Obituary: Kaye Ballard, actress, comedian and nightclub singer who was a US TV regular

Kaye Ballard in 2013 (Photo by Valerie Macon/Getty Images)
Kaye Ballard in 2013 (Photo by Valerie Macon/Getty Images)
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Kaye Ballard, actress and singer. Born: 20 November 1925, Cleveland, Ohio, United States Died: 21 January 2019, Rancho Mirage, California, aged 93.

Kaye Ballard, the boisterous ­comedian and singer who appeared in Broadway musicals and nightclubs from New York to Las Vegas and starred with Eve Arden in the 1960s US TV sitcom The Mothers-In-Law, has died. She was 93.

Ballard died at her home in Rancho Mirage, California, after a battle with kidney ­cancer.

The Mothers-In-Law, in which Ballard starred with Arden (of the 1950s sitcom Our Miss Brooks), aired from 1967 to 1969. It marked a high point in a career that began when Ballard was 12 and lasted into the 21st century.

She was on hand last week when a documentary on her life and career premiered at the Palm Springs International Film Festival.

“She was so excited to be able to tell her story,” said Dan ­Wingate, the film’s director. “She was really anxious for young people, especially, who are going into the arts to understand the full breadth of a life in the arts, the ups and downs.”

The audience’s response was gratifying for her, “to hear that applause and feel that love,” Wingate said, and she was thrilled when the documentary was singled out for ­festival honours.

The Mothers-In-Law was set in a Los Angeles suburb and featured its stars as women who become thorns in their married children’s lives, with comedic results influenced by the screwball style of I Love Lucy.

Desi Arnaz, who starred with wife Lucille Ball in that classic sitcom, produced and directed 24 episodes of the ­Ballard-Arden show. The I Love Lucy team of Bob ­Carroll Jr. and Madelyn Pugh Davis were the show’s creators and lead writers.

Ballard made a mark in every form of show business except movies. She did appear as a secondary player in a few films, including 1958’s The Girl Most Likely, starring Jane Powell, and in 1964’s A House Is Not a Home, but her high-octane personality may have been too potent for the big screen of that era and its more restrictive portrayals of women.

Movie stardom was her first dream, as it was for others of her generation, Wingate said, and he wanted the documentary to be seen on the big screen to help fulfil that goal.

But even falling short of a big film career, “she was able to reach and endear herself to so many people,” he said.

Ballard’s first real break came when she was singing in a Detroit nightclub, The ­Bowery. Comedy bandleader Spike Jones dropped in one night and quickly drafted the exuberant young singer into his musical contingent. For two years she toured with Jones’ troupe, singing, playing the flute and tuba and engaging in the band’s antics. She also sang with the bands of Vaughn Monroe and Stan Kenton.

In 1945 she moved to New York and sought work in theatre, appearing on Broadway in a small part in the revue Three to Make Ready. She finally made a dent in New York as a madcap Helen of Troy in 1954’s The Golden Apple, drawing applause with her song Lazy Afternoon. One critic called her performance “a wonder of insinuation”.

She also won critical praise for her role as The Incomparable Rosalie, the magician’s assistant and mistress in 1961’s Carnival!, a musicalised ­version of the movie Lili. She sang Always, Always You, while stretched out in a box the jealous magician was piercing with swords.

Ballard began working on TV in the early 1950s, becoming an in-demand performer on network variety programmes including The Mel Torme Show and those of Ed Sullivan and Perry Como. She also became a favourite of talk show hosts, making repeat appearances with Jack Paar, Merv Griffin and Johnny ­Carson.

She was a regular on The Doris Day Show in the 1970s and the 1990s TV series Due South.

Her nightclub act played in first-class venues including the Blue Angel in New York, Mr. Kelly’s in Chicago, the ­Flamingo in Las Vegas and the hungry i in San Francisco.

Ballard was born Catherine Gloria Ballota to Italian ­immigrant parents in ­Cleveland, Ohio, on 20 November, 1925, according to her 2006 memoir How I Lost 10 Pounds in 53 Years.

She changed her name to Kaye Ballard when she entered show business. On the advice of a numerologist she switched to Kay in mid-career.

“He said my luck would change if I dropped the ‘e’,” she told a reporter in 1983. “It did. It went steadily downward.”

She eventually returned to being Kaye.

Determined to become an actress, she would not be ­discouraged by a high school teacher who rejected her for a drama class, concluding she “wasn’t pretty enough,” nor her parents, who didn’t understand the business.

After graduating from high school, she worked at a burlesque theatre as a straight woman in comedy sketches. She went on the road with her act of songs, comedy and impressions of famous stars and in Detroit made the fortuitous connection with Jones.

In the early 2000s, ­Ballard toured with other stars in a musical comedy ­Nunsense and joined the touring ­company of the Broadway hit The Full Monty.

Ballard was engaged four times but never married.

“I didn’t want to,” she told The Associated Press in 1999. “I could have, many times. But I just wanted a career too much. I was smart enough to know, if you get married and have children, that’s it. Being Italian and raised as a Catholic, I took children seriously. Maybe I made a mistake. Who knows?”

A non-starter was ever leaving show business, even as the years passed.

“I’m not going to retire. I don’t believe in retiring,” she told the AP in 2001. “I do take more time off now to enjoy life and my three dogs and house. But if something wonderful comes up, I’m ready.”