The Parrot Dresser

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In the very, very early days of David Letterman’s NBC Late Night show, I watched it nearly every night. Letterman’s choices of guests were far more ideosyncratic than they’d later become, and he repeatedly had on a middle-aged woman named Alba Ballad, who dressed her pet parrots in themed, hand-made costumes. Alba was charming, the parrots didn’t seem to mind, and it was, all in all, one of the most peculiar things I’d ever seen.

I haven’t spent all that much time thinking about Alba Ballard and her parrots in the last two decades, but they’ve always been in lodged in my consciousness somewhere. And today, I was unexpectly reunited with them–thanks to Arne Svenson’s new book Mrs. Ballard and Her Parrots, which collects Mr. Ballard’s vintage photographs of his wife’s pets. (Just to make this strange tale a little stranger still, the photos were discovered in Elizabeth Taylor’s Swiss home.)

Mrs. Ballard (who also contributed garbed birds to a memorable Saturday Night Live film) liked to dress the parrots as celebrities and place them in pop-culture tableaus–the book includes tributes to Dean Martin (with Barbie-type dolls serving as the Golddiggers), Red Skelton (as Freddie the Freeloader), Easy Rider, and numerorous other entertainments circa the late 1960s/early 1970s. You can get a free online taste of all this courtesy of this New York Times slideshow.

Until now, you could have convinced me that I was the only one who found Alba Ballard’s work fascinating, and I felt a little guilty that I did, since I suspected it had something to do with the fact that birds creep me out; if dressing them was a form of cruelty to animals, I could live with it. (Conversely, I like dogs but dislike William Wegman’s vaguely Ballardesque staged photos of them.) It’s nice to know that someone else remembers her (she died in 1994),and that her work will live on…at least as long as this book is in print.

1 thought on “The Parrot Dresser”

  1. I worked for Alba when i was a little girl, i cleaned parrot cages and duck ponds, fed all the birds including bongo. I have tons of parrot pictures from her house. RIP my old friend your flying high with the birds now. God gained another angel.

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