Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Magician on the High Seas

McHale’s Navy was accused, in some quarters, of being a seagoing Bilko. The two sitcoms really weren’t the same. Despite a large cast, Bilko was completely dominated by Phil Silvers. McHale let other cast members besides Ernie Borgnine shine, with the Joe Flynn-Tim Conway relationship grabbing a good percentage of the laughs.

Silvers’ Bilko was a brash conman. Borgnine’s McHale was more of a growly guy who had problems putting up with ignorant authority figures. If anything, Carl Ballantine’s Gruber was more like Bilko in that he was a fast-talker with some kind of scheme.

The McHale’s characters weren’t terribly fleshed out (did anyone miss Gavin McLeod after he left?) but I always liked Ballantine’s performance. I had no idea at the time the show aired that he had been a stage magician, and a very funny one. I’ve dug up a couple of stories about him after he was cast on the show. First we go to the King Features Syndicate in a feature column published November 13, 1962. The second is from the Philadelphia Inquirer, April 7, 1963.
Went From Legerdemain To The 'Bounding Main'

A vaudeville act has gone straight. Carl Ballantine, known for the past ten years as The Amazing Mr. Ballantine, has traded in his bag of ineffective magic tricks for a sailor's suit and a berth on "McHale's Navy."
"I've always been an actor," explained the fast talking Ballantine, "but now I'm doing it with other guys. After all. to get up on a stage and do a comedy act as a bad magician is a form of acting."
Ballantine wasn't always a bad magician . . .his intention was to be a good one. "But who needed good magicians?" he asked. "Every kid who wanted to break into showbiz had gone through the magic stage as a kid, and most of tricks to the booking agents. I developed the Amazing Mr. Ballantine as a comedy routine, but the first time I tried it out the audience didn't dig the bit and I was virtually thrown off the stage. The act first clicked in a Chicago theatre, and I've been making a living by net puffing rabbits out of a hat ever since."
Carl is practically type-cast as the head wise guy in Ernest Borgnine's crew. As Lester Gruber he generally comes up with the wild ideas, like blowing an air raid siren to get the nurses into a shelter for a dance. Fans of the show may have noticed that Lester Gruber never stops for a laugh, and they often miss the next few lines because they're busy chuckling at a gag.
"How was I to know that they insert laughs after funny lines?" Carl said. "Now I'm wise to the trick. I noticed that Joe Flynn who plays the captain always stopped for a beat after a good line, but it didn't make any sense to me because there was no audience on the set. Flynn is a veteran of three TV situation comedy shows, and when I caught the first episode at home I realized he was waiting for the laugh track. Watch me slow down on the next group of episodes we shoot."
Not only is Carl Ballantine now a successful TV actor, but he inadvertently pulled the biggest trick of his career and saved the entire 10 per cent agent's commission on the job. "I signed up with MCA because they promised to get me acting roles," he continued. "The nearest I came was an audition for a 'Surfside Six.' Then they got me this job on 'McHale's Navy,' and the next day I received a legal letter from them informing me that there no longer was an MCA talent agency and, therefore, I didn't owe a commission."
Carl's wife, Ceil Cabot, is one of the stars of Julius Monk's intimate cafe revue which is playing a New York hotel located some 3,000 miles away from the set of "McHale's Navy." "That's the only bad part of this whole deal," explained the magician. "But she'll be joining me in January and, for a while, I hope she'll do all her performing in the kitchen. She could play clubs in Los Angeles, but they're disappearing as fast as vaudeville magicians."
Even though he's put the tricks in mothballs, actor Ballantine does not really intend to bury the character which earned him his keep for ten years. "I can still do an engagement in Las Vegas if the timing is right, and my TV fee has gone up as a result of the show," said Carl. "The only trouble is that sponsor conflict keeps me off a lot of programs I used to play regularly."
The producers of "McHale's Navy" plan to do flashback episodes telling what each member of the cast supposedly did in civilian life. This will give TM2-C Lester Gruber a chance to do his magic act, and it should be a funny show.

