a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars.
Kaye continued to take a few movies now and then, but most of her time was spent on the stage. In 2005, she went on the road in Nunsense. She also accepted roles in The Pirates of Penzance, High Spirits, Funny Girl, The Full Monty, and The Odd Couple.
In 2006, Kaye added author to her resume, publishing an autobiography, How I Lost 10 Pounds in 53 Years.
In 2015, Kaye announced her official retirement. She was interviewed by Nick Thomas that same year and talked about writing a second book. She explained to Thomas that she never married but did not have any regrets. “I was engaged four times, but couldn’t give my all to a marriage or wanted children unless I could give them my complete attention. But I’ve got to meet so many great people because of my career. Who could regret that?”
One of those great people was Mother Teresa whom she met in 1992. Kaye discussed that meeting: “I’m an Irish Catholic girl, so it was a thrill. I went to her private quarters where she was having breakfast –a piece of cheese, half an apple and some toast—and we drank Sanka together. She spoke in English, simply and quietly, and was just so modest and humble.”
Although she survived breast cancer, Kaye passed away at age 93 at her home from kidney cancer in January.
The girl from Cleveland with the MOUTH had a long, successful, and interesting career. In her own words, “I’m one of the lucky ones. People get Master’s Degrees and they say, ‘I don’t know what I wanted to do.’ I always knew what I wanted to do. Isn’t that nice?”
I have to agree; it was nice for her and even nicer for those of us she entertained.