Carl Ballantine

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Carl Ballantine
Ballantine in 1968
Meyer Kessler

(1917-09-27)September 27, 1917
DiedNovember 3, 2009(2009-11-03) (aged 92)
  • Magician
  • comedian
  • actor
Years active1936–2009
Ceil Cabot
(m. 1955; died 2000)

Carl Ballantine (September 27, 1917 – November 3, 2009) was an American magician, comedian and actor. Billing himself as "The Great Ballantine", "The Amazing Ballantine" or "Ballantine: The World's Greatest Magician", his vaudeville-style comedy routine involved transparent or incompetent stage magic tricks, which tended to flop and go "hilariously awry" to the wisecracking Ballantine's mock chagrin. He has been credited with creating comedy magic and has influenced comedians and magicians alike.[1]

Early life and career[edit]

Ballantine was born Meyer Kessler in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Israel Kessler (1883–1930) and Rose Cohen (1890–1973), both Jewish immigrants from Borshchiv, Ukraine, and Russian Poland (then part of the Austrian Empire and Second Polish Republic).[2][3][4][5] Nicknamed the "Jipper," he was inspired at age 9 by his barber who would do magic tricks with thimbles while cutting his hair. His first job was working as a printer.

In the 1930s, Kessler was doing professional straight magic as "Count Marakoff", "Carlton Sharpe", and "Carl Sharp" in Chicago, helping support his family, and later moved to New York City, where he performed in nightclubs and on television variety shows. In the early 1940s, he gave up "real magic" when he realized he could not be as good as some of his peers. According to his daughter, "one night, one of his tricks got screwed up, he said something to cover, and the audience laughed. So he started adding more."[6]

He switched to comedy magic and changed his name to "Carl Ballantine", after he noticed a bottle of Ballantine whisky in an advertisement and decided it sounded "show-businessy and classy", and called the magic act "Ballantine, the World's Greatest Magician". He entertained troops during World War II. He was billed as "The Amazing Mr. Ballantine" when he played the New York Capitol in 1950, and "The Great Ballantine" in The Ed Sullivan Show and The Steve Allen Show on television in the 1950s and 1960s.[7]

He was the first magician to play Las Vegas, appearing on a bill with Harry James, Betty Grable and Sammy Davis Jr. at El Rancho Vegas in 1956.[8]

Ballantine as Lester Gruber in McHale's Navy

Ballantine was cast in several films, including McHale's Navy (1964), Penelope (1966), Speedway (1968), The Shakiest Gun in the West (1968), The World's Greatest Lover (1977), Just You and Me, Kid (1979), Disney's The North Avenue Irregulars (1979) and Billy Crystal’s directorial debut, Mr. Saturday Night (1992), and in numerous television series, including the ABC sitcom McHale's Navy (1962–1966), in which he played Lester Gruber, one of the PT boat sailors known for his hucksterism and wild schemes. He was a supporting player on the show, working with stars Ernest Borgnine, Joe Flynn and Tim Conway.

An early television role cast him as magician Al Henderson, working the 53rd precinct Christmas party for brother-in-law Officer Toody in episode 15 of the first season of Car 54, Where Are You?, originally airing December 24, 1961. He also guest-starred on The Partridge Family, I Dream of Jeannie as a used car salesman, and on The Monkees episode "The Audition" which aired on January 23, 1967. In 1971, he appeared as Matty Ryan on "The Men From Shiloh" (rebranded name for the TV western The Virginian) in the episode titled "The Politician." He appeared on CHiPs as magician "The Great Marvello", in the episode "Rustling", which aired January 28, 1978. In 1973 he appeared as Dr. Hankim in The Girl Most Likely to.... His last feature film appearance was in Aimee Semple McPherson, a 2006 biopic about the female evangelist.

Ballantine made his only appearance on Broadway as Lycus the slave merchant in the 1972 revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum starring Phil Silvers.[9] He was also a frequent panelist/judge on The Gong Show, even appearing on the series finale of the NBC daytime version.

In later years, he was a recurring voice artist on Garfield and Friends, primarily as Al J. Swindler, a purveyor of shoddy merchandise.[10][7]

Personal life[edit]

Ballantine's first marriage ended in divorce. In 1955, he married actress Ceil Cabot (born Celia Cabrera; March 8, 1927 – January 24, 2000),[11] to whom he remained married until her death. Their two daughters, Saratoga, an actress,[12] and Molly, an advertising sales executive, are both named after racetracks.[13]


Ballantine died on November 3, 2009, at age 92 at his home in Hollywood, California.[14] His remains were cremated.

Awards and honors[edit]

He won the Academy of Magical Arts' (AMA) Special Fellowship in 1973, Performing Fellowship in 1984,[15] and the "Louie" Award from Tannen's Magic in 1985.[16] In 2007, he received the 2006 Lifetime Achievement Fellowship from the Academy of Magical Arts. The award was presented by Steve Martin, who calls Ballantine "the king of bungling magicians" in his memoir Born Standing Up,[17] and said in an interview: "Carl Ballantine influenced not only myself but a generation of magicians and comedians. His was also the most copied act by a host of amateurs and professionals." According to David Copperfield, "Carl Ballantine created comedy magic. The combination of magic and comedy had perhaps been done before, but he truly defined it and made it his own."[1]


Year Title Role Notes
1964 McHale's Navy Torpedoman Lester Gruber
1966 Penelope Boom Boom
1967 The Monkees Hubble Bensen Episode: "Find the Monkees"
1968 Speedway Birdie Kebner
1968 The Shakiest Gun in the West Swanson
1976 Revenge of the Cheerleaders Dr. Ivory
1977 The World's Greatest Lover Uncle Harry
1978 CHiPs - S1E14 - Rustling Marvello The Great
1979 The North Avenue Irregulars Sam
1979 Just You and Me, Kid Reinhoff the Remarkable
1980 One in a Million Max Kellerman
1986 Night Court Philip Falcone
1986 The Best of Times Arturo
1992 Mr. Saturday Night Freddie
1995 Freakazoid! Huska Voice, episode: "Lawn Gnomes: Chapter IV – Fun in the Sun"[18]
1996 I Crave Rock & Roll Dewey Rose
1996 Spider-Man Lenny Luntz Voice, episode: "Goblin War!"[18]
1998 My Giant Rabbi
1998 Susan's Plan Harold Beyers
2000 The Million Dollar Kid Lieutenant
2002 Farewell to Harry Hickey
2006 Aimee Semple McPherson Realtor in China


  1. ^ a b Dennis McLellan (November 5, 2009). "Carl Ballantine dies at 92; comedy magician was in 'McHale's Navy' cast". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on November 3, 2012. Retrieved May 6, 2011.
  2. ^ "Borszczow PSA AGAD Births 1872-98,1901-03 Marriages 1846,55-58,61,62,64,66-1905 Deaths 1877-1902". Archived from the original on 2014-02-05. Retrieved 2016-12-18.
  3. ^ "Israel Kessler and Rose Kessler (Cohen), United States Census, 1930". Retrieved 2016-12-18.
  4. ^ "Israel Kessler, Illinois, Cook County Deaths". Retrieved 2016-12-18.
  5. ^ "Rose Kessler, Illinois, Cook County Deaths". Retrieved 2016-12-18.
  6. ^ Edmon J. Rodman (April 25, 2011). "Jewish masters of magic materialize at Skirball". Jewish Journal. Retrieved May 6, 2011.
  7. ^ a b "Carl Ballantine, R.I.P." news from me blog. Archived from the original on March 17, 2010. Retrieved May 6, 2011.
  8. ^ "Obit: Actor Carl Ballantine Dies at 92". The Wrap news. November 4, 2009. Retrieved May 6, 2011.
  9. ^ Bruce Weber (November 10, 2009). "Carl Ballantine, Comedian Who Played a Magician, Dies at 92". The New York Times. Retrieved May 6, 2011.
  10. ^ Merritt, Pamela (2016-02-17). "Carl Ballantine, comedy magic". Archived from the original on 2020-08-10. Retrieved 2021-11-08.
  11. ^ Ceil Cabot at IMDb
  12. ^ Saratoga Ballantine at IMDb
  13. ^ "Carl Ballantine dies at 92",; accessed June 28, 2015.
  14. ^ Dennis McLellan (November 4, 2009). "Comedian-magician Carl Ballantine's final exit". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved May 6, 2011.
  15. ^ "Awards won by Carl Ballantine". The Magic Castle. Archived from the original on September 17, 2010. Retrieved May 6, 2011.
  16. ^ Steve Dacri (November 2009). "Steve Dacri's Tribute to Carl Ballantine". Inside Magic. Retrieved May 6, 2011.
  17. ^ Steve Martin (2007). Born Standing Up. A comic's life. New York: Simon and Schuster. p. 47. ISBN 978-1-4165-5364-9.
  18. ^ a b "Carl Ballantine (visual voices guide)". Behind The Voice Actors. Retrieved October 26, 2023. A green check mark indicates that a role has been confirmed using a screenshot (or collage of screenshots) of a title's list of voice actors and their respective characters found in its opening and/or closing credits and/or other reliable sources of information.

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