(1925-2019), the boisterous comedienne and singer who appeared in Broadway musicals and nightclubs from New York to Las Vegas and co-starred with Eve Arden in the 1960s TV sitcom The Mothers-In-Law, was born in Cleveland to Italian immigrant parents from Calabria. While attending high school at West Tech, she sang at service clubs and appeared in a 1941 Cleveland USO show called Stage Door Canteen. After graduating, she worked at a burlesque theater, not as a stripper but as straight woman in comedy sketches before taking her act of songs, comedy and impressions of famous stars on the road.
One night in Detroit, where she was appearing at a nightclub called The Bowery, she was seen by comedy bandleader Spike Jones, who immediately drafted her into his troupe. For two years she toured with Jones, singing, playing the flute and tuba and engaging in the band’s antics. She also sang with the bands of Vaughn Monroe and Stan Kenton.
In 1954 Ballard conquered New York as a madcap Helen of Troy The Golden Apple, with her song “Lazy Afternoon,” a performance one critic called “a wonder of insinuation.” In 1957 she was cast as one of the wicked stepsisters in the live telecast of Rodgers and Hammerstein‘s Cinderella, starring Julie Andrews. She also won critical praise for her role as “The Incomparable Rosalie,” the magician’s assistant and mistress in the 1961 Broadway show Carnival! (a musicalized version of the movie Lili), in which she sang “Always, Always You” while stretched out in a box the jealous magician was piercing with swords.
By Maurice Seymour (New York) – Scanned version of original photograph, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org
During the 1961–63 television seasons, Ballard was a regular on The Perry Como Show and Kraft Music Hall. In 1962 she played Lucy van Pelt on an LP based in the popular comic strip Peanuts.
She was to star in The Decline and Fall of the Entire World As Seen Through the Eyes of Cole Porter, the acclaimed 1967 revue of songs by the great composer/lyricist (and good friend of Cleveland socialite Leonard Hanna) with book by Ben Bagley.
A later generation would fall in love with her as “Madam A-Go-Go,” a mysterious fortune teller who appears in the “Fortune Teller” episode of The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! In 1995, she was awarded a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars. She died at 93.
“This honor is so well deserved,” says Bill Rudman, host and creator of the nationally syndicated (since 1998) weekly radio program Footlight Parade, which originates on WCLV, founding director of The Musical Theater Project, and CAP’s 2000 Bergman Prize winner, “so I hope it happens! Each of the roles you mention was an important one. On Broadway she was recognized as a kind of legendary figure. Despite the TV work, she remained a musical theater treasure, performing her highly successful cabaret act to acclaim at the drop of a hat until she was in her 80s.”