July 18, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Dan Wingate
Culture Representation: Taking place in the United States, the documentary “Kaye Ballard: The Show Goes On!” features an all-white group of senior citizens in the entertainment industry discussing the career of entertainer Kaye Ballard, including Ballard herself.
Culture Clash: Ballard experienced sexual harassment, hostile work environments and career slumps during her more than 75 years in showbiz.
Culture Audience: Besides the obvious target audience of Kaye Ballard fans fans, “Kaye Ballard: The Show Goes On!” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in stories about the Golden Age of Hollywood and mid-20th century Broadway.
The documentary film “Kaye Ballard: The Show Goes On!” (directed by Dan Wingate) is a pleasant and often-humorous ride down Kaye Ballard’s memory lane of her seven decades in the entertainment business. It’s not going to reveal anything particularly new, and it’s the type of documentary that’s really just a compilation of interviews and archival footage. But it’s the closest thing to a filmed memoir for Ballard, who died in 2019 at the age of 93.
Born in Cleveland in 1925, Ballard’s birth name was Catherine Gloria Balotta. She was one of four children of Italian immigrants Lena and Vincenzo (later called Vincent James) Balotta. Long before she changed her stage name to Kaye Ballard, she knew from an early age (5 years old) that she wanted to become an entertainer. By the age of 16, Ballard was touring with comedian Spike Jones. And she went on to become a prolific actress and singer on stage, in movies and on television—even back in the days when entertainers were pressured to stick to one category of where to perform.
Ballard was a headliner on Broadway and for her nightclub shows, but in movies and television, she almost always had supporting roles, and they were usually comedies. Therefore, although she was famous, she wasn’t a superstar who was a household name worldwide. She mentions in the documentary that a highlight of her career was being on the cover of Life magazine in 1954 (for her starring role in the Broadway musical “The Golden Apple”), in one of famed photographer Richard Avedon’s rare photo shoots for Life magazine.
Because she’s a known comedian, Ballard mugs for the camera and jokes around a lot during her interviews. For almost the entire documentary, Ballard just talks about her career. The documentary’s big gaping void is the lack of information about her love life. Although she never married and did not have children, she doesn’t even discuss things such as if she ever fell in love, who she dated, or even if she had crushes on anyone.
The only time in the documentary that Ballard opens up about her personal life in this film is toward the end when she says, “I had the most wonderful family in the world.” She then talks about how close she was to her beloved grandmother, but her relationship with her parents wasn’t always as close.
Ballard describes her mother Lena as emotionally distant, although they did reconcile their differences toward the end of Lena’s life. As for Ballard’s dad, she says: “My father could never say ‘I love you.’ He’d say, ‘Well, I wish you good luck, always.’ He was the most noble man I knew.”
Ballard had a 2004 autobiography called “How I Lost 10 Pounds in 53 Years: A Memoir,” so this documentary is just a more updated version of that book, with the added context of archival clips. It’s clear from watching this film that Ballard is one of those entertainers who didn’t seem to have any close friends outside of showbiz. Everyone who’s interviewed in this documentary is someone from the entertainment business—usually people who’ve worked with Ballard at one time or another.
And they have nothing but good things to say about Ballard. (Some of the people interviewed in for this documentary have since passed away, including Jerry Stiller, Liz Smith, Carol Channing and Harold Prince.) Other people interviewed in the documentary are Ann-Margret, Carol Burnett, Michael Feinstein, Elaine Paige, Sandy Stewart, attorney/producer Mark Sendroff, Peter Marshall, Rex Reed, Mimi Hines, Joy Behar, Donna McKechnie, Woody Allen, Sandy Stewart and “Perry Como Show” producer Gary Smith.
The movie has a mostly chronological look at Ballard’s career. And, for the most part, Ballard has the expected fond memories, while the talking heads in the documentary give Ballard effusive praise. Commenting on Ballard’s 1959 album “The Fanny Brice Story in song,” Reed gushes, “She was more Fanny Brice than Barbra Streisand.” Stiller says about Ballard, “She made more people famous than you can imagine.”
