First Soupy, and now Carl. Carl Ballantine, born Meyer Kessler, was the Dean of Comic Magicians, and influenced both comics and magicians, from Steve Martin to David Copperfield, passed away in Los Angeles this week at the age of 92. He got his start in Chicago, the vaudeville circuit and the Catskills hotels, and was a staple on early television variety shows. He played a magician with tricks that never actually worked. In one trick he would tear up a newspaper in order to magically restore it, but then get sidetracked reading the Help Wanted classified ads. In one incarnation of his act, he would come out on stage in a tux and top hat and tell his audience that in case he died during his act, he was already dressed for his funeral.
He was famous to an American generation of baby boomers and their parents when he appeared as Navy Seaman Lester Gruber, with the bumbling Tim Conway, in the tv series, McHale’s Navy.
McHale’s Navy was one of my favorite shows when I was a boy. The cast was outstanding.
I remember Carl Ballantine as Gruber. I can still hear his voice, planning a con with Borgnine. They were always planning something. And they always got away with it. Captain Binghamton (Joe Flynn) was no match for those two, even with Conway’s character (can’t remember his character’s name) getting in the way and not having a clue.
I wish I could have seen his act. I’m sure he was hilarious. Sorry to see him go.