Carl Ballantine, Magician and “Gruber,” Dies at 92
Now, why would I change up and start mentioning a old Jewish vaudevillian magician and actor who deliberately flubbed his tricks for bad, but good jokes?
Because I liked Carl Ballantine, born Meyer Kessler. And I liked him when he was Lester Gruber, one of the seven wise-ass crew members of the PT 73, otherwise known as McHale’s Navy. It was always one of his fantastic, money-making schemes among the other sailors and the Marines that landed the crew in trouble with Captain Binghamton (Joe Flynn), otherwise known as Old Leadbottom. And it took Commander McHale (Ernest Borgnine) and sometimes pure luck in the appearance of a sympathetic admiral, to always bail them out of it.
Ballantine was born in Chicago, Illinois. In his early career, Kessler did a straight manipulation act but gave up “real magic” when he realized he could not be as good as some of his peers. He changed his name to Ballantine early on after he noticed a bottle of Ballantine whisky in an advertisement and decided that the name of his magic act was to be “Ballantine, the World’s Greatest Magician”. He proved successful enough that he became the first magician to headline in Las Vegas.
Nicknamed the “Jipper,” Kessler was inspired at age 12 by his barber who would do magic tricks with thimbles while cutting the boy’s hair. His first job was working as a printer. In Chicago in the 1930s, Kessler was doing professional straight magic, first as “Count Marakoff” & “Carl Sharp”, then, since the early 1940s, switched to comedy magic as “Carl Ballantine.” He was billed as “The Amazing Mr. Ballantine” when he played the New York Capitol in 1950, the Ed Sullivan TV show in 1953 and the Las Vegas El Rancho Vegas in 1956. He won Tannen’s “Louie” Award and the 1985 AMA Performing Fellowship.
Ballantine is probably best remembered as Lester Gruber, one of the PT boat sailors in the television series McHale’s Navy (1962-66). He appeared as Lycus the slave merchant, on Broadway in the 1972 revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum starring Phil Silvers. His most recent film appearance was in Aimee Semple McPherson, a 2006 biopic about the notorious female evangelist.
The guy kept on working, even taking a bit part on The Cosby Show above.
From News from Me:
[...]Carl started out as a real magician but soon discovered he was better at making audiences laugh than at dazzling them with trickery. So the tricks got deliberately lousier and he got more and more successful. [...]
It brought him fame, fortune and much acting work. He was one of those guys who worked, if not all the time, then as often as liked. He was best known for his role as Gruber on the TV series, McHale’s Navy, and he logged hundreds of guest shots on television, in the movies and on stage. [...]
Carl did hundreds of commercials, including a memorable one for California Raisins in which he supplied the voice for a Claymation™ character that looked like…Carl Ballantine. He also did cartoon shows, one of which was Garfield & Friends, where he had a recurring role on as a con-artist character named Mr. Swindler.
Ballantine died in his sleep yesterday. He had a full and funny life; he made me and thousands of others laugh.
(Of the original cast, the following are yet alive: Ernest Borgnine (McHale), Tim Conway (Parker), Edson Stroll (Virgil), Bob Hastings (Carpenter), Gavin MacLeod (Happy), and Yoshio Yoda (Fuji). Of Yoda–who played POW and seaman cook Takeo “Fuji” Fujiwara–it is said that the actor eventually changed his name to James Yoda. According to Edson Stroll, he became a Toyota executive, and an American citizen.)
Ballantine is survived by his daughter, Sara.