Thursday, September 19, 2019

Kiki Ebsen Shines with Joy in Theatrical Premiere of “To Dad with Love: A Tribute to Buddy Ebsen”

On Saturday night, Sept. 14, the most amazing thing happened at Hollywood’s Theatre West. As Kiki Ebsen made her appearance on stage as a beautiful silhouette, the house lights took over control on their own, it seemed. Carrying on seamlessly, working basically in darkness, Ebsen walked toward her discovery of a large trunk, of which all of us could make an outline in the dark.

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.

As she began to play the opening note of her father’s composition (with Zeke Manners) of “Missing You,” to the second that her fingers touched the keyboard, a single spotlight appeared on her as she sang “Missing you, when shadows fall….missing you now, most of all…” and as though divine intervention had now concluded, the rest of the lights were restored and never once during the rest of the show did Ernest McDaniel’s brilliant creation ever deviate from perfection. It was clearly out of his hands in the first place. The audience had no idea this wasn’t planned, so seamless was the transition. But, having arrived from Texas the day before, I’d also seen the prior night’s performance, hence the insight.

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.

Before you look left and right for Rod Serling, or maybe recall the images of Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore, and Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost, it might just be a given that wherever Buddy Ebsen’s name is involved, and whenever Kiki Ebsen is nearby, there’s a connection beyond the realm of one world that seems to reach out and find the other. Two life lessons we know to be true, one thanks to science, is that energy is neither created nor destroyed; and love never dies as it transcends time and space, eternally.

“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.]

In “To Dad with Love: A Tribute to Buddy Ebsen,” the most powerful words in the script were not written by Kiki Ebsen. They were instead solid feelings conveyed by Kiki, as you see a woman of grace and dignity, who possesses a keen sense of comedic timing, loves to tell a story, sings to perfection, and who appreciates every single member of her premiere band (Jeff Colella/Perry LaMarca, piano; Kendall Kay/Bernie Dresel, drums; Granville “Danny” Young, bass; and Kim Richmond, woodwinds)—all while making it look easy. That’s communication and conveyance at its finest.

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!

Having watched Ernest McDaniel at work behind the scenes before the show several times, it is gratifying to see how much dedication to and love for live theatre he possesses, especially for the historic Theatre West and this particular show. His abundant gifts and talents shine throughout the production. The entire Theatre West family is excited about this show’s run, now extended to a fourth weekend for this must-see show.

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 or 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

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

The Relentless Persistence and Subsequent Success of Buddy Ebsen

2nd Choice+ 2nd Chance + Perseverance = 1st Rate Success

The preceding is the mathematical equation for the accomplishment that Buddy Ebsen solved and re-solved for 70+ years in his career in the entertainment industry.

From the time dancers Buddy Ebsen and his sister, Vilma, found acclaim as a brother and sister dance team in 1930, it was a whirlwind of exhilaration and success, only to be followed by an avalanche of disappointment and failure to achieve the dreams the young siblings had hoped to accomplish—together. After all, Buddy had arrived in New York in August 1928, and was fired his first week on the job, for being too tall in a chorus. Undefeated, Buddy pursued his goals to make it onto the New York stages as a dancer.

After achieving success sufficient to call for his sister, Vilma, to join him, the world was just about to become their oyster. Billing themselves as the Baby Astaires, one rave paragraph from the New York Daily Mirror’s powerful syndicated columnist Walter Winchell in 1930 found them swamped with over 90 offers for the couple to perform in clubs nationwide. Success was achieved for the devoted duo, ultimately leading to being signed by MGM studios for musicals.

The excitement over “Broadway Melody of 1936” found the duo teamed with Eleanor Powell and the movie led them to hope for even more success in films. Despite having caught the eye of famed director Charles Walter for being a beauty and a dancer, MGM no longer wanted Vilma, just Buddy. Crossroad number one. A decision was made for Buddy to go it alone. Vilma’s life would turn out “just fine” and she was deemed happy to have found two loves of her life, with two children to adore, and a modicum of delightful memories that co-owning and operating a California dance studio would bring. Buddy’s solo parts were great, but secondary, roles.

Buddy married his first wife, Ruth Cambridge in 1933, and they had two daughters, Elizabeth (Libby, d. 2002) and Alexandra (Alix). At 6’3” and limber, he developed a reputation for “eccentric dancing,” a unique genre. The thrill of a lifetime came in 1938 when Buddy was told by Arthur Freed that he was a “sure thing” for the part of the Scarecrow in an upcoming film, “The Wizard of Oz,” that MGM meant to give Disney’s 1937 “Snow White” a little competition in the fantasy genre. For once, Buddy allowed himself a moment to soak in the euphoria of success. It didn’t last.

When Ray Bolger appeared on the studio lot, Buddy knew immediately he’d never last in the role of the Scarecrow. He was right. Bolger got that part. However, there was a second-chance role for Ebsen—the Tin Man. The euphoria at being “saved” didn’t last long. After 10 days of filming on the “Oz” set, Ebsen succumbed to a toxic reaction when pure aluminum powder coated his lungs, almost asphyxiating him, and landed him in the hospital for weeks.