‘The Great Ballantine’, Sans Magic, Proves He’s an Actor

THIS week a tall, blond, blue-eyed Chicagoan named Myer Kessler will be featured in two different guises on two different programs. In Perry Como's Easter show, Wednesday at 9 P. M. (Channel 3), he'll try to conjure up an appropriate-to-the-season rabbit.
In ABC's "McHale's Navy," Thursday at 9:30 P. M. (Channel 6), he'll be up to weekly tricks of another kind. Both ways, he'll elicit yocks.
Kessler, who claims he usually sees his real name only on licenses, income tax forms and similar documents, will masquerade Wednesday as Carl ("The Amazing Mr.") Ballantine and Thursday as TM2 Lester Gruber.
These are the current Kessler pseudonyms. He's had others.
"When I was a kid in Chicago, maybe 12, 13," he reminisces, "the other kids used to call me 'Gypper Jonas'—'Gyp' for short. Like Gruber, I was a con artist I guess I'm typecast. It's a part I've been doing all my life.
"I was always conning people. I'd swipe papers and resell them. Now it's all honest, but I still feel a little bad when I pick up my check."
He has used Carl Ballantine as a nom-de-hocus-pocus since 1938.
"A year earlier," he recalls, "I did a legitimate magic act in Chicago with a mustache and a long robe as Count Marakoff.
"My big finish was to produce a glass of beer from nowhere, toast the audience and walk off. I was just a kid. In fact, I was too young to drink beer.
"I stopped being Count Marakoff after three months and became Carl Sharpe—a river gambler type. See, even at an early age I was a character actor! I did tricks with poker chips, cards and money. At the finish, I'd produce a lot of dollar bills, one at a time.
"Then came Carl Ballantine. I got the name off a bottle of Scotch, but I wasn't drinking at the time. I don't drink."
The fact that his name could just as readily have come off a bottle of beer hasn't cost him any jobs, as far as he knows.
"I used to guest on Ken Murray's old variety shows that were sponsored by Budweiser," he notes. "There's quite a list of guys who could be out of work because their names are products—George Gobel, he's a beer, too; Tennessee Ernie Ford . . .
"I've been using a sign, 'Ballantine, World's Greatest Magician,' since my first television show in 1949—I've been on TV ever since it started, first with Lanny Ross, one of the first 'Sullivans,' Kaye Kyser, James Melton, Milton Berle—but the last show I did for Ed Sullivan, last summer, the sponsor said, 'Take the sign off; it's subliminal advertising.'
"After that, I taped Como's Easter show, and I took no chances. No sign."
Sponsor conflicts have kept him off several video variety shows lately—among them Jack Paar's and Sullivan's—but they've had to do with the products advertised on "McHale's Navy."
Although he still accepts engagements as the Amazing Mr. Ballantine, the rapid-fire magician who can do no right (he's slated, for instance, for a four-week stand at a Las Vegas club during "McHale's" May hiatus), he'd like to retire his dress suit and magic props.
"I tried to junk the act 20-odd years ago," he reports. "If anyone had only said then, 'You're the type'—for any part!
"Jobs do come up. If a fellow says, 'Be here at 9, after dinner, in your dress suit,' I'm there. But if things go good with 'McHale's Navy,' eventually I hope to work in a sailor suit.
"I had quite a few disappointments. I auditioned for the Nathan Detroit role in 'Guys and Dolls' and they said I wasn't the type. I was turned down for 'Bilko.' And for 'A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.'
"If I had been turned down a few more times, it's a cinch I'd be throwing that dead chicken around for the rest of my life.
"It's a little tough to do nothing, and that's what I do in the act: nothing. I feel better now as Gruber, because I'm doing something."
He has never considered the Amazing Mr. Ballantine a magic act.
"Whenever my name would come up for a part," he says, "they'd ask, 'Can he act?' I'd say, 'Well, what kind of an act do I do?' and they'd say, 'You're a magician.' 'See,' I'd say, 'that proves I'm a great actor!'
"Magicians don't consider me a magician. I don't belong to any of their organizations. I'm lucky to pay my dues even in the Screen Actors Guild.
"The only time I've portrayed a magician—as Merlin, in 'Tennessee Ernie Meets King Arthur'—I was very bad. It's the worst thing I ever did. Lee J. Cobb directed it, and I did what he said. But I couldn't even play a magician!" Not any more, anyway. In earlier days, he admits, he was "quite proficient in the art of conjuring."
He first became interested as a child, because the family barber performed tricks between shearings.
"This old man, carrying a tiny bag, would come to our house," he recalls. "He used to take care of the whole family, I think, for two bucks.
"Later, when I was about 9, I'd go to a movie every Saturday and each week they'd give away a different magic trick. I collected them.
"The average comedian wants to do Hamlet. I did Hamlet first—at Herzl High, where I was active in the drama club. It was just for assembly, but I thought it was a pretty good Hamlet. I had no trouble remembering lines then; it's harder now.
"I didn't finish high school. I don't remember my first professional engagement; heck, I don't remember my first 'McHale's Navy!'
"It was rough landing jobs. I was fired for having 'the world's worst magic act.' Nobody seemed to understand what I was trying to do.
"Everyone said, 'You've got to have a finish—one legitimate trick, fake dancing, "The Stars and Stripes Forever' on the xylophone, something!' but I insisted, 'I open with nothing and I close with nothing.'
"It was four years before the act caught on and I started getting a little more work. Then I went to New York and was hired by Billy Rose for his Diamond Horseshoe and stayed there two years. The difference was that the audience knew I wouldn't do the tricks. It was like knowing an old joke, but loving to hear it all over again.
"I kept up to date, put in new lines. Now, when I do a bird trick, I say, 'Let's see the Bird Man of Alcatraz do something with that!"
To accept the "McHale's Navy" role, he bypassed "semi-regular" status on "Car 54, Where Are You?" as co-star Joe E. Ross' brother-in-law and took a steep pay cut—"over 200 percent."
"But I'm happy playing Lester Gruber," he says enthusiastically. "It's something I really like. The other is just a way to make a living.
"The 10 guys in the show love each other, and they're all crazy about Ernie Borgnine. There's a lot of kidding around, but when the chips are down, everybody's in there working.
"I'm in every episode, not always prominently—sometimes I just carry a barrel, sometimes my part is one I could telephone in, two 'sides.' But there are always ad libs. And big part or small part, the money's the same—$2!
"It's a gamble, but on a show like this you're liable to show up good and it can lead to other things."
Married to comedienne Ceil Cabot, Kessler-Ballantine doesn't consider himself a full-time fast-talking extrovert. At home," he says, "my wife and I are quiet cats. It's our 8-yearold daughter, Sara, we have to hold down. She's powerful!
"She'll probably be a comedienne. She's absolutely a natural, 100 proof. She sings, dances, delivers lines, clowns, has a great memory. I think she may become a big star!"
The PT-73 jumped a shark in the waters off Taratupa after three seasons. The producers apparently ran out of ideas for a South Seas setting and plunked the show’s location in southern Italy. It lasted another year, enough to give it a number of episodes that would allow the producers to sell it into syndication and give Ballantine more exposure to youngsters like me. Meanwhile, Ballantine kept working. Variety reported on occasion his distinctive voice was to be heard on radio spots, and he even popped up on TV once in a while, looking older and a little slower.

