Steve Dacri wrote a wonderful tribute to Carl Ballantine.
He graciously gave permission for Inside Magic to re-publish here for our readers.
Whilst we were formatting the essay, we began to get a lump in our throat and by the end, we were in tears but with a smile. We really miss The World’s Greatest Magician, are envious of the friendship he shared with Steve Dacri, and so grateful Steve allowed us to republish his work here.
The phone rang, it was a little after noon. The familiar gravelly voice said, “Where are we having dinner?”
It was Carl Ballantine.
For a number of years, when we lived in Los Angeles not far from Carl’s Hollywood house, we had dinner at least 5 times a week together. It would start with the phone call, and we would plan the location. Sometimes it was a restaurant, other times, it was his house where he would cook a fabulous meal, and sometimes it was our house, which meant Jan and I cooked for him.
About an hour before the meal, I would drive to his house and pick him up. He would always have the cigar in his hand, and he’d climb into my car and I would say, “Carl, I have never smoked in my car.” And he would say something like, “you should try it.” Then he would re-light his stogie and off we went. He always had a few stops to make along the way (the news stand for the Daily Racing Form, or the coin change machine to cash in some of his seemingly endless supply of gigantic bags of money, for example.)
After the meal, we would usually go back to his place and smoke a cigar together. During this time he would convince me that we needed to visit one of the local race tracks the next day as there was a horse he wanted to bet on. It was nearly impossible to say no to Ballantine, he was very persuasive, and besides, it was always a memorable experience to take him to the track (or anyplace for that matter).
He liked Hollywood Park a lot, and Santa Anita. We would arrive at the club gate and all the people who we encountered, from the valet parking guy to the waitress in the turf club, they all knew him, and he always had a kind word for each of them. Of course, when they were not around him he would make some clever (and always hilarious) wise crack about them, but never so they could hear it.
Going to dinner with him was always a fun ride as well, people always noticed him as we arrived, and would come up to him to say Hello and tell him how much they loved his work on McHale’s Navy or in one of Mel Brooks’ movies…he politely thanked them all, then he would lean in to me and insult them mercilessly.
I still find it hard to believe that I will never hear that familiar voice again or spend time with him; I guess I expected him to always be there, like Vernon and McComb and so many others. As I think about all the time we spent together over the years, I recall a number of cool things that he told me that I will share with you here as a way of dealing with the incredible sense of loss I am feeling right now.
A lot of the stories about his origins have been told, some of them true, and others completely fabricated. Carl himself would often change the stories he told, I think he enjoyed playing with people that way. One thing he told me was how he decided on his name. He was known as Carl Sharp for a while when he was doing a real silent manipulation act, but when he decided to switch to the comedic act (he hated to be called a comedy magician, he insisted that he was not a magic act, merely a comedy act) he called his agent and the agent listened as he described what his new act was about (a magician who never does a magic trick) and the agent asked him what the name of the act was.
He said he looked around the room he was in, and spotted a bottle of Ballantine Whiskey, and immediately said, “Ballantine, The Amazing Ballantine is the name, and you have to also say, the World’s Greatest Magician in the billing.” He told me if things had been different when he looked at the shelf of bottles, he could’ve been known as Jack Daniels.
And the inspiration for the act? He claimed all sorts of things, and it was hard to determine which one was authentic, but he told me this one more than all the others so I believe this was the real impetus behind his famous act. He recalled going to see an act when he was quite young, billed as “the world’s greatest musician.” The man (he didn’t remember his name, only the act) walked onto the stage, dressed in an elegant tuxedo, the curtain opened and the stage was filled with every musical instrument you could imagine.
The man walked to the tuba, picked it up and told everyone how he would be playing that particular instrument, and then put it down. He picked up a violin and described the music he could make with that instrument, and then he put it down. He did this with many of the instruments, but he never actually played any of them. He said that stuck in his mind, the clever premise of the world’s greatest musician who never plays a single note. When he was struggling to find work as a legitimate magician, he came up with the idea of becoming the greatest magician in the world who never did a single trick. It was genius, and it made him a star.
I first met Carl via TV like most people. My father loved him, used to laugh so hard he would cry when we sat and watched him on McHale’s Navy as Gruber, and watching him do his crazy and hilarious act on Ed Sullivan and all of the other shows…never did I think, in my wildest dreams, that someday he would become a special friend who impacted my life as a performer and as a person. Life is funny that way.
He influenced me so much, Harry Anderson and I used to talk about Ballantine a lot and how he encouraged both of us to be funny with our magic presentations. He really set the stage for magic acts to be funny. But he was always quick to point out that his was not a comedy magic act because he never really did magic. “If a trick ever works in my act, I’m outta business” he often said.
Fast forward to 1985, and I was performing on the Tannen Jubilee convention and the Louis award was being presented to Carl Ballantine. At the cocktail party the night before, I met Carl for the first time, and my life was changed forever. We just hit it off, we talked for hours, had breakfast together the next day (the first of hundreds of meals together) and we were friends ever since that day. One thing that I noticed was that Carl said he was retired, he told me he didn’t even have his props or table any longer, and at the Tannen event, he didn’t actually perform, instead just walked onstage to receive his award.