Miraculously, Ebsen recovered, but had lost the Tin Man part to Jack Haley, Jr. Ebsen’s involvement in the iconic project would remain unknown for 50 years. Buddy’s marriage to Ruth ultimately ended in January 1945. He didn’t speak of either disappointment to his family, he just followed the words of Pres. Calvin Coolidge, “Press on.”

The U.S. entry into World War II meant the enlistment of a patriotic Ebsen into the U.S. Coast Guard, having failed to get into the U.S. Navy (his first choice). His Coast Guard service would lead him to meet the second woman of his dreams, Nancy Wolcott, whom he would make his wife six days after the end of World War II. Fourteen months later, their first son, Christian Ebsen, III, would be born, but live only 22 days. The tragic loss presented the young couple with a new crossroad: would they continue to build a family? Three daughters later, Susannah (d. 2019), Cathy, Bonnie, Buddy was finding work acting in “B” westerns mostly, until 1954, when Walt Disney director Norman Foster recommended to Walt Disney that Buddy portray “Davy Crockett” in a series Walt was planning.

At long last Buddy might just have that starring role, but legend has it that James Arness was Walt’s first casting idea.

Until Walt Disney happened to see a Warner Brothers sci-fi film, “Them!” featuring James Arness, and in one scene was a young unknown named Fess Parker, whose plane goes down as UFOs that look like giant ants takes him out, and Fess comes unraveled.

Forget James Arness, forget Buddy Ebsen, Walt chooses Fess Parker as Davy Crockett. Buddy’s hopes of starring are again dashed. The phone rings the next day, though; seems Davy has a best friend, George Russel, and Buddy gets second billing (again). [Right: Fess Parker and Jim Arness in "Them."]

Not long after Buddy becomes a Walt Disney go-to for many things, last daughter Kiersten (Kiki), and son Dustin are born, and the Ebsen family had three age groupings with Kiki and Dusty as young children only knowing Dad as a TV star. Wasn’t everyone’s Dad on TV?

Time and fate would be kinder to Buddy. Television producer/creator Paul Henning saw Buddy on a TV show playing a backwoods hillbilly, and created the part of “Jed Clampett” specifically for Buddy, who—legend has it—had to be talked into the idea for the role by his agent, Jimmy McHugh, and Henning. During the nine-season run of “The Beverly Hillbillies,” a show consistently at the top of the Nielsen ratings, the show was frequently rated #1 each week.

In 1968, mid-Hillbillies, Buddy sailed and crewed his catamaran, "The Polynesian Concept," past James Arness’s “Seasmoke,” as he won the 2,400-miles Transpacific Multi-Hull Ocean race in 1968. Buddy came in first…again.

After CBS Programming Chief Fred Silverman pulled “rural shows” (“The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Green Acres,” “Petticoat Junction,” and “Mayberry RFD”) from its weekly lineup to seek a so-called highbrow audience, Buddy thought about retiring. But he was still young, at age 63. Meanwhile across town, producer Quinn Martin had scored weekly hits with “The FBI,” (1965–1974) and “The Fugitive” (1963–1967) and in 1972 Buddy’s agent got a call that Quinn was looking to stage a new detective show and was interested in him for the title role. [Photo: Quinn Martin gets his star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, on the North side of the 6600 block of Hollywood Boulevard.]

Producers looking at Buddy in starring roles was now the new trend, for a pleasant change. Given that Quinn Martin had a plethora of detective procedurals running, Ebsen hesitated…until he heard that the character actually brought something new to the screen—a “foxy grandpa solving crimes”…that did the trick.

As “Barnaby Jones” from 1973–1980, Buddy Ebsen achieved acclaim and fame far surpassing his roles in Vaudeville, MGM films, Hollywood “B” westerns, and even the successful “Moon River” part as “Doc Golightly.”

After “Barnaby,” costarring with the beautiful Lee Meriwether and featuring newcomer Mark Shera, Ebsen did some stage plays at home, and began writing.
In 1984, Buddy was called to portray a character of “Uncle Roy” for ABC’s “Matt Houston,” a Texas oilman turned private eye, in a series created by Lawrence Gordon and produced by Aaron Spelling of prime-time drama fame. The series starred Lee Horsley and Pamela Hensley and gave Buddy another season of appearing in people’s homes each week in 1984-1985.

As fate would have it though, producer/creative Ron Howard wanted to cast Buddy in a new film he was making and because of contractual obligations to “Matt Houston,” Buddy couldn’t participate. During his 1986 acceptance speech for the Oscar, actor Don Ameche thanked Buddy Ebsen “for not being available to play the role” that Ameche would inherit. Another substantial potential honor lost, because of fate and the luck of the draw.

Parts won, parts lost, fame and fortune was always fleeting for anyone in the entertainment business. It’s one of the riskiest businesses outside of Wall Street. And yet, the rewards for any artist are not built around, nor are they measured by, numbers, statistics, awards, or intangibles. [Photo: Ron Howard surrounded by his cast of "Cocoon," the film he directed that was supposed to feature Buddy Ebsen, who could not appear because of his contractual obligation to his season in the TV show, "Matt Houston."]

