Thursday, November 5, 2009

Carl Ballantine


He called himself "The World's Greatest Magician," but he actually gave up sleight of hand very early in his career. The tricks he learned from his barber as a kid did not translate well to the nightclub circuit, until he began commenting on his own ineptitude. He would arrive onstage in formal attire and alert the audience, "if the act dies, I'm dressed for it." He might cut up a newspaper into long strips, promising to reconstruct it. Then he would pause to read the want ads.

Ballantine brought comedy to the world of the magician, and influenced David Copperfield, Steve Martin, Dom DeLuise, and Penn & Teller with his routines. He took his surname from a bottle of whiskey, and named his daughters after famous racetracks (he liked "the ponies"). His brand of stand-up worked well on television, and he guested on all the major variety programs of the 50s and early 60s.

He is well-remembered as Luther Gruber, one of the lovably inept con-men who crewed McHale's Navy in the mid-60s, and he brought his incompetent magician act to Fantasy Island, Night Court, and The Cosby Show. He was the first "magician" to headline in Vegas, and appeared in the first Broadway revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum starring Phil Silvers (he played Marcus Lycus in the production). In his later life, he had a career as a voice-over artist (he memorably voiced the talent agent of the California Raisins), and received the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Fellowship from the Magic Castle in Hollywood. He appeared in several feature films, including The Shakiest Gun in the West (1968), The World's Greatest Lover(1977) and Mr. Saturday Night (1992), but will surely be best remembered as "The Great Ballantine," the magician whose act bombs.
Carl Ballantine died this week at the age of 92. His wish was to have his ashes spread over the racetrack at Santa Anita.