More than 500 adoring fans filled the large, sold-out auditorium at the Camelot Theatres one spring evening, with several hundred others sent home, disappointed by the fact that they could not buy tickets to the show featuring a true living legend.
Inside, 88-year-old Kaye Ballard had her Going Out of Business audience in hysterics, laughing to the point of bellyache. I counted at least five standing ovations before the incredibly talented lady rode her tricked-out scooter up the aisle, passing a standing, cheering audience—leaving the stage for perhaps the last time. After all, the one-night-show was billed as her possible final performance.
The thought of the Rancho Mirage resident packing up her tuba and denying her fans her amazing wit is unimaginable. Here’s hoping the “right” script comes along, or she decides to be like Cher, whose perpetual “last tour” is seemingly an annual event.
When I asked the actress, singer and comedian if she’d allow me to do an interview, she graciously agreed. Here are some of the highlights of our chat.
When did you begin your career in showbiz? How old were you, and what was your first paying job?
I knew I wanted to perform by the time I was 5, and even before graduating high school, I began to find work doing imitations of my favorite stars. I worked all around Ohio. I did burlesque and vaudeville … and before I discovered my true love of musical theater, I toured with the Spike Jones Orchestra for two years as the featured vocalist and tuba-player.
Was your family supportive of your love of the stage and acting?
To my mother’s horror, I wanted to be in show business. This notion was contrary to every conventional belief she possessed! Mama did her best to dislodge this foreign idea from my head: “You’re too ugly. You can’t be in show business the way you look!” She’d say, “Have a cannoli.” If my mother ever felt maternal pride in any of my achievements, she never shared those feelings with me. In fact, in the early years of my career, no member of my family came to any of my performances. My mother always gave the tickets I’d given her to the butcher or a neighbor. I don’t think she wasn’t proud of me. In her own strange way, giving those tickets away was her way of showing her pride. Crazy, huh? I grew to feel sorry for Mama. … She never had the life she’d wanted. She simply did the best she knew how to do, with what was given to her.
My biggest support at home came from my grandmother. When I told Nana I wanted to be in show business, she said, “Go on, go. But, I no wan-a you to smoke, and you no show your legs.” I kept my word, and to this day, no audience has ever seen my legs.
What was your favorite role, and why?
You’d think that someone who has been in the theater as long as I have would find it difficult to choose a favorite role. Not me: My favorite role ever is the indomitable “Mama Rose” in perhaps the most perfectly written show in all of musical comedy history, Gypsy. What a thrill, and what a workout! I’ve played Mama Rose twice, and both times, I’ve found her to be the most exhausting, most rewarding character I’ve come across in the theater.
How many Broadway shows did you do? Films? TV shows?
Lots. LOTS. Lots! I did lots of shows on Broadway: Carnival!, The Pirates of Penzance and The Golden Apple. I did Broadway, and then I did off-Broadway. I always stayed until the end of the show’s run. I did 150 Tonight Show (episodes) altogether. I did The Jack Parr Show, The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson, The Steve Allen Show, The Perry Como Show, The Carol Burnett Show, The Mike Douglas Show and The Muppet Show.
When I realize how much I’ve done … I’ve lived a long time! I’ve always worked in show business. … I never took another kind of job. I appeared in dumps just to keep working. I did vaudeville, Vegas with Sid Caesar, Jerry Lewis, Tony Bennett, Ann-Margret … films … worked in nightclubs. And I’ve written a book, How I Lost 10 Pounds in 53 Years.
It’s been rumored that you and Marlon Brando were very close friends. Is it true?
As to your question about Marlon: I found him irresistibly attractive … and yes, we had a brief affair. He was lighthearted and hilarious … we had a wonderful time. When the physical part of the relationship was over, we became good friends and often had dinner together. He was intellectual and refined. However, there was a macho, even chauvinistic side to him. He did not believe that monogamy was natural … and felt that men were meant to sow their seed in many different directions, and my Lord, he certainly did! (Big laugh.) Not that I wasn’t tempted to be one of those directions—come on, he was stunningly gorgeous! But on the off chance the baby would look like me, I couldn’t take the chance! (Laughs.) The last time I spoke with him, I told him I was writing a book, and that I could recall every moment I’d spent with him. He replied, “Every little moment, Kaye? I can’t even remember who I’ve slept with!” (Laughs.) I sent Marlon a card for his 80th birthday, and that was the last contact I had with him. The sensation of losing a friend is unreal, even more so when the friend happens to be an icon, and the world mourns along with you.
Who are your favorite contemporary actors and singers?
We can’t dismiss Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt … and of course, I adore George Clooney. I was on a series with him … before he got ER. His life changed dramatically after that.
Your career has included performances for the British royal family. You entertained President and Mrs. Ronald Reagan at the White House in 1987. You’ve starred multiple times on Broadway and sung at some of the most prestigious nightclubs around the world. You’ve done films and television, and made millions of people laugh. What do you want to do next?
Well, I want to do one good movie—one thing that I could say I did my best! If I die, I’ll really be furious, because I still haven’t done what I consider my best yet!
Below: Shecky Greene, Carol Channing and Kaye Ballard speak to a fan. Photo by Alexis Hunter. Above right. Kaye Ballard with four-legged friend Jacqleen. Photo by Kate Porter.