Yesterday I casually picked up a book that fell off a bookshelf. It turned out to be How I Lost 10 Pounds in 53 Years, and is the wonderful memoir of Kaye Ballard, which I acquired in 2006 when it came out, but foolishly failed to read. Mea culpa! I make up for it now, and what a pleasure it is.
You should know who Kaye Ballard is: one of the great comediennes of the American stage, screen, television, concert halls and nightclubs, who should live in your memory and your heart. Born into an Italian immigrant family as Catherina Gloria Balotta, she is now 86 and still performing in a career that began in 1947, and has included co-starring roles with Eve Arden, Jane Powell, Julie Andrews, Jack Cassidy, Nathan Lane and Maureen McGovern. She was “romantically involved” with Marlon Bando, been friends with Gypsy Rose Lee, Marilyn Monroe, Ethel Merman, Desi Arnaz, Bette Davis, and toured with Helen O’Connell and Margaret Whiting.
But in numerous movies, TV, talk and stage shows (many of then musicals, as an ace singer), she rubbed amicable shoulders with more celebrities than I can begin to enumerate. You should get hold of her memoir, co-written with her friend Jim Hesselman, and published by Watson-Guptill as one of their Back Stage Books. It has earned high praise from, among others, Horton Foote, Doris Day, Phyllis Diller, Walter Cronkite, Rex Reed, and Helen Gurley Brown, to which I now add my own belated but hearty encomium.
A compendium of anecdotes and lively reminiscences of many famous or just plain interesting people that crossed Ballard’s path, it is affectionate and outspoken, often hilarious but never malicious, only slightly mischievous but then mostly about herself. Altogether, it covers delightfully a hefty chunk of show business history from more than six decades.
We have here a feisty but sympathetic woman, smart and versatile, not a conventional beauty but of strikingly characterful aspect, not readily forgettable. Striking enough to have been cast as Helen of Troy in The Golden Apple, a show about which she waxes condignly eloquent.
And why not? This is a marvelous musical, with words by the clever John LaTouche and music by the gifted Jerome Moross, which deserves to be much more than a cult favorite, remembered as a near-success in its Broadway premiere of 1954, shortly after it transferred from an Off Broadway hit. But not even enthusiastic reviews, terrific word of mouth and a Life cover of Kaye Ballard by Richard Avedon managed to propel it into a well-deserved smash. Even today, by when the Encores! series has excavated oodles of forgotten musicals, The Golden Apple remains insufficiently revived other than by a few scattered, less than outstanding productions, including a well-intentioned but mismanaged one at the York Theater in 1962. As Thomas Hischak has written in The Oxford Companion to the American Musical, this “brilliant and charming show [is] one of the American musical theater’s most beloved failures. . . . it was far ahead of its time and its score is still treasured as one of the most unique of the decade.” Most unique? Oh, well.
The original cast recording, an LP of only 45 minutes, does nowhere near full justice; even so, reissued on CD, it’s still worth getting. Ballard writes winningly about the show in general and her experience as Helen, and observes cogently that what was required, “a cast album that was two hours long” would not have been bought by people in 1954, “when so much popular music came from Broadway.” Not even the splendid opening, scene-setting number about a little Washington state hill town, “Nothing Ever Happens in Angel’s Roost,” made it into those procrustean 45 minutes.
The show is the story of what would have happened if the Iliad and Odyssey had taken place in the Pacific Northwest, the Spanish American War had been the Trojan War, and the Greek and Trojan heroes and goddesses had been racily idiomatic 1912 Americans, without loss of Homeric pungency, poignancy or romance. Even with the battlefield becoming a boxing rink, and Paris a traveling salesman, this seems somehow to have been too alien to audiences, despite a potent cast comprising Stephen Douglass, Bibi Osterwald, Priscilla Gillette, Jack Whiting, Portia Nelson, Charlotte Rae, Jerry Stiller, and Kaye Ballard, a superb Helen, immortalizing the ballad “Lazy Afternoon” into a golden (apple) oldie. Other songs, like “It’s the Going Home Together,” “Windflowers,” and “By Goona Goona Lagoon,” were no less glittering.
There is something obstinately inexplicable about why certain shows unjustly fail to become hits. To me, The Golden Apple ranks with the likes of Oklahoma! and Kiss Me, Kate, yet it remains an also-ran. Could it be that the still mihty Venus, Juno and Minerva vented their their divine displeasure at being turned intoa mere Lovey Mars, Mrs. Juniper, and Miss Minerva Oliver?
Kaye Ballard’s memoir is not the least sparing in stories about her own gaucherie. So, for instance, about her turning down a dinner invitation from Richard Burton, an act quite probably unique in theatrical history. She was in London in a show called Touch and Go when Burton came backstage with Glynis Johns and Jean Simmons and extended the invitation, but she felt too exhausted to accept, only to regret it to this day: “What if I had gone and fallen asleep in my soup? It was Richard Burton!”
