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Carl Ballantine, who performed feats of bumbling comic magic on Vaudeville and on television, the movies and in Las Vegas, died Tuesday of natural causes at his Hollywood home. He was 92.
Perhaps Ballantine’s most famous role was as confident con artist and torpedoman Lester Gruber on 1962-66 ABC comedy “McHale’s Navy.”
Ballantine, born Meyer Kessler on Chicago’s South Side, learned magic tricks at age 9 from his barber. By 13, he was performing and supporting his family.
One night, a trick went haywire and he threw out some funny lines to cover things. The audience loved it, the club owner told him to “keep it up” — and the Amazing Ballantine was born.
Ballantine caught the end of Vaudeville and the early days of television. He played the Palace in New York City, the Hippodrome in Baltimore and many other huge venues of the day.
On TV, he did magic on the shows of Garry Moore, Steve Allen, Milton Berle, Dinah Shore, Andy Williams, Dean Martin, Ed Sullivan and David Copperfield. He played a magician on such series as “Fantasy Island,” “The Cosby Show” and “Night Court” and appeared in scores of other shows.
Ballantine also did many commercials, including one for the California Raisins in which he supplied the voice for a character that looked very much like him.
Ballantine was the first magician to play Las Vegas when he was put on the bill in 1956 with Harry James, Betty Grable and Sammy Davis Jr. To promote the act, he rode the Strip on a horse.
His film credits include “The Shakiest Gun in the West” (1968), “The World’s Greatest Lover” (1977), “Mr. Saturday Night” (1992) and “Speedway” (1968).
In 1971, he starred on Broadway in the 1971 revival of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” with Phil Silvers.
Ballantine is survived by his sister, Esther Robinson; his daughter Saratoga, an actress; and his daughter, Molly, an advertising executive.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to adoption agency Used Pets in Inglewood, Calif.
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