The complex of buildings at the edge of Saranac Lake is known as "Will Rogers," since that was the name for much of its history. But it started in 1929 as the National Vaudeville Artists' Home; a tuberculosis curing facility for people in show business.
It was a future destination for a tall young magician. He bounded onto the stage in New York City. Before he could begin his act, he felt a wave of nausea, and collapsed. Instead of dazzling the expectant crowd, he wound up in the "actors sanitarium" in Saranac Lake, with his doctors saying they would know more about his condition in six months. He felt that was an ominous pronouncement.
He may have been a funny guy, but what he was facing now was deadly serious.
shifting a dream
Carl Ballantine is credited with perfecting the comedy magic concept. Like so many inspirations, it was born of necessity.
He had loved magic since he was nine and the local barber distracted kids with simple tricks. Born Meyer Kessler in Chicago in 1917, he ran through several names including Count Marakoff, Carlton Sharpe, and Carl Sharp while working as a straight magician during the Great Depression. But it was a source of frustration to him that he was not as polished in his magic abilities as many of his competitors.
According to his daughter, he made a joke when a trick failed, loved the audience laughter, and began turning his lack of ability into a true comic act. From then on, he was careful not to call it a magic act, or himself a magician. He was now a comic.
He renamed himself Carl Ballantine, after a bottle of whiskey he saw, and would often add, "I was almost Jack Daniels!" His new act would be "Ballantine, the World's Greatest Magician."
He was eager to pick up his career where he'd left it... as soon as he got better. Curing his tuberculosis would take three years.
But he did not give up his comic ways. When his six months went by, he greeted the doctors with, "Looks like I'll be sticking around a while more. And so I've been meaning to tell you, the food here is terrible!"
Carl Ballantine was a comic natural. Mel Brooks was to call him “the funniest man on earth.” While he had developed his act partly out of frustration at not being as good at magic as he wanted to be, magicians like David Copperfield, and comedians like Steve Martin, revered him and cited him as inspiration.
Much of his career momentum had been lost by the time he was able to leave the sanitarium. Three years is a long time in show business.
getting back on stage
There were a few fortunate things Carl had going for him, besides the very fact of his survival. One was that his care had been provided free of charge.
As of 1935, the National Vaudeville Artists' Home became part of the Will Rogers Memorial Commission. The popular entertainer's death in a plane crash had led to the creation of a charitable foundation, partly funded by taking up collections before the movies played in theaters. This widened elibigility to all entertainers, vaudeville or not. A year later, the complex became the Will Rogers Memorial Hospital.
When Carl was declared able to take on the rigors of the road again, he'd had a captive audience for all this time.
Carl wasted no time in getting back to rebuilding his career. He'd put together his first act by the time he was thirteen, and now he started again, doing well enough by 1940 to become the first magician to headline in Las Vegas, appearing on a bill with such well-known stars as Harry James, Betty Grable, and Sammy Davis Jr.
Now he was on a roll again. Always impeccably dressed, he would appear on stage in a top hat and tails.
"If the act dies, I'm dressed for it," he'd say. One popular staple would be him tearing a newspaper into strips, claiming he would restore the paper. "But just in case," he would add, "let's check the want ads."
He began to become a common sight on television. Variety shows were hugely popular then. "I was on Sullivan a lot," he remembered. "But Sullivan would never get the jokes."
a genuine star
Those variety show spots began to pay off. He became nationally famous with his character, Torpedoman's Mate Lester Gruber, on the "McHale's Navy" television show that aired from 1962 through 1966.
In this highly popular show, Carl played a con artist from Brooklyn, who used his magic skills and street smarts to get the other members of the crew in, and then out, of trouble. He would reprise the role in the first "McHale's Navy" movie, along with castmates Ernest Borgnine and Tim Conway.
This led to more comedic acting roles in the movies, such as "The Shakiest Gun in the West" (1968), "The World's Greatest Lover" (1977), and Billy Crystal’s directorial debut, "Mr. Saturday Night" (1992). His last feature film role was in "Aimee Semple McPherson," a 2006 biopic about the female evangelist.
He was a staple on television during this era, from 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?" in 1961 to a 1973 TV movie, "The Girl Most Likely to..." with Stockard Channing.
In his later years, he got work as a voice artist, first in "Freakazoid!" (1995) as Huska, then in "Garfield and Friends" (1988) as the devious Al G. Swindler.
While working on "Speedway" (1968), Elvis Presley wanted to give him a Cadillac. But his wife, actress and cabaret singer Ceil Cabot, wouldn't let him accept it. He was also a devoted family man, even if he did name their two daughters after racetracks: Saratoga, the actress, after the racetrack in New York, and Molly Caliente, after a track in Tijuana.
In 2007, he received the 2006 "Lifetime Achievement Fellowship from the Academy of Magical Arts." Carl Ballantine would live to the age of 92, wisecracking and playing the ponies, almost to the end. His last performance had been the year before, the "It's Magic" show at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood.
Will Rogers lives on. It's now Saranac Village at Will Rogers, an extraordinary place for independent retirement living, with interesting talks, monthly outings, and other cultural events. Show business, after all, is in its bones.
Carl Ballantine's legacy lives on in the performers he inspired. And what a delight it is.
Photo acknowledgements: Will Rogers ad courtesy of Historic Saranac Lake wiki website. Early magician photo from Skirball Cultural Center. Formal and autographed photos from katzizkidz. Picture quote from AZ Quotes.
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