Carl Ballantine (September 27, 1917 – November 3, 2009) was an American magician, comedian and actor. Billing himself as “The Great Ballantine”, “The Amazing Ballantine” or “Ballantine: The World’s Greatest Magician”, his vaudeville-style comedy routine involved transparent or incompetent stage magic tricks, which tended to flop and go “hilariously awry” to the wisecracking Ballantine’s mock chagrin. He has been credited with creating comedy magic and has influenced both comics and magicians.
Life and career
Ballantine was born Meyer Kessler in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Israel Kessler (1883-1930) and Rose Cohen (1890-1973), both Jewish immigrants from Borshchiv, Ukraine and Russian Poland (then part of the Austrian Empire and Second Polish Republic). Nicknamed the “Jipper,” he was inspired at age 9 by his barber who would do magic tricks with thimbles while cutting his hair. His first job was working as a printer.
In the 1930s, Kessler was doing professional straight magic as “Count Marakoff”, “Carlton Sharpe”, and “Carl Sharp” in Chicago, helping support his family, and later moved to New York City, where he performed in night clubs and on television variety shows. In the early 1940s, he gave up “real magic” when he realized he could not be as good as some of his peers. According to his daughter, “one night, one of his tricks got screwed up, he said something to cover, and the audience laughed. So he started adding more.”
He switched to comedy magic and changed his name to “Carl Ballantine”, after he noticed a bottle of Ballantine whisky in an advertisement and decided it sounded “show-businessy and classy”, and called the magic act “Ballantine, the World’s Greatest Magician”. He entertained troops during World War Two. He was billed as “The Amazing Mr. Ballantine” when he played the New York Capitol in 1950, and “The Great Ballantine” in The Ed Sullivan Show and The Steve Allen Show on television in the 1950s and 1960s.
He was the first magician to play Las Vegas, appearing on a bill with Harry James, Betty Grable and Sammy Davis Jr. at El Rancho Vegas in 1956.
Ballantine was cast in several movies including McHale’s Navy (1964), Penelope (1966), Speedway (1968), The Shakiest Gun in the West (1968), The World’s Greatest Lover (1977), Just You and Me, Kid (1979), Disney’s The North Avenue Irregulars (1979) and Billy Crystal’s directorial debut, Mr. Saturday Night (1992), and in numerous television series, including the ABC sitcom McHale’s Navy (1962–1966), in which he played Lester Gruber, one of the PT boat sailors known for his hucksterism and wild schemes. He was a supporting player on the show, working with star Ernest Borgnine, Joe Flynn and Tim Conway.
An early television role cast him as Magician “Al Henderson”, working the 53rd precinct Christmas Party for brother-in-law Officer Toody in episode 15 of the 1st season of Car 54, Where Are You?, first airing December 24, 1961. He also guest starred on The Partridge Family, I Dream of Jeannie as a used car salesman, and on The Monkees episode called “The Audition” which aired on January 23, 1967. In 1971 he appeared as Matty Ryan on “The Men From Shiloh” (rebranded name for the TV western The Virginian) in the episode titled “The Politician.” He appeared on CHiPs as magician “The Great Marvello.” The episode was entitled “Rustling” and aired January 28, 1978. In 1973 he appeared as Dr. Hankim in The Girl Most Likely to…. His last feature film appearance was in Aimee Semple McPherson, a 2006 biopic about the female evangelist.
Ballantine made his only appearance on Broadway as Lycus the slave merchant in the 1972 revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum starring Phil Silvers. He was also a frequent panelist/judge on The Gong Show, even appearing on the series finale of the NBC daytime version.
In later years he was a recurring voice artist on Garfield and Friends, usually as Al J. Swindler, a purveyor of shoddy merchandise and goods.
Ballantine died on November 3, 2009 at age 92 at his home in Hollywood, California. His remains were cremated.
Ballantine’s first marriage ended in divorce. In 1955 he married actress Ceil Cabot (born Celia Cabrera; March 8, 1927 – January 24, 2000), to whom he remained married until her death in 2000. Their two daughters, Saratoga, an actress, and Molly, an advertising sales executive, are both named after racetracks.
Awards and honors
He won the Academy of Magical Arts’ (AMA) Special Fellowship in 1973, Performing Fellowship in 1984, and the “Louie” Award from Tannen’s Magic in 1985. In 2007, he received the 2006 Lifetime Achievement Fellowship from the Academy of Magical Arts. The award was presented by Steve Martin, who calls Ballantine “the king of bungling magicians” in his memoir Born Standing Up, and said in an interview: “Carl Ballantine influenced not only myself but a generation of magicians and comedians. His was also the most copied act by a host of amateurs and professionals.” According to David Copperfield, “Carl Ballantine created comedy magic. The combination of magic and comedy had perhaps been done before, but he truly defined it and made it his own.”
|1964||McHale’s Navy||Torpedoman Lester Gruber|
|1968||The Shakiest Gun in the West||Swanson|
|1976||Revenge of the Cheerleaders||Dr. Ivory|
|1977||The World’s Greatest Lover||Uncle Harry|
|1979||The North Avenue Irregulars||Sam|
|1979||Just You and Me, Kid||Reinhoff the Remarkable|
|1986||The Best of Times||Arturo|
|1992||Mr. Saturday Night||Freddie|
|1996||I Crave Rock & Roll||Dewey Rose|
|1998||Susan’s Plan||Harold Beyers|
|2000||The Million Dollar Kid||Lieutenant|
|2002||Farewell to Harry||Hickey|
|2006||Aimee Semple McPherson||Realtor in China|
|2013||Richard Rossi 5th Anniversary of Sister Aimee||Realtor in China|
|2018||Sister Aimee 10th Anniversary||Realtor in China||(final film role)|