Shortly after, when we both were back in Los Angeles, I called him up and he invited me over to his house. I packed up a couple of fine Cuban cigars and headed over. We sat for hours laughing and discussing magic. I eventually convinced him to come out of retirement, as I could tell he still had that energy, that spark when he talked about various performances and memories. After all, he was still doing voice-over work as well as acting jobs, so why not bring the old act out again.
It worked, it energized him, and he suddenly looked healthier. I brought him to Johnny Gaughan’s workshop and had Johnny make a replica of his famous table and booked him as the special guest for a show I was producing in San Raphael, California. He walked onstage, got a standing ovation, which clearly surprised him. He looked out and said, “Sit down, are you crazy? Wait ’til ya see the act, you may want to take that back.”
Well, he went on and did the famous act, line for line, gag for gag, flawlessly, and received another prolonged standing ovation. He walked off and grabbed me backstage and said, “not bad for a retired chump, eh?” As a result, he declared himself “unretired” and I was able to book him in a number of shows, and he suddenly had a purpose again in his life. It was wonderful to see, his energy was unstoppable on stage, and although he did the same act he was so well known for, he always ad-libbed and through lines in here and there that were priceless and fall down funny. He was enjoying the work once again.
Carl had three passions (after of course, his two beautiful daughters, Saratoga and Molly, each named after a race track) in this order; horse racing, cigars and magic. Back when he was doing McHale’s Navy, he owned race horses along with the stars of the show, Tim Conway and Ernie Borgnine. I asked if they made him a lot of money. “Not a dime,” he replied. But he loved being in the game and kept up what as a losing proposition for years, just because he enjoyed being at the track.
He smoked up to 6 cigars a day sometimes, and enjoyed the Cubans I often brought him. He read every magic magazine, went up to the Castle regularly to see the shows and we talked endlessly about magic effects, acts, comedy and show business, he was as sharp as a proverbial tack. Add to all that his incredible comic timing, his brilliant mind for what was funny, and that voice. His delivery was perfect, I never saw anyone with such natural timing, almost everything he said was funny, all the time. He was always such a joy to be with.
As an example of his comic mind always in gear, when we discussed doing a comedy magic lecture, we would get together and brainstorm what the lecture would be. After dozens of cigars and wonderful meals, we decided to do a talk show style presentation, and I would essentially interview Carl and ask predetermined questions while seated onstage smoking cigars. I went home and created a list of questions and the next day we convened in his living room. I pulled out my list. I asked him the first question, “Carl, everyone wants to know, how did you become interested in magic?”
He sits back, takes a puff from his cigar, blows out a cloud and says, “When I was a young boy, my uncle gave me a Mysto Magic Kit…. (long pause)…and fifty thousand dollars.” I fell off the couch, I knew this would be how we would start the interview, it was priceless. We presented the lecture at the IBM National convention in San Diego (in a smoke free hotel); there we were, puffing away in this ballroom filled with nearly 2,000 people. Carl comes alive in front of a crowd, and needless to say, the presentation was a huge hit.
We did it a few more times, and then we were invited to present it in London at The Magic Circle, which really thrilled Carl. He told me he really would love to become a member of The Magic Circle, but figured they would never have him, because, he reasoned, he didn’t really do any magic. I approached the then president of the Circle (Michael Bailey) and asked what he thought of The Amazing Ballantine and he immediately said “we would love to have him as a member” and brought it to a vote at the Council meeting. Not only was Carl invited to become a member, he was unanimously voted in at the highest level of membership, MIMC (Member of the Inner Magic Circle with Gold Star), which was to be presented to him when we were in London.
Sadly, he never made the trip due to health reasons, I was already on a lecture tour in England, so I ended up presenting my own lecture in place of our scheduled comedy lecture, after which the President gave me Carl’s award and made me promise that it would be presented to Carl in a very special manner. (I was then completely caught off guard when I was also presented with my own MIMC honors.)
The following month, we arranged a special night at the Magic Castle, with many Magic Circle members in attendance, and we honored Carl and presented the MIMC to him in the Peller Theatre. He was clearly touched by the significance of it, he was proud of this honor; it meant a lot to him.
The Amazing Ballantine touched a lot of lives, in and out of the magic world. Many of his fans of his TV series and movies didn’t realize Carl Ballantine was also an accomplished variety artist (as he saw himself). Even Ed Sullivan told him he wasn’t really sure what he did. “Sullivan didn’t get it,” he often said.
But millions did, and he was loved and respected as an entertainer at the top of his field, a comic genius with an infectious smile and unmistakable voice. He was pals with Milton Berle and George Burns, and Mel Brooks called him “the funniest man on earth.” I agree.
Those of us who were privileged to know him personally will experience a deep loss of a friend and an artist. His legacy will live on in our memories, and I know that all of us will continue to smile as we recall his work and his friendship. Good-bye, my friend.
“I want to thank you all for coming, and on the way out, if you would stop at the table in the back and check out some of our jams and jellies we have for sale.” – Carl Ballantine