Every day, if you do what you love, if you work with people you love, if you have the freedom to make your own plans or schedule, find a group of people who think in sync with the way you believe you want to approach a project, then you have arrived at success in life. The secret to Buddy Ebsen’s success was relentless perseverance of his goals, his ambitions, his dreams, and his ability to tune out the naysayers, to weed through the false or temporary friends, to find the highest caliber of agents and representatives who believed in him and fought for him, and in his own skill to bring his best to any project he was involved in.

“To Dad with Love: A Tribute to Buddy Ebsen” is a love song, written by his youngest daughter Kiki, to honor her dad’s spirit, his dreams, and his accomplishments during his lifetime. There was a costly price Buddy had to pay to be led by his artistic muse but it was not a permanent cost.

His relationship with Ruth created two daughters and brought him joy during the first phase of his career in New York; his relationship with Nancy created two sons and four daughters and brought him more family during the second phase of his career in Los Angeles. His marriage to his third wife and widow Dorothy provided joy during the third phase of his career, as a painter, writer, and bon vivant in a world whose bright lights he’d mostly had abandoned while raising his family. Fame, acclaim, and contentment were ultimately his, and after a lifetime of sacrifices, losses, near hits, near misses, and total obscurity for a time, the one thing that remained about Buddy Ebsen was his indefatigable spirit.

It is that same spirit which flows through the pen of his daughter Kiki, that resonates through her voice when she sings, through her limbs as she dances, and through his son Dustin when he assembled the photographic storyboard of seven decades of his father’s life. If he had only one thing to offer all of his children besides his love it was his soulful spirit of joy in working in the entertainment industry.

Kiki learned from him that no one hands you anything. You work to make your own opportunities. You persevere even when people shake their heads or don’t share your dreams. And you create new art because you must. It’s there to be created. All you have to do is allow the messages to come through and to present your very best self, surrounded by people who love, honor, trust, and regard you as a working professional artist.

StKi Productions, LLC Presents: "To Dad with Love: A Tribute to Buddy Ebsen" runs at Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd., Los Angeles, CA. For tickets, visit or

“Remember, that of all the elements that comprise a human being, the most important, the most essential, the one that will sustain, transcend, overcome and vanquish obstacles is—Spirit!” ~~Buddy Ebsen

Monday, August 12, 2019

Reflections on Woodstock at 50: Music, Memories, and Forever Postage Stamps

“Did you know this is the 50th anniversary of Woodstock?” That’s what the clerk asked me when I asked her what new stamps were out. It was a rare trip out in the 106°F heat to go inside the post office to mail a package where I was stunned how she had pegged me as someone who might care that it’s the 50th anniversary of Woodstock this week. Of course, I am, but it got me wondering about who among my generation of Baby Boomers knows, and cares, about the 50th anniversary of Woodstock.

Clearly I’m not alone, when I’ve just become one of the stamp collectors to invest in a sheet of the new issues. There on the sheet of 20 stamps can be found an array of colors, ala Roy G. Biv (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet, which is about as groovy as 8th grade science class got), and a small white dove with a red beak. The swirl of words in the message read:


A sheet of forever stamps, just issued on August 8th. Calling them “forever” stamps helps you forget that the price of one stamp is $.55, or a sheet of 20 is $11.00. Still, it was a must-have for the collection. Researching, I found art director Antonio Alcalá designed the stamp to commemorate “The Woodstock Music and Art Fair, held in the small farming community of Bethel, New York, in August 1969, was the most famous rock festival in history and an expression of the youth counterculture of the 1960s.”

Last year I gave substantial thought to what the year 2019 would bring. Whereas 2017 could be considered the 50th anniversary of the “Summer of Love” in 1967, or 2018 could even be considered another variation of the “Summer of Love” in 1968. That loving summer really spanned more than 365 days, anyway.

Ironic that the 30th and 40th anniversaries of those auspicious events didn’t generate much, if any, fuss or cause for celebration. It’s the 50th (golden) anniversary that brings a profound weight upon the days and times when the world was spinning around in chaos as young men were in the midst of the Vietnam conflict, which had really begun in 1965 in terms of U.S. entry into battle. At the same time war was creating the dividing line towards the draft, conscripted service, and conscientious objectors formed two divisions within the country.

Meanwhile on the radio stations (primarily AM radio, thank you), we heard songs of love, peace, and sunshine, lollipops and rainbows. The Beatles’ invasion of America in 1964 overtook the minds and hearts of most teenage girls who fell in love with teenage boys and teenage boys who fell in love...with guitars, bass, and drums. Meanwhile over in Vietnam, strains of pop sounds by The Buckinghams' Carl Giammarese, Nick Fortuna et al., brought sounds of a greater, gentler time. Ironically, The Buckinghams, Gary Puckett and the Union Gap and even Paul Revere’s Raiders posed for album covers in various military uniforms ca. 1968. The Cowsills, Chuck Negron and his bandmates in Three Dog Night, the Turtles and the Classics IV were all engaged in battle, against and with the uniformed ones, on the Billboard Music Charts for top spot each week.

