Suddenly, fervently, the yellow light trees flashed and rolled up and down across the stage as though a giant thunderstorm were outside, and Kiki kept on studying the trunk and began to examine its contents. The light show only lasted 15 seconds, then returned to pitch black. Ever the professional, Kiki pulled something from the trunk, strode toward the piano bench and sat down.
Close friends and family who attended Buddy Ebsen’s public memorial (August 2003), held at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences’ Leonard H. Goldenson Theatre, are familiar with the sudden variation in electricity that occurred for that event, as Kiki took the stage to sing “Missing You” in honor of her dad. She was to sing accompanied by a prerecorded music track. Not once, but twice, had she begun the song in her dulcet tones, only to have the music stop, dead in its tracks. Unabashedly, Kiki waited, the engineer restarted the song, and Kiki again sang the opening line, and the same thing happened again. Undaunted this time, Kiki smiled, and as she held the audience in the palm of her hand with her complete comfort on stage, she simply began the song a cappella. As you might readily expect, the music track began again, exactly on cue where it was supposed to be, within the song.
“To Dad With Love: A Tribute to Buddy Ebsen” creates a beautiful pathway to restoration and rejuvenation in any father-daughter relationship, and the elements of healing that come with time. Co-created by Kiki Ebsen and Dustin Ebsen, the multimedia images that Dustin and Kiki had selected, updated and augmented by Dustin’s newest discoveries, might just bring you to tears on their own accord. New photos accentuate the bond between the youngest siblings as together they navigated the world of comprehending Hollywood.
A fun time for all the Ebsen children was when Buddy took them all on the road with him, Kiki explains, in a production called “An Evening That’s Entertainment.” That tour would mark further determination for at least four of the children to make Arts & Entertainment some major aspect of their future careers, albeit via four very distinct pathways. [TV Guide article from Aug. 9, 1975, author's personal collection]
Seeing the premiere of an all-new theatrical production by StKi, LLC and expert direction of S.E. Feinberg was so powerful that it afforded me the opportunity to unlock my own closely held opinions about the long estranged relationship I had with my own father during my young adulthood, a subject I’d avoided thinking about for years.
What opened the floodgates of memories for me that night? The honest, raw courage that Kiki had for bringing her own story to the public, of missing out on solid time together that would have been the most important time in her young adult life. Feinberg brings that level of expertise to every project with which he is associated; he's also an accomplished author, most recently with P.F. (Phil) Sloan on his biography (What's Exactly the Matter with Me?) and filming of his screenplay, The Happy Worker.
The lessons we learn in life often come with a price we have to pay. We also have to choose how we will regard those life lessons, especially those that come with a high price. Perhaps we lose our childhood beliefs in adults’ perfection a little sooner than we should. Maybe we see them as "just human" before we really want to. No matter the reason, every person from Hollywood to the Hudson Valley who knew Buddy Ebsen from TV alone as either (Uncle) Jed Clampett, Barnaby Jones, or even (Uncle) Roy Houston feels a special kinship to an icon they grew up watching on television.
That is one way in which we “know” Buddy, even when we don’t, or didn’t, at his most complex. For he was a writer—of songs, letters, and his own autobiography (The Other Side of Oz) and was prolific and gifted in his expressing his feelings. His songs, usually cowritten with a talented partner, were upbeat, happy, and at times—deep. His time spent with his family, though, was precious to him and therefore private. So, when Kiki reveals his complex persona that afforded him the strength to defeat all sorrow, ignore all pain, and overcome all obstacles by simply choosing to focus on optimism, faith, strength, and kindness toward others, we want to love him even more.
Given Dustin Ebsen chose images of himself and Kiki as young teens, you can’t help but wipe away the tears from your eyes, as you quickly identify that, just at the cusp of becoming adults, on one side of their world was life among nature and the animals on the ranch, and the other that beckoned was teeming with celebrity, status seekers who wanted to be their friends, and some people worth their time, others not so much. Until you’ve walked that path, as you do in this story, you just don’t know what it’s like. Kiki Ebsen inherited talent from both her parents, as did all their children. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting six of his eight children (two by his first marriage, six by his second) so it’s personal opinion substantiated by experience.
And yet, Kiki is entirely unique—she embraced the worlds of both parents (community theatre and acting/directing from her mother and, well, everything else from her father). Then, she absorbed all that and struck out on her own in music, her own music at first and then the music of the greatest in contemporary pop/jazz/blues/singer-songwriter genres. She can sing opera one moment, symphonic arrangements of rock songs with full orchestra another, then pull out her guitar and sing a very country version of “Loudmouth Girl” (her composition), or pull into a festival and fire up the night singing Joni Mitchell songs with her first-call jazz band, and then wheel on in to Theatre West and sing, dance, play the banjo, make you laugh, bring you to tears, and then wipe away those tears with her brilliant acting—all over the course of a few months’ time in her performance schedule. [Below photo (c) by Cliff Lipson, used with permission.]
Yet, Kiki has undoubtedly spent countless hours writing (and rewriting over the past year), honing her message, to those who might have viewed a preliminary but very different version of her show. Together with an unparalleled talent in director S.E. (Steve) Feinberg, who inherently brings the best to, and inspires the best in, every production in which he is intricately involved, she flourishes. Kiki’s husband, Steve Wallace, her coproducer in StKi, LLC, who has staged this production, designed the evening’s sound so perfectly and intricately that at least three other reviewers have noted the outstanding quality of the sound, when typically the only time anyone ever writes about sound is when they don’t like it! He has her “dialed in” as performers love to say.
Let's talk about dancing! For the majority of her career, Kiki Ebsen was been described as a talented, first-call keyboard player and backing vocal musician. Later, she was described as a dynamic singer and eventual premiere jazz headliner and sultry song stylist. All are true. However, one glaring omission was her classification as a tap dancer who possesses skill and a comedic flair as she "goes her Aunt Vilma one step better" in her brilliant dance performance with choreographer Gregory Gast. Without giving anything away, let me just say that I believe, somewhere in Heaven, Lucille Ball has acknowledged another redhead who should be adored because she, too, was a most talented dancer who possessed impeccable comedic timing. Greg Gast is the quintessential dance partner, and has additional bona fides of having danced with the renowned Rusty Frank at Buddy Ebsen's 2003 memorial service. Come for the music and the story; stay for the dancing!
The story of Buddy Ebsen’s seven-decade career over his 95-year life is told, with exceptional talent, joy, and love in story and song, by his youngest daughter, upon whom all stars shine brightly, with joy, as Kiki Ebsen performs brilliantly in “To Dad with Love: A Tribute to Buddy Ebsen.” The entire evening is “Lights Out” grand!
If you go: Tickets for the remaining six shows are available at BuddyEbsenTribute.com or TheatreWest.org. Theatre West is located at 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West, Los Angeles, CA 90068 and $5 parking is conveniently available directly across the street. More info at www.BuddyEbsenTribute.com