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 TV sitcom “The Mothers-in-Law,” has died. She was 93.
Ballard died Monday night at her home in Rancho Mirage after a fight with kidney cancer, her friend Marguerite Gordon said Tuesday.
“The Mothers-in-Law” 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 when a documentary on her life and career premiered at the Palm Springs International Film Festival earlier this month.
“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 honors.
“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, filmmaker Wingate said, and he wanted the documentary to be seen on the big screen to help fulfill 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 theater, appearing on Broadway in a small part in the revue “Three to Make Ready.” She toured in summer stock and 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 musicalized 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 programs including “The Mel Torme Show” and those of Ed Sullivan and Perry Como. She also became a favorite 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.
She was born Catherine Gloria Ballota to Italian immigrant parents in Cleveland on Nov. 20, 1925, according to her 2006 memoir “How I Lost 10 Pounds in 53 Years.” (She noted she had always said she was born in 1926.)
She changed her name to Kaye Ballard when she entered show business. On the advice of a numerologist she switched to Kay in midcareer.
“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.
She sang at service clubs and appeared at a “Stage Door Canteen” in Cleveland. After graduating from high school she worked at a burlesque theater, not as a stripper but as 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” as piano player for six men who stripped to make money with a musical show.
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?”
She purchased her Southern California desert home from Arnaz in the early 1940s.
“It’s a stone’s throw from Gerald Ford,” she said of her presidential neighbor in a 1981 interview. “When he moved in, he upped my property value. It made me think of becoming a Republican.”
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 Associated Press 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.”