Warning: If you are able to identify the person named in the title above, you are about to confront an age old conundrum. (or perhaps it is an old age conundrum). It goes like this: If you make a cultural reference and no one else in the room has any idea what you are talking about, you will be either viewed as A) being an old coot or B) a babbling cauldron of crazy. I say this with a certain amount of confidence because I have done it (the cultural reference thing) and been accused of both A) and B) above; sometimes at the same time. If you are not aware of who The Great Ballantine is, I will feed you some clues to see how far down the path to ‘cootdom’ you may be. Not to worry, I will meet you at the end of the trail so we will be in good company. I promised my buddy Jim that when we are both 64 (thanks for reminding us Paul McCartney) that we could exchange mental exercises to keep our brains pliable and lucid, so consider this installment #1.
Clue #1: The Great Ballantine was born in Chicago on September 27, 1917 (making us birthday twins by month and day)( but not by year may I add). The son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, the former Meyer Kessler was nine years old when he got interested in magic courtesy of his barber. The barber would perform tricks while cutting his hair and it wasn’t long before young Meyer began his life as a performer. His first claim to fame in the world of entertainment? He was the first magician to perform on stage in a little show town called Las Vegas. He didn’t have to travel far to get his feet wet as a performer in Los Angeles where he passed away in 2009 at the ripe old age of 92. Interestingly enough, he took his stage name after seeing a bottle of Ballantine whisky. He thought the name sounded classy. I can’t help but wonder what the folks who make Kessler’s whiskey would think of him trading one whiskey name for another. His obituary pointed out that his career ran from 1949 to 2009 meaning he was still somewhat active even into his 90s. Okay, you now know he has a connection to Hollywood and that he has now gone to that great gig in the sky (my apologies to Pink Floyd).
Sometime in the late 1980s, I went to a workshop at the ISD in Bergland run by our favorite NASA Education Specialist, Ralph Winrich. Among the many neat things he showed us to help us incorporate more Space Science into the curriculum were two video tapes produced by Kentucky Educational Television (KET for short). The first was called Electromagnetic Mischief and the level of acting ability, special effects, and staging was about what one might expect from the drama department at a large university. The story is about The Science Police and their efforts to track down one Willie Hooper, failed inventor turned super-fiend who is now spreading mayhem as Spectrum Man. If their ‘crime coup’ (an old finned Cadillac tricked out with some lights and PVC pipes attached to the roof) doesn’t remind you of the Ghostbusters similarly done up ambulance, then you probably haven’t seen Ghostbusters. On a small budget, continuity and casting sometimes leave the viewers scratching their collective heads. At one point they pull up in front of what looks like an abandoned drive in bank building in a mall parking lot, but the next scene shows them descending the stairs in a typical college lecture room which is decidedly bigger than the building they just parked in front of. In the climatic scene that leads to them capturing Spectrum Man, they are directed to Channel One’s TV studio by a security guard who for some strange reason sports a Scottish brogue that could have (or probably did) come from the late James Doohan playing Star Trek’s Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott. Even the female voice of the crimebusters’ computer reminds me of the ship’s computer on the Enterprise.
I am not being critical here, because if it were truly a bad video, I wouldn’t still be showing it. It is a fun method that I have used for nearly thirty years to review what my classes have covered about astronomers using the electromagnetic spectrum to unlock the secrets of the Universe. Most people are only aware of the electromagnetic spectrum because of ROYGBIV – the acronym used to remember the colors of the visible portion of the ES commonly known as a rainbow. KET expands the discussion to the invisible parts of the spectrum. Commander Willard muses about the deadly invisible parts saying, “Gamma Rays? Isn’t that what turned David Banner into the Hulk?” (and yes, the TV series with Lou Ferrigno as the Great Green One changed his first name from Bruce to David).
The second KET program Ralph shared with us was called The Star Salesman and it is a futuristic tale of two young newlyweds on a quest to purchase a new star from the Starmart. Insert your last adventure to buy a car and you will already know all of the plot devices put into play here. While the couple argue over whether or not to get a high performance star (O Class) or an uber economical M Class star, the Star Salesman tries to stay out of the line of fire. “The ‘O’ stars only last about 40,000 years versus the ‘M’ that can last 100 billion years,” intones the frugal wife. “How do you know that?” asks the beleaguered husband. “Read about it in Star and Driver,” she smugly replies. “I didn’t even know she was a subscriber,” muses The Star Salesman, Joe.
Joe Alpo (the ‘Star’ Star Salesman by his own accounting) takes it all in stride while educating the couple (and my students) on the intricacies of used stars (“pretty expanding clouds of gas”), supernovas, the internal structure of different stars, and the spectral classes of stars (using another acronym that goes “Oh Be A Fine Girl, Kiss Me” for the O, B, A, F G, K and M class stars). Sadly, they make the deal but the newly weds never get to take their star home. The woman makes the mistake of taking a peak in a box containing a black hole, there by sucking them, Starmart showroom and all, into oblivion.