With growing dissent in seeing our country at war, an attitude that some dared question the logic behind the war, much to the dismay of longtime patriots who’d rather lose a limb than question authority, the young people of the United States quietly chose positions. Even so, the protests against war were loud but generally orderly. Adults looked at the “children” assembled on college campuses, surveyed the ones who quickly enrolled in college and others who left college to serve their country and yet both groups coexisted in society without venom. No parent wants to lose a child to battle, any battle, and yet the generations who came before never had a choice, or took the effort to make one. Music was a means of disappearing here at home.

Music across the FM airwaves, though, was launching a counterculture sound. Artists who chose to “tune in, turn on, and drop out” mastered the art of guitar, keyboard, and drum solos that might go on for four minutes each as FM radio and 33 RPM albums provided a lengthier expression of music to undergird a protest and profess that love would overcome hate, and war.

Songs of love comprised both AM sunshine pop and FM protest sounds did battle of their own for an audience to listen and purchase their music. Music did battle here at home, but it would be 35-40 years before groups like The Buckinghams would have concerts where, at the end, Vietnam veterans would stand in line for an hour to shake the hands of Carl Giammarese and Nick Fortuna and their sidemen and say “Thank you so much for playing your music back then. It brought ‘home’ to us.” As the vets stood there, many of them who resembled body builders with waist-long hair cascading over well-worn leather jackets, their eyes filled with tears recalling in an instant what they’d felt like some three and four decades earlier.

Meanwhile, in upstate Bethel, New York, a three-day event occurred that people, especially those who were not there, would remember fondly and warmly for the next five decades. The first evening of Woodstock was August 15, 1969. Among the performers from Max Yasgur’s Farm, are many who are still with us today, still going strong...Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Melanie, Ravi Shankar, Richie Havens, and Tim Hardin were six of the acts.

Personal favorites of the songs they brought to life in that time include Arlo’s “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” a song that is at least 17 minutes long and was played by every FM deejay at the end of their radio set, particularly so they could leave the station a good 15 minutes early, or they could take a needed trip down the hall during their long show. Guthrie’s storytelling in song, with guitar, is one-of-a-kind, and all some of us have to hear is one phrase “8x10 color glossies, with the circles and the arrows on the front, and a paragraph on the back of each one, telling what each one was” before bursting into laughter. And no one wanted to sit on the “Group W” bench either. War could be funny, too, although not for long.

Richie Havens, it is said, opened the festival because heavy traffic kept some of the openers from arriving on time, so he managed to become very well known to a crowd of people who really didn’t know much about him before. Singing “Freedom” and many other songs, the audience got a sense of appreciation of what the messages the artists were saying in words and in songs. Others of his 10 songs included “I Can’t Make It Anymore,” “Handsome Johnny,” and “I’m a Stranger Here.”

Joan Baez sang “Oh, Happy Day,” Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” and covered The Stones’ “No Expectations,” “One Day at a Time,” “Take Me Back to the Sweet Sunny South,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and Pete Seeger’s “We Shall Overcome” among her offerings. Today when she sings, she brings back memories so strongly.

Saturday, August 16 brought Canned Heat, Country Joe McDonald, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, John Sebastian, Santana, Sly & The Family Stone, and The Who among the lineup.

Janis Joplin is no longer with us but the memories of her performances there and then are ingrained among everyone who’s ever had access to YouTube, to hear “To Love Somebody,” “Summertime” and “Try(Just a Little Bit Harder),” and “I Can’t Turn You Loose” to the showstopping “Piece of My Heart” and “Ball ‘n’ Chain.” Janis paved the way for women of grit and substance to take the music scene by storm and if they wanted to live a life out loud in between concerts, well then, that's exactly what she chose to do. And dare anyone to say anything about it other than "she was gone too soon." The power of her voice is still unforgettable.

Santana did Evil Ways,” and “Soul Sacrifice" and covered another Willie Bobo song, “Friend Neck Bone and Some Home Fries” in their set.

Sunday, August 17th brought Johnny Winter, Ten Years After, Blood, Sweat & Tears, The Band, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young among the artists, with Jimi Hendrix on Monday, August 18th.

Some 50 years later, everyone who dreamed of a CSNY reunion is still waiting for a day that will never arrive. Recent articles in major newspaper interviews find David Crosby lamenting how he was such a (his words) “Jerk” to his bandmates, but still none of the others wish to communicate with Crosby. Crosby is perhaps more famous for discovering Joni Mitchell, and promptly losing the object of his heart to Graham Nash. Everyone has a biography or other tome out that describes love won, love lost, love won again, and oh yes, a bit of Woodstock and Laurel Canyon history to boot.

Blood, Sweat & Tears tours today, with few original members but the lineup gets the songs just fine, and these days it’s harder to find original members playing the songs you fell in love to (on AM and FM alike).

Despite three and four failed attempts to restage Woodstock, or even a reasonable reunion of Woodstock, in the past 18 months, nothing materialized because frankly, in my overly judgmental personal opinion, it seemed an individual or two were just looking to capitalize on the big 5-0 of Woodstock. Thoughts were on the merch that could be sold if people paraded in and out to hear groups that really did not belong anywhere near Woodstock. Some of the proposed lineup was absolutely ridiculous to book for such a gig. It’s a matter of record labels and greedy promoters fighting to get a foot in the door of nostalgia bringing genre that is nowhere near authentic, and fortunately that didn’t happen.

There’s a concert in Bethel, NY, going on this week, all right, but it’s not Woodstock, nor even a reasonable facsimile. Many Woodstock performers are no longer with us. Janis is gone, Richie Havens, Jimi is gone, and some of the bands that were once, are no longer. The members of The Band travel the country today to big audiences, and they have thin but reasonable connections to the ‘real’ Band, so no one cares who’s there as long as the music keeps playing.

Meanwhile, back on the AM side of the dial, ironically one answer to Woodstock at 50, you have the Happy Together anniversary tour available this year. Fifty-three cities mark the path of the tour, currently celebrating the 10th anniversary of their first reunion concert after 25 years following the first Happy Together Tour (a 60s reunion tour rocked the mid-80s and set Pollstar touring records in 1985).

On this year’s lineup are The Buckinghams, The Cowsills, Chuck Negron (formerly of Three Dog Night), Gary Puckett (& the Union Gap, sans Gap), the Classics IV, and The Turtles (Mark Volman and Ron Dante, longtime studio singer and producer pinch hitting for Howard Kaylan for the 3rd consecutive year). They’ve sold out virtually every show because people are still hungry to hear those sunshine pop songs that promise love, happiness, and forever, all typically in songs that last three minutes or less.

Meanwhile, in upstate New York, Woodstock 50 is not happening. There’s a concert in Bethel, NY, but frankly, it just doesn’t matter, because it’s not the heart of Woodstock in its origin. Over in Delavan, Wisconsin, a Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young tribute band, CSN Songs, had to add a fourth night to their show at the Belfry Music Theatre because of the hunger for remembrances of their sweet harmonies.

And, in Southern California, Laguna Beach to be specific, on Tuesday, August 13, Kiki Ebsen’s Joni Mitchell Project takes the stage for their fourth year at the Festival of Arts, Pageant of the Masters because people love hearing Joni’s songs, and she gave up touring many years ago. Ebsen’s band (Grant Geissman, Terry Wollman, Steven Lawrence, and Bernie Dressel) together with Kiki bring Joni’s songs to life with standout jazz arrangements and pay homage to Mitchell without being a note-by-note-perfect tribute band. It’s conceivably the best way to honor an artist, providing your own take on their songs.

Song by song, year by year, AM radio gave way to news-talk and sports programs more or less, and FM radio now programs “classic rock,” “soft rock,” and “hard rock” in blends such that you might hear a CSN song, followed by an 80s hit, sandwiched between a yacht rock blend, and barely a hard rock song in the mix. You're lucky if you catch “Bohemian Rhapsody” every now and then. Good news, though. SiriusXM has the formula mastered far better in creating stations devoted to various branches of music and introduces short-term channels devoted to various artists. Pick your favorites. They play them.

Wherever there is live music, there are memories that come along for the ride. You remember when and where you first heard the soundtrack of your life, and as the band on stage cranks up the volume on whatever they’re playing, you look up at them and smile, and they smile back, because every day is the anniversary or some great song or other from our lifetimes. In our lives we amass our very own favorite playlists, and we know the songs we want to hear and the artists we want to see, and we get there however we can to catch these performances.

My dear friend, Betsy, often quotes her husband, Sam’s, wisdom; one of his truths she shares is “Never miss anything that only happens once.” Word. It’s also a command to keep your favorite music alive today, as you did back in the day. You’re never too old to have your favorite songs on the radio. Your songs, your artists, your lyrics, your melodies are a part of the fabric of your life that begins at birth and sustains you all throughout your life, even helping your memories stay strong when your mind can forget a few other things as the years pile on and the information piles up.

And as the postal clerk handed me my sheet of “Woodstock” stamps, I smiled as I kept my thought to myself…the anthem of the multiday festival of love and peace, “Woodstock” was written by a woman who wasn’t even there. But the song has been beloved for over 50 years and likely some 50 years from now, it will be playing on some station somewhere, and even fewer people will understand why some envelopes from 2019 had that stamp on them. Music and memories are what we make of them. It all comes around again on the guitar, Arlo Guthrie said, if you just wait 17 minutes. Life's chorus is just 17 minutes away; nice to know. Peace and music forever. After 50 years, we are still in battle, both here at home and abroad. May our distinguished military service personnel always have concerts to come home to, and may they all come back to us safe and sound. Our world today is not at peace, far from it in fact, but in the next year or so, we will indeed be that much closer to realizing equilibrium, where we belong.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Ridgecrest Earthquake Didn’t Faze the Excitement of Kiki Ebsen’s “Jazzin’ Up the 5th of July" at Feinstein’s at Vitello’s

As she’d just concluded her medley, “You Are My Lucky Star” and “I Got a Feelin’ You’re Foolin’”) from “Broadway Melody of 1936,” entertainer Kiki Ebsen sat at the piano to sing “Missing You,” cowritten by her father, Buddy Ebsen, and his writing partner Zeke Manners. The song is emotional, powerful, and no one else but Kiki can bring it to life as she reflects on the seven-decade career of her father's history. But then a 7.1 earthquake came, at 8:13 p.m, just one day after the foreshock quake in Ridgecrest, CA that was felt as far away as Las Vegas, Nevada.

