When I was about four or five years old, my dad brought us to a company picnic that featured a funny magician and puppeteer to entertain the children. For some reason, I’ve always carried around a vague impression in the back of my head that the performer was Carl Ballantine. But it can’t have been, can it? A familiar face from TV working a company picnic at a factory in Southeastern Connecticut? On the other hand, Henny Youngman was never above taking a bar mitzvah date, over his entire career. A paycheck is a paycheck. Nem di gelt.
At any rate, Ballantine (born this day in 1922) came along a little too late for vaudeville proper, although his comedy magic act would have been perfect for it (just as it was perfect for the television variety which eventually showcased it). He started out doing serious magic in his native Chicago, but soon found that he got laughs by screwing up the tricks.
Ballantine’s main live bookings were in nightclubs and presentation houses, before he began getting booked on tv’s top variety shows. His appeal lies in his brashness, the way he brusquely, cheerfully moves past every flub to the next trick, which will inevitably fail as well. There is something about this concept (which ranks with the great comic strips and the plays of the absurdists) that I think deserved a better pinnacle than Ballantine ever achieved. The modern industry can be a chilly, stupid brute, an unaccommodating bureaucracy that may rank with the military in its famous ineptitude at matching the right person to the right job. Hence, Ballantine’s greatest success in terms of recognition, came for playing the part of “Gruber” on the sit-com Mchale’s Navy (1962-66), a fairly anonymous role that really anyone might have played. And he had a large number of guest shots on other sit-coms and tv dramas. He continued performing until 1977, and passed away in 2009.
Here is the great man in the prime of his hilarity. How do we know he is a comedy magician? Because it would take an actual magician to animate Peter Graves:
To find out more about vaudeville past and present, including performers like comedy magicians Carl Ballantine, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous