Character actor and magician Carl Ballantine passed Tuesday at the age of 92. He may well have been best known as con man Lester Gruber on the sitcom McHale's Navy. In both vaudeville and on television he also performed bumbling, inept magic tricks as "Ballantine the Great."
Carl Ballantine was born Meyer Kessler in Chicago, Illinois on September 27, 1917. At age 9 he was taught his first magic tricks by his barber. It was in 1940, when he was performing a straight magic act called "The River Gambler," using cards, poker chips, and money. Realising that his act was not a big hit in nightclubs, he decided to change his act. Ballantine developed an act in which he performed magic tricks very ineptly, expressing mock chagrin when they did not work. Ballantine soon found himself very much in demand as a nightclub performer. With a bad back, Ballantine was exempt from military service during World War II, but performed for the troops in England. During the Forties he performed at both the Palace Theatre in New York City and in Las Vegas as well.
Carl Ballantine made his first appearance on television on The Milton Berle Show, on which he performed his magic act/comedy routine. Throughout the Fifties he appeared on such shows as Kay Kyser's Kollege of Musical Knowledge, The Jack Carter Show, Frankie Laine Time, The Chevy Showroom Starring Andy Williams, and The Gary Moore Show. In the Sixties Ballantine appeared on such variety shows as The Dinah Shore Chevy Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Andy Williams Show, The Hollywood Palace, and The Dean Martin Show. As Lester Gruber, Ballantine was a regular on McHale's Navy, and appeared on the feature film based on the show--his first appearance in a motion picture in 1964. He guest starred on such shows as Car 54, Where Are You, That Girl, The Monkees, Laredo, Mayberry R.F.D., and I Dream of Jeannie. In 1969 he was a regular on The Queen and I. He appeared in the films Penelope, Speedway, and The Shakiest Gun in the West.
In the Seventies Ballantine guest starred on such shows as The Partridge Family, The Virginian, Love, American Style, O'Hara U.S. Treasury, and When Things Were Rotten. He appeared in the films The World's Greatest Lover, The North Avenue Irregulars, and Just You and Me, Kid. In 1972 he appeared on Broadway in a revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. In 1980 Carl Ballantine was a regular on the series One in a Million. He guest starred on Trapper John M.D., Blacke's Magic, Night Court, and The Cosby Show. He also appeared in the film The Best of Times.
In the Nineties Carl Ballantine appeared in the films Mr. Saturday Night, Oink, My Giant, and Susan's Plan. He did voice work on the cartoons Garfield and Friends, Freakazoid, and Spider-Man. In the Naughts he appeared in the movies The Million Dollar Kid, Farewell to Harry, and Aimee Semple McPherson (his last appearance on film). He performed his magic act/comedy routine for last time in the autumn of 2008, at the "It's Magic" show at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood.
"The Great Ballantine" was an apt stage name for a man who was both a great magician and a great character actor. As a magician Ballantine had considerable skill, even if he appeared bumbling. Indeed, he was perhaps the first man to successfully combine comedy and magic in one act. As a character actor he not only played Gruber on McHale's Navy, but numerous memorable characters in his many guest appearances (including TV producer Hubbell Benson in The Monkees episode "Find The Monkees"). Carl Ballantine was a rarity, a man who was talented as a magician, a comedian, and an actor.