As the patrons of Feinstein’s at Vitello’s experienced the earthquake, Kiki remained entirely in control, noting to her crowd, "The exits are there (pointing) and there." She waited the minute for things to settle down, and stated casually, “Well, we’ll keep going now, and just remember if this is the end, you’ll hear my dulcet tones as we’re going into the next world.” The audience laughed, relieved. She said, "Not one of you went for the exits! This is MY kind of audience!" and the crowd again erupted with laughter.

She re-checked, “Are you all really okay?” They assured her they were. She announced, “This is a song called “Missing You,” but I’m a little concerned that if I sing it, the earth is going to start shaking again.” As though addressing her late parents, she continued, “Let’s cool it up there. When I ask for help, that’s not the kind of help I was asking for!” The audience laughed and, without missing a beat, she went easily into her song.

Videographer Gregory Gast captured the following video of Kiki, before, during and after the quake, and you just have to hear everything she says as she maintains complete calm while sending the audience into gales of laughter. That's the mark of a real professional! This lady deserves her own TV show. Priceless comedy combined with total calm, and she sings so beautifully. Kiki Ebsen is the real deal.

Clifford Bell, jazz and cabaret empressario, offered the perfect bon mot on Facebook. He posted a photo of Kiki onstage with the caption:

At Kiki Ebsen‘s fabulous show with a packed house at Feinstein’s At Vitello’s. And EARTHQUAKE. She handled it beautifully but that was a little like The Poseidon Adventure. And the Chandelier was swinging. I hope she sings ‘The Morning After.’
Kaylene Peoples, musician/composer/publisher, added: “We survived the rolling. Kiki Ebsen is the ultimate performer and handled the situation like the pro that she is!” Those were just two of the real-time social media posts that captured the excitement and the calm of the evening, securely in Kiki’s hands.

After the show, Ebsen said, “Naturally, I realized we'd had an earthquake, but I knew I had a responsibility to my audience to assure we were all safe, the staff was safe, and we could go on with our show, as that’s why everyone had come.” Longtime fan, Jeffrey Dalrymple from North Carolina, in town on business, came dressed Hollywood style; others also chose to adopt the style of the grand old days of Hollywood.

What a difference a new perspective can bring to a performer when they take the stage at a once familiar, yet newly redesigned, venue such as Feinstein’s at Vitello’s was last evening! The evening had just started with jazz instrumental "On Green Dolphin Street."

[L to R: Grant Geissman, Lee Meriwether, Kiki Ebsen, Debby Boone, and Kim Richmond; photo by Annette Lum.] Ebsen invited two dear longtime friends to join her, Grammy-winning singer, entertainer Debby Boone, and actress Lee Meriwether, two-time Golden Globe and Emmy nominee.

Kiki intended this show as a one-time tribute to the golden age of "Old Hollywood," and its brightest stars, including Meriwether. Kiki's teen years intersected with Buddy's "Barnaby Jones" days and she recalled occasional family celebrations in classic venues such as Chasen's and Musso & Frank's. For most of her teen years, the younger Ebsen children lived near the Santa Monica mountains, away from the bright lights, but still Kiki remembered the stories of the grandest days of Hollywood jazz.

She invited renowned jazz pianist Jeff Colella as Musical Director, along with dynamic drummer Kendall Kay, who has worked with Kiki since 1993, superb bass player Granville “Danny” Young, and inimitable saxophonist Kim Richmond (from their "K Project” jazz) to set the mood for the show she called “Jazzing Up the 5th of July.” [Below, L to R: Jeff Colella, Kiki Ebsen, Granville Young, Kendall Kay, and Kim Richmond; photo by Annette Lum.]

Three-time Emmy nominee for composing, jazz guitar great Grant Geissman joined Kiki on four songs. Geissman is prominent in Kiki’s Joni Mitchell Project band, and he's part of Kiki’s new CD of original songs, coming soon. Thus, the perfect evening was set.

Champion of the Great American Songbook, musician/conductor Michael Feinstein, had recently partnered with Vitello’s owner Brad Roen to debut the all-new Feinstein’s at Vitello’s. As the band opened the show with “On Green Dolphin Street,” a 1940s tune that went perfectly with the club’s new ambience.

As Ebsen took the stage, she continued the music of early Hollywood with “You Are My Lucky Star” and “I Got a Feelin’ You’re Foolin’,” both from the movie “Broadway Melody of 1936,” paying tribute to Buddy Ebsen's passing, July 6, 2003.

Kiki continued with “Devil May Care,” written by Harry Warren and Johnny Burke, then was delighted to bring actress and singer Lee Meriwether to the stage to sing “Rendezvous,” a song written by Buddy Ebsen and Zeke Manners. Beginning her Hollywood career officially when she was crowned Miss America 1955, Lee Ann Meriwether has been a star of film and stage for so long, it’s hard to name all the works she’s been famous for. One of her favorite roles, though, was as Buddy Ebsen’s daughter-in-law Betty, on CBS' “Barnaby Jones,” produced by the prolific Quinn Martin. For eight seasons audiences loved Lee, who's said often that she adored the opportunity to work with Buddy.

