If the MAC Awards have become known as the Tonys of cabaret, the Bistro Awards have certainly become its equally-glittering counterpart. Launched in 1985 by the late and legendary cabaret journalist Bob Harrington in his “Bistro Bits” column in Back Stage, then under the editorship of Sherry Eaker, it was initially just a list of winners before evolving into a live awards ceremony in 1990 at the now-defunct Eighty Eight’s. Recipients have included Dionne Warwick, Carol Lawrence, Larry Kert, Dixie Carter, Cleo Laine, Eartha Kitt, Mario Cantone, Joy Behar, the team of Kathy Najimy and Mo Gaffney, and far too many more to list in appropriate completion. This year’s ceremony, which takes place on the evening on Monday, April 23rd at 6:30 PM at Gotham Comedy Club (208 West 23rd Street, between 7th and 8th Avenues), features an equally-impressive roster of cabaretfolk and theaterniks; these include Rita Gardner, Billy Stritch, Terese Genecco, Shaynee Rainbolt, Lauren Fox, Billie Roe and Parker Scott among others. The four most prominent awards of the evening, however, are being bestowed by an impressive lineup; for one, jazz legend Annie Ross will present Warren Vache with Ongoing Excellence as a Jazz Instrumentalist. George Faison gives Dee Dee Bridgewater an award for Ongoing Artistry in Jazz. Marvin Hamlisch bestows Outstanding Contribution to American Popular Song to Melissa Manchester. And the Bob Harrington Lifetime Achievement Award will be presented by legendary columnist Liz Smith to Kaye Ballard.

As is well known, Ballard has managed, in a spectacular career than spans nearly seven decades, to conquer Broadway musicals (The Golden Apple, Carnival! and The Pirates of Penzance among others), film (A House is Not a Home, The Ritz, the original Freaky Friday), television (as a co-star with Eve Arden on The Mothers-in-Law), and every manner of concert and nightclub stage ever since her career began as a touring player with Spike Jones in the late 1940s. More recently, she toured cabarets and clubs throughout the nation in the show Doin’ It For Love, along with Liliane Montevecchi and Lee Roy Reams, and she’ll be coming back to New York in June for a one-woman blockbuster evening at Feinstein’s. One may call the lady who began as Caterina Balotta in Cleveland anything they like, but what they must call her first and foremost is a survivor who has seen it all. And The Andrew Martin Report couldn’t be more honored that she found the time to grant us a brief interview from her home in Palm Springs in preparation of the awards next week.

ANDREW MARTIN: What’s the most exciting/gratifying thing about being the recipient of this award?

KAYE BALLARD: Well, just looking at the people who’ve received it before me. Cleo Laine, Eartha Kitt, people that I know/knew and respected. I’m so flattered. I sometimes look back on my life and all of the unexpected things that have happened, and this just happens to be the latest one. Not bad for eighty-six. But I look pretty good, no? (Laughs).

AM: Had you been familiar with the Bistro Awards before now?

KB: Well, I knew Bob Harrington, and I’d heard about it, but I didn’t really know what it was. I knew of the MAC Awards, but not the Bistros. Although they sounded more prestigious. I also want to thank Gretchen Reinhagen for doing her show, because she really kept my name alive in cabaret. But what do awards really mean? I’m just happy to be alive. It would have been nice to win an Emmy or a Tony, but Gracie Allen never won one either. You know, I come from a time when actors couldn’t even get a hotel room, or had to use the back door.

AM: Are you a particular follower of any of your fellow recipients?

KB: Of course! I LOVE Melissa Manchester. And Dee Dee Bridgewater. She’s really wonderful. But I’ve also seen two acts in the last year that I don’t think anyone can touch; one was the Callaway sisters, Liz and Ann Hampton, and the other was Christine Ebersole. So being part of cabaret now, along with such wonderful people, is gratifying beyond words.

AM: What’s your impression of how cabaret has changed/grown/not grown since your first emergence as a star?

