The comically inept magician known as The Amazing Ballantine or The Great Ballantine or the perfectly over the top moniker, Ballantine: The World's Greatest Magician, has died. The truly amazing Carl Ballantine, the comedian and character actor who is perhaps best known for his role of Lester Gruber, the confident con artist in McHale's Navy, was 92.
He died in his sleep this past week at his home in the Hollywood. I used to see him around the neighborhood all the time, usually at the post office or the grocery store. In a town jammed with celebrity sightings, it was only a Carl Ballantine sighting that would elicit an email or a phone call from several friends of mine.
Born Meyer Kessler in Chicago on September 27, 1917, he started performing magic tricks as a 9 year old, tricks learned from a local barber. By the time he was a teenager he was successful enough as a magician that he supported his family. When he felt a slight change in his magic career was needed, he renamed himself; 'Ballantine' came from an advertisement he saw for Ballantine whisky. One night when a magic trick failed miserably and he threw out a couple of one-liners to cover the error, the Amazing Ballantine was born. His career spanned vaudeville, film, television, Vegas and Broadway. Since the early 1940s, Ballantine always performed in a top hat, white tie and tails, his reason: “If the act dies, I'm dressed for it.”
In 1956 Ballantine was the first magician to play Las Vegas, appearing on a bill at the El Rancho Vegas Casino with Harry James, Betty Grable and Sammy Davis Jr. To promote the show, he rode a horse down the Las Vegas strip.
Ballantine appeared in a number of films, including The Shakiest Gun in the West, (1968), The World’s Greatest Lover (1977), Mr. Saturday Night (1992), and Speedway (1968) starring Elvis Presley, who offered Ballantine a Cadillac. His wife, comedian Ceil Cabot (who died in 2000 after 45 years of marriage), wouldn’t allow him to accept it. His most recent film appearance was in the biopic, Aimee Semple McPherson (2006).
Besides McHale's Navy (1962-66) starring Ernest Borginine, Ballantine was a regular cast member on the 1969 sitcom The Queen and I and 1980's One in a Million. He made dozens of guest appearances on a variety of variety shows and series like the Andy Williams, Danny Kaye and Dean Martin shows, as well as The Hollywood Palace and The Tonight Show. Often appearing as a magician, he guest starred on Fantasy Island as the Great Zachariah, on Night Court as the Fabulous Falconi and on The Cosby Show as the one and only Great Ballantine. Ballantine also appeared on Broadway in the 1971 in the revival of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum with Phil Silvers.
In 2007, Steve Martin presented Carl Ballantine with the Lifetime Achievement Fellowship from the Magic Castle in Hollywood. Late last year Ballantine performed his act for the final time at the It's Magic show at the Kodak Theatre.
According to his daughter, Saratoga, Ballantine wanted his ashes scattered over Santa Anita racetrack. Obviously the man loved the ponies. Saratoga was named after the famous racetrack in New York, her sister Molly's middle name is Caliente, named after the legendary track in Tijuana.
Ballantine is survived by his sister, Esther Robinson, and his daughters. Rest in peace, Carl.