Newspaper obits talk about how Ballantine set the standard for comedy magic shows and was respected in the business. He was 92.

P.S. As an after-thought, it came to me that TV writer/producer/magic fan Mark Evanier wrote about Ballantine once. You can find his personal remembrance HERE.


  1. My earliest memories of Carl Ballantine were his appearances as Al Henderson, Gunther Toody's ( Joe E. Ross ) brother in Law on " Car-54 Where are you ", then " McHale's Navy ". Plus, I really got a laugh out of his everything is going wrong magic act. Back in the mid 1970's, a new service called H.B.O. broadcast a great special on all the prominent magicians at the time. Ballantine was featured.

  2. He's pretty funny in his guest shot on The Monkees ("Find the Monkees" AKA "The Audition").

  3. Ballentine and 'Bilko' veteran Billy Sands were really the only two crew members whose personalities were fleshed out, but the opening season of the show really had a great writing staff -- the second episode of the show focused on Gruber and was written by Danny Arnold -- and the early efforts focused less on the pure slapstick of the Flynn-Conway relationship that came to dominate the show by the end of Season 2 (the earliest episodes of "McHale" really weren't all that different in overall tone than the earliest episodes of "M*A*S*H" in terms of war-based comedies, but obviously the two shows went in diametrically different directions after that).