KB: It hasn’t grown. It was so much better when I started. There was the Pierre, the Plaza, the Bon Soir, etc. They had an elegance about them, in a strange way. It was an honor to play those places because they had a built-in elegance. I worked with people ranging from Mae Barnes and Pearl Bailey to the Smothers Brothers. Nowadays, there’s too much vulgarity. I’ve worked with people like Bert Lahr and Jimmy Durante and Shecky Greene, who always had total class. I’m so sick of performers who feel compelled to be vulgar. My mentor was Henny Youngman, who never worked blue. I’m very much opposed to working blue. Jack Benny once said, “Funny is funny.” And I agree. As Fred Ebb, who was my writer, once wrote, “Whatever happened to class?”

AM: Tell us about Doin’ It For Love.

KB: It was such a thrill. Lee Roy Reams is the quintessential song and dance man, and Lilliane Montevecchi is so much of something from the past, just an elegant and sophisticated Frenchwoman from another era. So between them and the combination of what I do, it just worked beautifully.

AM: Is there any chance you’ll come back to New York with a solo show any time soon?

KB: Well, as I say, I’m doing Feinstein’s on the 17th of June. I can’t wait!! It’s really what I did in Doin’ It For Love. I’ve always believed that the best of the past is meant to last. It’s all the stuff I used to do, and I also talk some truisms. I think it’s gonna be a good show. David Geist is playing for me, and he’s just sensational. I found him in Santa Fe. He’s the closest thing I’ve ever found to Arthur Siegel, who was my dear heart, as we all know.

AM: We know you had a strong attachment to Arthur Siegel, both as a singer/instrumentalist and a composer. Those of us who attended Arthur’s memorial will never forget your speech or the wonderful duet you performed with Sandy Stewart. Do you have any particular favorite songwriters now for theater and cabaret? How does the new crop differ from yesterday’s greats?

KB: I LOVE Billy Charlap. He is fantastic. And I just love Marc Shaiman. The problem is, I love melody, and there’s not a lot of melody to be had nowadays. Not what I call melody. This is why I loved Arthur so dearly. He worshiped Jerome Kern, so he always came up with a great melody.

AM: How do you feel about the award being presented by Liz Smith?

KB: Oh, she’s one of my closest friends. She was my road manager at one point when I was doing Top Banana. She’s one of the brightest women I’ve ever known, besides being the kindest columnist ever. I’ve never known her to be remotely vicious. It’s an honor to know that she’s presenting the award to me.

AM: What advice can you give to some young women out there who think, “I want to be the next Kaye Ballard?”

KB (laughs): Does anyone really want to be me? I can’t imagine! But seriously, what I would say is to look at what came before you and then look where you’re going. I’ve always looked where I was going. And you should never think anything is old-fashioned. The great ladies of British comedy, like Bea Lillie, Joyce Grenfell, Hermione Baddeley, these are my heroines and the women I wanted to be. I feel the same about Patricia Routledge. My feeling is, I’d rather be Gone With The Wind than Saturday Night Fever, and I would recommend that anyone who wants to follow in my footsteps do the same. Because the truth is, I got a lot more out of it.

It is a grateful worldwide audience that will continue to get as much out of Kaye Ballard as she has to give. This humble reporter will most certainly be there on the 23rd and looking forward to it!

(Note: All who are reading this can purchase tickets for a five-dollar discount!! That’s $55 for each General Admission ticket, or $90 for Premium (includes pre-show champagne reception and priority seating)!! Just click here, scroll to the bottom of the page, and click “Donate.” Type in how many tickets you want at either $55 or $90, and you can pay with a credit card (PayPal not required; a credit card should do just fine). You can also send them a check if you’d rather; message me privately for the details. And don’t forget, ALL ticketholders are invited to an After Bistros supper buffet and party!! Hope to see you there!!!)

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Comments
  1. Ah, thank you for this post, Andrew–well done! I love Ms. Ballard’s mention of elegance in cabaret as well as melody–those two ideas jump out at me, and influence and encourage me as well.

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