Sunday, April 22, 2012


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.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012


There should be a difference between a good performance and a great one. Sensibly, one applauds at the end of the former and rises to one’s feet for the latter. About which is which, one knows in one’s bones. Or does one?

I don’t recall seeing in the old days audiences bent on rushing into a standing ovation even for a mediocre, sometimes indeed dismal, play, as if they were goosed by their seats. But nowadays standing ovations are as common as dirt, and strike me as a dirty joke. Why, even at a performance much later than the premiere, benighted souls will leap to their feet, clapping and cheering, as if to stand were standard procedure. This raises a number of questions.

Are audiences particularly stupid? Or did they spend so much on their tickets that they must resort to this device to prove to themselves that the money was well worth it? Or are they lusting for some sort of participation in the creative process and deluding themselves that this is it? Or are they just trying to show off with how much smarter they are than their still sedentary neighbors? What they certainly don’t realize is that they are devaluing the standing ovation, and often adding insult to injury by their shrieks or howls, or whatever you call the throat complementing the feet.

Of course, once a fool thinks up a new trick like that shriek or howl or whatever it is, there is never a shortage of copycats or lemmings to follow suit. We have seen it happen even in the refined sport of tennis, where after Monica Seles started the grunt, it took hold of any number of distinguished players, women first but eventually some men as well. Whatever it means in tennis, in the theater and concert hall it indulges the herd’s need to be heard. Forget about I think, therefore I am: Descartes is discarded. The new motto is: I make noise, therefore I am. And the standing ovation, sometimes also accompanied by foot stamping, is the shout made visible.

Alas, that is not the only sound we hear from audiences. Any number of people talk during the show. It is argued, not without plausibility, that because they watch so much on television, they have lost the sense of difference between the theater and the living room. Some people, more commonly but not exclusively at the movies, randomly get up and leave, and sooner or later return. I doubt that it can all be to the toilet. But it can disturb, like two heads in front of you repeatedly coming together, which is talk made visible.

Some such people can be shushed. Others get furious, glower at you, and continue as before. The supposed option of complaining to an usher is useless. Even in the remote possibility of finding one, it means missing too much of the play or concert. And just what can an usher do? The culprits know that they won’t be physically ejected; a reprimand mostly earns the usher and you the wrath of other audience members who, until now, were not disturbed.

For so many hidebound people in the audience, from whom you might hope for support, the misbehaving persons in front of them don’t matter, and neither do the ones behind them. So perhaps new ways of dealing with the talkers must be invented. Perhaps one could have an index card ready to thrust at them, reading “If you’ll kindly stop talking, I’ll give you a monetary award at the end of the show.”

Sometimes if you hear what they are saying, you can score. At a Truffaut film, where the camera raced around sights of Paris, a man behind me kept identifying them for his companion. “The Eiffel Tower,” he would say, or “Notre Dame Cathedral,” and the like. Finally, when he announced the Triumphal Arch, I corrected him: “No, the Brooklyn Navy Yard.” This somehow stumped him into silence.

Then, at the cinema where there are empty seats, a talker will tell you, “If you don’t like it, move!” You might want to question him why it doesn’t occur to him to follow his own advice. But the trouble is that the offender is often a huge, burly, uncouth fellow, who might start a brawl or worse. In that case, by moving yourself, you may miss some important part of the movie, not to mention disturb innocent people in your present row and the one you move to.

Sometimes I think enviously of mad king Ludwig of Bavaria, who had Wagner compose works for him played at the Private Theater with the king the sole audience. That may well be the ideal enjoyment, especially at a comedy, where primitive audiences will laugh louder and longer than the maddest monarch, and often make you lose several lines of dialogue and the next joke. Sad to say, though I might try to approximate Ludwig’s madness, his money is beyond my wildest dreams.

Speaking of concerts, the late great and eccentric music critic B. H. Haggin was so disgusted with audiences, though rather better at classical concerts (I keep forgetting that these days anything is called a concert), that he would hold his program up before him so that it would block out the audience and leave only the stage in view. I never attended anything sitting close to him, so I can’t tell to what extent he made a spectacle of himself for those he couldn’t block out. He was also unusual among music critics by ignoring if possible any music later than that of the late Romantics.

My own taste is the exact opposite. I have no interest in music from before roughly 1840, and can only wonder at the adulation of, say, Bach and Mozart, when there is Fauré and Debussy and Bartók and Berg and Prokofiev and Janáček, to name only a few. I recall the time when the great lieder singer Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau gave three recitals in Carnegie Hall, all of which I attended. The first two, Schubert ones, I enjoyed well enough, but really looked forward to the third, which was to be all Hugo Wolf. But Sol Hurok, the concert manager, managed to talk the baritone into sticking with Schubert, who apparently was bigger at the box office. As we were leaving, I bumped into Haggin, who asked me, “Wasn’t it wonderful?” I replied that I would have much preferred Wolf. Haggin burst out laughing; for him, I must have been the only one with such a preference.

I realize now that I have strayed a bit from the subject of the audience. But I too, like all critics, am also audience. And perhaps the only subject on which I wholly agree with my colleagues is about not talking during a show. I mean the professional critics, and not those unfortunate bloggers who, in the Age of the Internet , when everyone is a critic, fancy themselves that. Those, with some honorable exceptions, would do well to shut the hell up.