A treasure trove of primarily vintage-TV appearance footage makes “Kaye Ballard: The Show Goes On!” a worthy tribute to the versatile comedienne whose career sprawled across eight decades — the last performance clip here from 2017, not long before her death early last year at age 93. Though generally known as a reliable second banana, Ballard’s skillset was considerable, and this otherwise workmanlike documentary by Dan Wingate provides an eye-opening glimpse at the range of her talents. We also get testimony from a starry selection of coworkers, as well as running commentary from the lady herself, who has something nice to say about just about everyone.
What she says absolutely nothing about is her non-professional life — which gets so thoroughly sidestepped here, it’s not clear she had any. Still, “The Torrid Amours of Kaye Ballard” would doubtless prove less rewarding (save perhaps as a comedy-revue concept) than this straightforward account of her greatest showbiz hits, many long-forgotten but enjoyable in excerpt. Abramorama is giving the documentary two “live streaming premiere” events on July 14 and 15 with release through virtual cinemas commencing July 17.
After a weak, TV-commercial-like opening in which celebrities’ compliments about her are intercut with Ballard making funny faces, the film settles into a conventionally chronological, life-storytelling groove. Not that we find out a thing about the star’s family or formative background, however. Wingate goes straight to her earliest showbiz aspirations, then teenaged first gigs in native Cleveland, Ohio. Doing vaudeville in Detroit, she attracted the notice of popular comedic bandleader Spike Jones, ending up a peppery singer, multi-instrumentalist and impressionist in his touring revue — beginning at age 16.
After that run, she settled in New York’s Village, hanging out with fellow soon-to-be-famed young talents like a pre-“Streetcar” Marlon Brando. He’s one of many figures here (ranging as wide as Andy Warhol and Bette Davis, as late as Jodie Foster and George Clooney) she has fond anecdotes about. A rare exception is Phil Silvers, in whose Broadway hit “Top Banana” she replaced fellow comedienne Rose Marie — an experience he apparently worked hard to make miserable for her. But at least as recounted in this highly “authorized” screen autobio, Ballard took such averse situations as a challenge, using them to hone her discipline. She claims to have turned down a dinner date with Richard Burton simply because she didn’t want to stay up late the night before a gig.
She was the sort of performer who’d emerge unscathed with glowing notices from a flop stage show (she starred in 1954’s “The Golden Apple,” considered by many the finest musical ever to fail on Broadway), win raves headlining hits’ touring editions (including “Gypsy”) and fill gaps between with warmly received nightclub acts. Some cherished club routines inevitably found their way onto television, where she was a regular on “The Mel Torme Show” and several other programs, in addition to innumerable guest spots.
If she never quite got the Broadway vehicle she deserved, that was even more the case at the movies. Her sole screen musical “The Girl Most Likely” (1957) might have been boffo a decade earlier, but instead arrived as the genre (and its own studio, RKO) was dying off. She originated several songs and at least a couple roles (Lucy in “Peanuts,” Fanny Brice before “Funny Girl”) on concept LPs, only to see their later incarnations get all the attention.
But TV was good to her, even as variety shows gave way to other formats including game and talk shows. Two fairly popular sitcoms, “The Mothers-in-Law” (co-starring Eve Arden) and “The Doris Day Show,” made her a household name at last, even if they boxed her into a loud Italian-American mamma persona. Eclectic later career highlights included stage-to-screen farce “The Ritz,” Joseph Papp’s hit “pop” “Pirates of Penzance” and an acclaimed revised version of Sondheim’s “Follies.”
Though her comic chops (perhaps most hilarious here in an improbable TV take on Isaac Hayes’ “Theme from ’Shaft’”) and lack of glamour predestined an antic image, Ballard was a superb singer in many idioms, with what Hal Prince calls “a huge set o’ pipes and a delivery which is impeccable.” Much of this documentary’s pleasure derives from seeing (and hearing) just how much she had to offer beyond those familiar “screaming Italians.”
Apart from a brief, late mention of her mother’s unsupportive nature, however, there is virtually nothing about her personal life. And while Ballard says a lot of seemingly unforced, generous things about famous fellow travelers (including such oft-difficult personalities as Jerry Lewis and Shelley Winters), the movie finally becomes a rote recitation of credits in which her verdict on coworkers is invariably “thrilling” or “wonderful.”
Even if that viewpoint grows repetitious, there’s no doubting the sincere warmth Ballard stirs in various interviewees here, including Ann-Margret, Jerry Stiller, Woody Allen (who remembers her as the sole bright spot in an unhappy early TV writing gig), Carols Channing and Burnett. There are also younger performers she helped like Joy Behar, as well as non-performing friends Liz Smith and Rex Reed. The vintage clips utilized are all in good shape, highlighting what’s otherwise a conventionally well-crafted assembly of televisual talking heads.