Ebsen followed with a powerful arrangement of “Twisted,” written by tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray, and lyrics by Annie Ross. Stories about growing up in Hollywood were shared between tunes. Before “Moon River” Ebsen related how excruciating it was as a child to see her father’s heart breaking on that screen every time that film was seen.

As she sang, one can imagine her childhood reaction seeing tears forming in his resplendent blue eyes. Of all the roles Buddy is known for in multiple arts genres, Kiki's audience was shocked to realize that he had achieved exactly “zero” nominations for EMMYs, Oscars, or Tony Awards. Perhaps that’s the secret to having an enduring career for seven decades—work so hard that you never have time for award nominations to catch up with you!

Following another instrumental, Grant Geissman joined Kiki for “Easy to Love” and “Why Dontcha Do Right?” followed by Kiki weaving her own magic around Joni Mitchell's “Goodbye Porkpie Hat.”

Ebsen then introduced longtime friend, Grammy-award winning singer, Debby Boone, to the stage. Boone shared precious memories of growing up with her family living across the street from the Dean Martin family. She then sang “Everybody Loves Somebody” in a poignant tribute to Martin. Debby's recent album, "Swing This," exhibits her mastery of the music she loves. Boone still tours the country in concert and occasionally performs her "Reflections of Rosemary" as a tribute to her late mother-in-law, Rosemary Clooney.

Kiki returned to the stage to sing “Codfish Ball,” from the Buddy Ebsen–Shirley Temple film, “Captain January.” Ebsen then pulled out a letter that Buddy had written during the filming of that movie, addressed to his parents in Florida. Buddy’s letter and Kiki’s reading of it, sharing insight into a young Shirley Temple were both hilarious. Her rapport with the audience is so clear as Kiki is always at home on stage.

As Ebsen performed “St. Louis Blues,” your mind could easily wander back to the 1958 film “St. Louis Blues,” the story of W. C. Handy, starring Eartha Kitt, and Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Pearl Bailey, and Cab Calloway. Kiki mentioned she'd discovered a beautiful magazine photo of Eartha Kitt with her dad in Chasen's, enjoying martinis and conversation. That's part of old Hollywood evenings, time for cocktails, conversation, dinner, and music following. Today's Hollywood entertainment tries hard to recreate the "events" of yesteryear, but at least in the new Feinstein's, the setting is just right.

Ebsen prefaced her last song, “If I Only Had a Brain,” with the story of how Buddy Ebsen was cast as the Original Tin Man. She was joined by Grant Geissman for her powerful rendition as the audience reflected on what it had to have been like for Ebsen to hear he had a major role, as the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man. Yet, he never once revealed that heartbreak to his own children during his life. [Left: Grant Geissman and Kiki Ebsen; photo by Clifford Bell.]

There’s a favorite old saying, “Don’t miss something that only happens once in a lifetime.” As proof of its veracity, concluding the evening, Kiki invited Debby and Lee back to the stage. The trio blended on a priceless rendition of “Our Love Is Here to Stay,” showcasing the loving friendship and admiration shared by two Hollywood generations, each talented on their own.

Kiki then announced to the audience the fall debut of her newly expanded and revised stage presentation, “To Dad with Love: A Tribute to Buddy Ebsen,” set to premiere the weekend of September 6–8 at Hollywood’s oldest continually operating Theatre West. She also invited the audience to visit the ticket link at, to obtain a 20% discount from 7/6–7/22 for Early Bird general admission seats.

With that, the audience jumped to their feet, applauding, reacting to priceless moments of Hollywood magic they’d experienced, for a few fleeting hours in that special club. If you missed it because it was a sold-out show, you have another opportunity to get in on the beauty of more Hollywood excitement of a different type, coming this September.

There’s more magic in the true story of Buddy Ebsen’s legendary career. And with Kiki Ebsen as your guide to the past, you're guaranteed a magnificent presentation of his life, in song, story, and dance. No parent could hope to be remembered as beautifully as Kiki remembers her dad.

A favorite quote from Buddy Ebsen goes:

"Remember, that of all the elements that comprise a human being, the most important, the most essential, the one that will sustain, transcend, overcome and vanquish obstacles is--Spirit."

Just as she soared and flew on the wings of jazz at Feinstein's at Vitello's, continuing her father's tradition, even in the face of an earthquake, Kiki Ebsen will always move you with her spirit, style, and talent.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

You Can Go Home Again—50 Years Later, Keystone’s Class of ’69 is Thriving and Doing Fine!

How many of you attended your 10th high school reunion? How about your 25th? How about your 50th? Well, I haven’t been able to celebrate my 50th yet, but thanks to a very generous group from Keystone School’s Class of ’69, three of us (2 of us Class of ’68 and 1 from ’74) were offered guest passes into the wonderful world of some of the school’s most accomplished and most gracious graduates I can remember. And, I remember over 300 of you.

Keystone was founded in San Antonio in 1948 by two gentlemen, William B. Greet and John H. Eargle, Jr., originally as a program for students in grades 1–8, to strengthen and improve skills of those behind in learning—reading and comprehension, the school’s earliest academic focus. More on the beginnings from another of my projects coming in the near future, but suffice it to say that adding on a high school transformed Keystone into a competitive college-prep training ground.