Ballard also mentions that Mama Rose in the musical “Gypsy” was the “the best role ever written” that she got to perform. She also says some of her best working experiences were on “The Perry Como Show.” And she also retells the well-known story of how she rejected the “My Coloring Book” song (written by famed Broadway songwriting duo John Kander and Fred Ebb) because she didn’t think she would be believable singing it, so she suggested that Stewart sing it instead.
In one way or another, all of the people interviewed say that Ballard was a consummate professional who enjoyed helping other entertainers be their best. Behar shares a story about how, early in her career, she had a guest cameo on “The Steve Allen Comedy Hour” in 1967. Behar says she was so nervous that she flubbed the first take of the scene.
But after getting a pep talk from Ballard, who was on the set and standing near the camera, Behar sailed through the second take. Behar says in the documentary, “And so, I’m forever indebted to Kaye Ballard for helping me in my first humble day of showbiz where I was really scared.”
Ballard is certainly ebullient and upbeat in the documentary, but she does talk about some of the down sides of her showbiz career, such as being targeted for sexual harassment by comedian Phil Silvers and being blackballed by Johnny Carson. She also went through periods of time, especially when she got older, when she couldn’t get as much work. And because she wasn’t conventionally beautiful, she wasn’t considered a “leading lady” type for film and TV.
According to Ballard, Silvers wanted Rose Marie to be his leading lady in the 1951-1952 Broadway musical “Top Banana,” but Ballard was cast instead. Ballard says that Silvers sexually harassed her, and when she rejected his advances, she claims that he tried to get her fired and “he made my life miserable for 10 months.” When “Top Banana” was made into a 1954 feature film, Ballard says, “He didn’t let me do the movie, and I’m glad, because it was a bomb.”
As for getting on Carson’s bad side, she says it was because she was misquoted in a magazine article about her experience being a guest on his talk show. Carson never asked her back on his show and he didn’t seem to care about getting her side of the story. However, since showbiz is full of egos that are huge and fragile, even the nicest person can end up making enemies.
Ballard shares her philosophy on dealing with haters: “When somebody tries to get me down, it makes me stronger. I stick with it.” She says it’s one of the reasons why she refused to quit “Top Banana,” because she didn’t want to give Silvers the satisfaction that his bullying was going to run her out of the show before her contract ended.
In the documentary, Ballard’s tales of positive experiences far outnumber any negative experiences. Even when her contract was not renewed for the game show “Hollywood Squares,” it gets a positive spin in the documentary. Former “Hollywood Squares” host Marshall and Ballard both say in the documentary that she ended up not being a good fit for “Hollywood Squares” because she wasn’t good at deceiving the contestants, which is part of the game.
And she has some surprisingly nice things to say about a few showbiz people who had reputations for being difficult off-stage. Ballard comments on Lenny Bruce: “Many people get the wrong impression of Lenny Bruce. They think he was a dirty old man, but he was anything but—he was a sexy young man.” And on Jerry Lewis, Ballard says: “I’m one of the few people in the world who loves Jerry Lewis.”
If there’s one tiny criticism of Ballard’s commentary it’s that she tends to name-drop a little too much when she talks about celebrities who came to see her perform on stage. However, it can be excused as someone who was awed and humbled that people she respected took the time to watch her live performances.
And she certainly was surrounded by plenty of talented people. Ballard says that when she moved to New York City and lived in Greenwich Village, she says her best friends were Maureen Stapleton, Eli Wallach, Ann Jackson and Marlon Brando. By the way, she describes Brando as “just brilliant, lovely to know.”
One of the best production aspects of this documentary is that it has a lot of great archival footage that’s very well-edited with the interviews. Clips from Ballard’s TV appearances over the years are especially wonderful, because most of the clips won’t be seen on TV again anytime soon. And as the subject of the documentary, Ballard is the movie’s best asset, since she has a very engaging way to her storytelling.
Because “Kaye Ballard: The Show Goes On!” isn’t the type of documentary that shows Ballard’s life off-stage, the film looks a lot like a feature-length “sizzle reel,” with commentary from Ballard and her colleagues about her career. Ballard seemed to be fiercely protective about her private life, so it’s no surprise that this documentary doesn’t offer any new insight about how she shared her life with anyone outside of her work.
Abramorama released “Kaye Ballard: The Show Goes On!” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on July 17, 2020.