Kaye Ballard doesn’t bluff.
We learn that from Peter Marshall, long-time host of the TV game show Hollywood Squares, one of the many talking heads — and obvious fans — populating Kaye Ballard: The Show Goes On!, an unambitious yet charming career-retrospective documentary.
Before I go into detail, let me state clearly that I have little interest in biographies, written or filmed, of major celebrities. Tom Cruise. Julia Roberts. Any and all Kardashians. (I still take it as a point of pride that I don’t know which is which.) If they make it onto a People magazine cover, I’ll pass on consuming their life stories.
However, I’m fascinated by also-rans. By sidekicks. By working actors who may never have been in a position to dictate their projects. By the frequent guests on the Merv Griffin or Mike Douglas Show that were always after-school TV options on the black-and-white in my kitchen. If they spent significant time answering questions on a ’70s game show or took more than one cruise on The Love Boat and experienced Love, American Style, I’m game to read about their experiences.
Ballard, who died in 2019 at age 93, is a perfect example.
Perhaps best known for her stint as half of the title pair on the late 1960s sitcom The Mothers-in-Law, Ballard cut her teeth on the road — at age 16, she toured with Spike Jones and His City Slickers — and in cabarets before building a resume of Broadway shows, TV roles (remember her as one of the stepsisters in Julie Andrews’ live Cinderella?) and an occasional movie appearance — among them The Girl Most Likely, A House is Not a Home and Which Way to the Front? As to that last one, Ballard confesses to being one of the few people who loved Jerry Lewis.
Underappreciated as a vocalist — perhaps because most of her Broadway work was in shows such as The Golden Apple and Carnival!, which never quite made the canon of musical-theater standards — Ballard was nonetheless a powerhouse. And there’s ample evidence here taken primarily from TV variety shows. Director Hal Prince comfortably asserts that Ballard had “as good a voice as Judy Garland” and if she had played Mama Rose in Gypsy on Broadway rather than on tour, “she would have made history.” His argument is well- supported.
But it was Ballard’s comic sensibilities that warmed her to the public. There’s a fully committed spirit in her work that comes through in even the smallest TV bit. When music and comedy come together, though, is where Ballard was truly on fire, as in a clip from The Ed Sullivan Show in which she plays a singer trying to maintain her dignity singing “Where or When” while battling hiccups. The voice is spot-on, the comic timing is impeccable, and like much of Ballard’s work, there’s a sprinkling of joy that is difficult to fake.
Like Ballard herself, the documentary avoids addressing personal relationships or challenges. Conflicts are brushed off with a smile and a laugh, and there’s nothing to indicate anything scandalous or problematic. The only time things seem to get even remotely raw at an emotional level is when Ballard recounts the disapproval of her mother, even after her career had taken off. There’s a lovely clip of Ballard performing a number to her elderly grandmother in the audience of The Mike Douglas Show — and that moment is made even more poignant by the fact Ballard couldn’t share that kind of moment with her mother.
There’s fun showbiz trivia here to make up for the lack of revelations or catharsis. Ballard, we learn, is the person who sparked the idea for a bio show on Fanny Brice, which manifested, sans Ballard, as Funny Girl. Kander and Ebb wrote “Maybe This Time” for her, even though Liza Minnelli took credit for launching it once it was added to the film version of Cabaret. Ballard voiced Lucy on a Peanuts concept album long before You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. And she introduced “Fly Me to the Moon” when it was still called “In Other Words.” Even when she recounts being badly treated by Phil Silvers when she took over for Rose Marie in Top Banana, Ballard projects positivity.
OK, so Kaye Ballard: The Show Goes On! isn’t much more than a I-did-this-and-then-did-this documentary. But when it concerns someone this delightful, that’s enough.
Kaye Ballard: The Show Goes On! premieres live on Kaye Ballard’s official Facebook page at 8 p.m.EST on Tuesday (July 14) with an encore at 3 p.m. EST on Wednesday (July 15). The film then hits virtual cinemas on Friday (July 17).