Years later, she is backstage in New York after Burton’s opening night in Hamlet. She bumps into Liz Taylor, who looks at her and asks, “You’re the one who refused to have dinner with my husband, aren’t you?” And she wonders, “Oh my God, how did she know that? Was it really possible that my name passed between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s lips? How exciting!’ That sweet innocence makes up for the mistake in what should be “Richard Burton’s and Elizabeth Taylor’s lips.” Close as the couple may have been, they did not share one pair of lips.
“Good memoirs must always be the cumulation of gossip,” Max Beerbohm has written, and when the memoirist is a celebrity among celebrities, a memoir automatically becomes a rich trove of gossip. But much of what makes this book enjoyable is its inspired slapdashness. As Ballard says in her Introduction: “I have met so many remarkable people throughout my lifetime that it seems almost impossible to relate some of them to a specific date or event.” So, she writes, “I have sandwiched in short passages that I call Interludes, about people whom I might mention at other times in the book but to whom I want to give a little extra time. . . . Think of these passages as little ‘palate cleansers’ between chapters.” Well, sandwiches or palate cleansers, they are tasty morsels, and feature Gypsy Rose Lee, Phil Silvers, Fred Ebb, Carol Burnett, and Doris Day among others, and also “Critics,” which graciously repays those of us who have been (deservedly) kind to Ms. Ballard. There is also a final delightful chapter of brief “Afterthoughts.”
She may earn your plaudits or frowns for the following, as stated in the Introduction: “After talking to various publishers, I found that they believe the general public could not be interested in the story of my life unless I include a lot of sordid, X-rated type materials having to do with things like how I lost my virginity, Okay then, here it is: I lost my virginity riding my brother’s bicycle. The whole experience was quick and painful. (And that’s about all the juicy sex stuff about me you’re going to get.)”
There is only one truly negative paragraph in the book, and this, appropriately, about Barbra Streisand dining in a restaurant at a table close to Ballard’s. A female fan approached Streisand and asked for an autograph. “’Can’t you see I’m eating my dinner?’ Barbra snapped at the woman. . . . I can understand that to someone of Barbra’s stature fans, and especially paparazzi, can get very overwhelming at times. What I can’t understand is how, once you’ve reached the ‘star’ level, you can be rude to the people who put you there.”
We get a marvelous chapter centered on the 1988 revival of the Stephen Sondheim-James Goldman Follies at the worthy Paper Mill Playhouse of Milburn, New Jersey. Here Ballard, who played one of the important supporting parts in a flawless cast that included Ann Miller, Liliane Montevecchi, Phyllis Newman, Eddie Bracken, and Donald Saddler, reminisces about that production and that theater (and does me the honor of quoting a couple of paragraphs from my review), and about why, despite rave reviews and enthusiastic audiences, it did not transfer, as expected, to Broadway. This was partly because Goldman’s widow would not authorize it unless it alternated with the revival of one of her husband’s plays, which the producers did not want to do, and partly also, it seems, because Sondheim wasn’t sufficiently impressed. Her memories, speculations, and even divagations are golden.
The memoir is profusely illustrated, and its happy pictures include Kaye with such greats as Ray Bolger, Jack Paar, Shelley Winters, Jimmy Durante, Sandy Duncan, Ronald Reagan, Phyllis Diller, Carol Channing, Mary Martin, and lots more. My favorite one has her and Maurice Chevalier camping it up for the camera, which proves that a mere black-and-white snapshot of veritable comedians can bring a smile to any viewer.
Yet Ballard can also be observantly, impressively serious: “There is no wit anymore, no grace. There are a lot of smart young composers and performers out there with their computers and their telephones that do everything but the laundry. But, you know, once we got through the anger and love power and whatever else we were going through in the sixties and early seventies, we never went back to listening. Every product we invented was about being faster or cheaper. And the art world went right along with it. It is not a coincidence that Broadway musicals began to decline around this time. Once they did return, they were concentrating on sinking ships and flying helicopters instead of telling a story. The world started going so fast there was no time for the wit of a Noel Coward or a Lorenz Hart, no time for the grace of Lerner and Loewe.”
True enough. And though How I Lost 10 Pounds in 53 Years is also show-biz encyclopedic while being a fast read, it is by no means a cheap one. Abounding in wit, it is nevertheless free of cheap shots. Benevolence, indeed beatitude, radiates from its pages, even while it relates fiascos, faux pas, failed opportunities and footling faits divers. It tickles your funny bone and enhances your fantasies. I’m happy that it fell off my shelf, and hope it will fall into your hands as well.