As with Electromagnetic Mischief, the acting, script, and sets for The Star Salesman are pretty well done by college drama department standards circa the mid-1980s. There is one major difference with Salesman. I always introduce this to my students by telling them, “This film also features a real actor – as in a ‘paid actor imported from Hollywood’ to raise the quality level.” By now, you may have guessed the ‘paid imported actor’ was The Great Ballantine. When I showed the video this year, it dawned on me that Ballantine must be getting up there in years so I looked him up only to find that he had passed away nearly a decade ago. If you haven’t run off to look him up yet, good for you. If you are as far along the geezer trail as I am, then the next clue will be the one to pull you into the old coot zone with me and help you identify exactly who The Great Ballantine is (or more properly, was).
Clue #3: The Great Ballantine played my favorite character on a sitcom (and later at least one movie) about the exploits of a hapless PT Boat crew in the South Pacific during World War II. McHale’s Navy was one of my favorite shows and it made stars out of Ernest Borgnine, Tim Conway, and Joe Flynn. The Great Ballantine (Carl Ballantine) played Lester Gruber, one of the crew of PT 73. Gavin McLeod, who played alongside of Mary Tyler Moore and eventually became a captain on another type of vessel in the series The Love Boat played the much put upon mechanic of the PT boat crew, Happy. The character of Gruber had a knack for making deals and as such got in on enough story lines to be almost as famous as their secret Japanese prisoner of war, Fuji (Yoshio Yoda) who spent most of the episodes trying to stay out of sight.
There was a time when my students would confuse my McHale’s Navy reference with the remake starring Tom Arnold done in 1997. I have never watched this version so I don’t know if the Gruber character is part of that crew, but it would be a great disappointment to me to see someone else in the role. Like any good character actor, Carl Ballantine made a living playing bit parts in TV dramas and comedies while still performing his comedy-magic act. As a matter of fact, he played a magician named The Great Marvello in an episode of CHIPs and a used car salesman on one segment of I Dream of Jeannie. If you look up his picture on the internet or watch the credits for a few old TV shows, you will likely say “Oh yeah, that guy!” He even voiced a character named Al J. Swindler, a seller of questionable quality goods on Garfield and Friends.
As soon as I got back to school from Ralph’’s workshop, I took the information copied off the video tape case and made contact with KET to obtain my own copies. In those pre-internet days, this involved talking on the phone to a real person. As I explained what I was looking for, the woman on the phone paused and asked me in a rather peculiar voice, “Where exactly did you hear about these programs?” It vaguely dawned on me that Ralph had hinted that he had ‘liberated’ his copies from a Public Television booth at at science teacher’s convention he had attended. One can interpret ‘liberated’ any number of ways, but not wanting to get Ralph in hot water just in case, I played dumb and evasive by telling her, “Oh, I had seen it previewed at a science workshop in Michigan.” Perhaps my acting skills weren’t up to college drama department level, but she let it drop and allowed me to order the two programs. She also mentioned that the program had only just now been made available for purchase, more or less explaining her odd tone of voice during the mini-inquisition part of our phone conversation.
When the tapes arrived, I popped them in my video machine and was disappointed to find the tapes were both labeled correctly, but the shows on both tapes were not the ones I ordered. Mercifully, I made my second contact with KET, explained the problem, and they graciously told me to “keep the bonus shows and we will get the right ones in the mail.” It made sense for me to preview my two ‘new shows’ while awaiting the replacements and in doing so, I discovered something about mass producing video tape copies. Apparently, the series tapes for sale were copied one after the other with some level of automation. Whoever was minding the duplication process had mistakenly let the tapes get out of sync giving me a five minute snippet of the wrong show followed by the complete show that had been ordered. Not wanting to make a third call to KET to explain all this, I took it as an ‘acceptable business loss’ that would allow me to share the programs with someone else who would appreciate them.
Ralph and I exchanged notes from time to time and we made it a point to have him come to Ontonagon to do a NASA Education Program every couple of years. Each time he was in the area, we also put him to work doing a teacher workshop at the Bergland ISD. On his next visit to the area, I told him all about the trials and travails that it took for me to end up with dual copies of the KET programs. When Ralph sadly told me that his copies and a good deal of his own educational materials had been lost in a freak flood that destroyed his storage unit, I knew exactly who needed to get the bonus copies.
As long as I was doing some research on Carl Ballantine, it seemed like a good idea to see what information is still out there about the whole The Universe and I series that had included the two KET segments I have been using all these years. The KET website didn’t have much information other than a partial list of titles that they still air from time to time. I couldn’t help but notice that one of them starred Leonard Nimoy . . . and yes, I have a Leonard Nimoy story to tell in my collection of tales, but that will have to be another story for another day! RIP to both Carl Ballantine and Leonard Nimoy. I can only imagine how thrilling it would have been to work with them as the fledgling actors and technicians in the college drama program at the U of Kentucky got to do making The Universe and I series!
Top Piece Video: Here is a clip someone posted in tribute to Carl Ballantine shortly after his death – you may note a certain amount of Who’s on first? riffing in this scene from this 1977 movie.