Remembering Performing Arts Star Kaye Ballard

Jan 24, 2019

In 1973, my high school in Lexington, Massachusetts, began making half-price theater tickets available to students. The first show opened to us was previewing for a projected Broadway run at Boston’s beautiful Colonial Theatre.

Molly was a musical based on an older TV series called The Rise of the Goldbergs, starring Gertrude Berg. I’m past middle age but Berg, God love her, was long before my time.

This was the story of a beloved matriarch and the community over which she rules (usually) benevolently in a Bronx apartment house during the Great Depression.

In 1973, Berg was dead and The Goldbergs existed on kinescopes in museums. But who doesn’t love a community? A neighborhood?

Molly Goldberg became a vehicle for a musical starring Kaye Ballard.

Ballard died earlier this week at the age of 93. In her memoir, How I Lost 10 Pounds in 53 Years, she called Molly “the show that broke my heart.”

Ballard went on every talk show and was in every newspaper promoting Molly. It was an event before it opened. It came to Boston for tryouts. The reviews were scathing.

When the first song in a musical goes, “If everyone got what they wanted, after a while it wouldn’t be such a treat,” you know you’re in trouble.

Molly limped to Broadway and died.

Ballard’s 70-year career wasn’t slowed by Molly’s demise. She returned to Broadway in Joseph Papp’s production of The Pirates of Penzance. She did clubs. She toured. She was on TV. Ballard always worked.

Several years ago, she came to Columbus to promote her autobiography.

I interviewed her, and that hour was a delight.

Ballard spoke in capital letters.

HELLO, CHRISTOFAH! HELLO, CLEVELAND!

We’re in Columbus, Miss Ballard.

COLUMBUS? I LOVE COLUMBUS! I PLAYED HERE IN 1951 ON A BILL WITH MAE WEST!

Her stories were fantastic. Paul Lynde was a jerk. Bette Davis drank. She wouldn’t work with Jim Belushi again for $1 million. Alice Ghostley was wonderful. So were Tallulah Bankhead and Merv Griffin.

She had a two-night stand with Marlon Brando. She bought her house in California from Desi Arnaz. The Mothers in Law, her TV series, ran only two seasons but has a cult following today.

And she told a great story about Lucille Ball.

It seems Ballard and Ball were riding bikes in the California sunshine. A big dog began chasing them. The dog barked, snapped and got in the way.

Finally, Ball yelled in that Lucille Ball baritone:

GET THE F--- OUTTA HERE!

At which point the dog yelped and went running off in the other direction.

DO YOU KNOW WHAT I SAID TO HER? I TOLD HER, “THIS IS WHY YOU ARE QUEEN OF THE WORLD!”

Ballard wasn’t Queen of the World. She was a show biz dynamo who never quite broke through. She could sing, dance, act, play the flute, and she was very funny. She was typecast on TV as the blabby loudmouth.

You know what? Kaye Ballard had fun, and she was fun. Not a bad epitaph.