Review: Mrs. Ballard’s Parrots by Arne Svenson

My friend Meg gives amazing presents which is not why she’s my friend but it helps. Meg is the one who, when stuck on Christmas Eve wrapping Christmas presents for the next day and birthday presents for that night for her daughter, ran out of Christmas wrapping and substituted birthday paper by writing “Jesus” under all the Happy Birthday designs. So I opened up her box with fear and longing. Inside was the Ultimate Santana CD and Mrs. Ballard’s Parrots by Arne Svenson. Meg scores again.

Parrots

Mrs. Ballard’s Parrots is a collection of photographs of Alba Ballard’s parrots, dressed in costumes she made for them, a passion that led to her appearing in Broadway Danny Rose and on Letterman and Saturday Night Live. The pictures are funny (two sailors buying a doll a drink), disturbing (General Patton trapped under his jeep, and worse, General Patton putting the moves on an Army nurse) and evocative of the era in which they were taken (Tiny Tim and Miss Vicky, Freddy the Freeloader, Dean Martin surrounded by Barbies), but they’re also amazing. The parrots aren’t stuffed, they were her pets (at one point she had forty) and she and her family made all the props and backdrops by hand and filmed them in a spare bedroom. The whole idea is mind-boggling–as one Amazon reviewer wrote, “We have owned Zeppo, a Mexican Red Head, for almost thirty years, and I can’t even get him to wear a hat”–but after awhile you forget they’re parrots.

But what I liked best was Svenson’s short piece at the beginning of the book, talking about how he came to have the photos (they were originally sent to Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor), how he tracked down Alba Ballard (there were no names on the photos), and what he found out about her life. A lesser man would have snarked; I mean, come on, this is a woman who dressed up parrots and tried to make a show biz career out of it. You’d think the temptation would be overwhelming. Yet he treats her with the respect she deserves, a respect he clearly has for her, and tells her story simply and swiftly, making you want more. And then he gives you more; he turns you over to the photographs and never adds a caption, just lets the work speak for itself.

The pairing of Svenson’s introduction with Ballard’s bizarre and wonderful photos makes a book that gives you a moment in time. It won’t take an hour to read Mrs. Ballard’s Parrots, but for that hour, you’ll be happily in Alba’s world, where a red parrot is the best Quasimodo you ever saw. It’s the perfect book for a guest room which is where mine is going, but you’ll be tempted to read it again, just to see if it’s as bizarre as you remembered.

The Santana CD was excellent, too.

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