As a Baby Boomer thinking back to some of my favorite TV shows growing up, one of them I fondly remember and watched every week was The Beverly Hillbillies. I bet every single one of us can remember the opening lyrics. So, when I was invited to see a one-woman show that was a tribute to Buddy Ebsen starring his daughter Kiki Ebsen, I had to go.
If you never saw The Beverly Hillbillies, Buddy Ebsen played Jed Clampett, who was the patriarch of the Clampett family. They were country bumpkins from somewhere down South. (We never knew where – but Granny cooked up squirrels and possum for dinner) Jed accidentally strikes oil and moves his family to Beverly Hills where they cause hilarious calamity trying to assimilate to city life.
But there was so much more to Buddy Ebsen than ‘Ol Jed
Buddy was born in 1908 in Illinois. His father moved his family to Florida and set up a dancing school in Orlando. That’s where Buddy and his sister Vilma learned to dance, including ballet. Buddy left Florida in 1928 to pursue a dancing career in New York. His sister followed and they went on to perform as a dance act on vaudeville stages and in supper clubs. They also appeared as members of the chorus in Broadway musicals.
MGM signed the pair in 1935 but after a while, they dropped his sister who moved to California and started her own dance studio with their sister Helga. Buddy was soon cast as the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz but was replaced by Jack Haley when he became deathly ill from his silver makeup. Kiki tells the true story of what really happened that most people don’t know.
As we all know, Buddy starred in numerous films, including Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Captain January with Shirley Temple. He choreographed the spectacular Codfish Ball dance sequence for that film. Shirley, who was 6-years old at the time refused to learn the dance until it was set.
But, Buddy became a household name on television
Buddy played Davy Crockett’s sidekick George Russel in the Disney TV series from 1954-1955. After The Beverly Hillbillies became a huge hit, he starred in Barnaby Jones, played a recurring role on Matt Houston, and throughout his TV career appeared on numerous other shows like Bonanza, Rawhide, and The Twilight Zone, just to name a few.
On being the child of a celebrity
Kiki Ebsen is Buddy’s youngest daughter from his marriage to Nancy Wolcott. When she was born, Buddy was 50-years old and was already a TV star. By the time he was starring in Barnaby Jones, she was in high school. For many years, the family lived on Balboa Island near Newport Beach. I remember as a teenager often seeing Buddy’s catamaran (he had several) floating past us on Newport Bay when I lived near there.
As a kid growing up, Kiki didn’t know much about her father’s early life until she found a big steamer trunk filled with his memorabilia in her mother’s sewing room after she died. For most of her childhood, she led an idyllic and privileged life until her parents got divorced. Buddy was married 3 times. She felt lost as a teenager and delved into alcohol and drugs for a while, but her music was her saving grace.
Her love of music started when she was a child learning to play the piano. Over the years she became an accomplished pianist and classical singer. Buddy wanted her to stick to jazz, but Kiki was a child of her time and preferred rock. She toured as a background singer and keyboard player with Al Jarreau, Tracy Chapman, James Ingram, Boz Scaggs, Belinda Carlisle, and many other top performers.
Her love for animals became more intense when her family lived on a ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains. In the show, she tells the story of when they all rode horseback from their ranch to attend a BBQ at the Reagan Ranch nearby.
Kiki’s musical tribute
The show begins with Kiki slowly (maybe a little too slowly) opening the steamer trunk and taking out some of the precious mementos her mother had saved. Buddy’s jacket, a shirt she called her pajamas, a raccoon hat from Davy Crockett, an original script from Born to Dance with a note on it that says “return to the prop department,” and several others. Between each story, Kiki sings and shows clips from some of Buddy’s films. At one point a male tap dancer appears who is tall and looks similar to Buddy. They do a tap duet together.
Her stories are humorous and poignant. By the end, she had us all in tears. It’s not easy to grow up as the child of a celebrity, and there were hurtful times, like when she found a stack of personal letters from a girlfriend that she opened and kept secret until both of her parent’s deaths.
MGM told the press that Buddy had an allergic reaction to his Tin Man makeup, but in truth, his “makeup” was an aluminum powder that seriously damaged his lungs. It took a long time for him to recover both physically and mentally. The studio was angry and demanded that he come back to work immediately, but his doctors told the studio he was much too sick. In retaliation, Buddy was cast in B roles as if it was his fault.
He also had a warm relationship with Walt Disney. Disney filmed Buddy dancing in front of a screen to help develop the audio-animatronics technology that was used in Disneyland’s Mr. Lincoln, The Haunted House, and some of the Park’s other attractions. In 1993, he was recognized with a Disney Legends plaque at Disney Studios.
Buddy Ebsen lived to be 95 and died from complications of a stroke in 2003. During his retirement, he enjoyed sailing, became a painter, coin collector, and author.
Find out more about the show and Kiki’s work
To Dad With Love: A Tribute to Buddy Ebsen runs through September 29, 2019, at Theatre West in Hollywood and she continues to perform and sing in different venues. You can see her work and what she’s up to next on her website.
To find out more about the show, and to view photos and videos click here.
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