Below: Class of '69 reunion organizers, Velma Nanka-Bruce, Carmen Tafolla, and Ciro Ramirez

Located in San Antonio, Texas, Keystone is a private K-12 nondenominational college-prep school and, in year 71 of its existence, continues to be well respected across the country. Many of San Antonio’s most well-adjusted scholars have flown through the hallways and down the iron steps into careers that have made them very happy. Make no mistake: it’s not a nerd school nor a site in the middle of the Monte Vista Historical District where brainiacs abound. Not one of the students even slightly resembled the characters portrayed in “The Big Bang Theory.”

I never knew that other folks in town might consider us a bit nerdy. We didn’t even know the word “nerd” back then. After all, when virtually everyone belongs to the Future Scientists of America, it is easy to assume that the place was filled with rocket scientists. Yes, we did have a few of those—actual rocket scientists, I mean—photographs on a delightful Class of ’69 slide show emphasized that very fact, but most of us weren’t. We were just interested in a lot of different things, all at the same time. Although one class member was teased as having an “epic fail” with his rocket, he turned out just fine in life, with a flourishing medical practice.

Right: Ciro Ramirez and George Farinacci.

Speaking of doctors, the private party room at the restaurant where the 50th anniversary took place was filled with those holding academic and medical doctorates (including dentistry), career educators, beloved parents who worked hard inside the home, nationally respected authors, ministers, church musicians, blues harmonica players, Nashville music insider for a major recording label, civil and nuclear engineers, patent holders, those who served in the military and those who protested injustice, those who wore POW/MIA bracelets and those who served in the Peace Corps. [Left: Judy Fitzgerald Tolbert and Carmen Tafolla.]

You know what was most impressive? It was the “other things” they had done outside their primary career work that blew me away. Starting and funding a nonprofit music organization to make sure students have access to music; spending time coordinating music for churches and special events, one who was able to play one of the most challenging complex church organs at age 16 and still plays on Sundays today (that’s the spare-time gig) after having been a world leader in AIDS research from the beginning. The hours that these grads have spent encouraging other young people to reach their dreams, mentoring and allowing others to shadow them to try on careers is spectacular.

Sharing their knowledge humbly and willingly—now THAT is the Keystone I remember. If you didn’t know them from high school, or know what they’d done in their careers so far, you couldn’t pick them out of any crowd. That was because they were relaxed and happy, many who were accompanied by their spouses who enjoyed watching “old home week,” and it seemed like just another lunch hour with family friends. In fact, it was just that, except for some in the room, it had been 50 years since they’d all seen each other. And, as everyone hugged each other “hello,” it was so easy to see that everyone in the room felt about 18 again. It was like time had been suspended for 50 years. [Left: Danny Downum and M/M George Farinacci.]

Most were world travelers at some points in their lives, having never said “no” to adventure, whether for work or for pleasure. The list of achievements overflowed today—in the Class of ’69 party room. And everyone was exactly equal with everyone else because they are all family. It’s just another Walton Family reunion, minus John-boy. That’s impressive. Respect, love, good-natured laughter, and warm memories served to undergird the appreciation for all who came together from across the country or state to share important time together.

[Right: Mary Newell Pape, Patrice Hensley, Carmen Tafolla.]

One of the most important things about Keystone graduates is that all are considered equal successes just because they survived Keystone. Oh, it wasn’t like Marine basic training school rigid, but the number of books you carried home with you each night for homework could be considered “hazardous” to balance.

Funny reminiscences were shared from “back in the day,” as when Russian-born language teacher Sergei M. Apostolov attended a basketball game and said (in full accent), “I am a great athletic supporter,” which he was. The photo of “Roscoe” brought a laugh—he was the human skeleton head on history teacher Maj. Philip E. Babel’s desk, under which all students were to place their homework and/or tests when completed. The label on Roscoe’s head read: “I flunked history.” We tried not to.

Then there was when English teacher Jim Klaeveman said, “Class dismissed” that brought gales of laughter. Best photo of the set was a science teacher I’ll just refer to as Mr. O, who had drawn the ire of some female students early on in his teaching there because of some rather antiquated views of women’s abilities. He made the mistake of stating those views in his outside voice, and the women in the class got up and walked out. Not a frequent happenstance but one that was not met with opposition. At Keystone, you were encouraged to express your viewpoint as long as you did it respectfully. And how did Mr. O turn out, you ask? It was said that his outlook on life changed immeasurably after teaching Keystone’s students, and of course after he’d had his first date ever with a nice young lady (not a Keystonian). [Below: Wine bottled by "the most interesting man in our world."]

Another beautiful aspect of the school was that many of the teachers were still young enough in their credentialing to only be 5-10 years older than we were, unless they were 40 years older than we were. In fact, because Keystone was a nonprofit where it was month-to-month whether payroll could be met sometimes (I worked in the school office and the founders shared things with me because I asked questions of them), teacher salaries were not at all competitive in San Antonio.

Some of our teachers actually taught night classes at nearby San Antonio College, or St. Mary’s University, Incarnate Word, or Trinity to afford to be able to teach us. In fact, we often used the exact same college textbooks so they conveniently only needed one set of lesson plans.

As part of today’s events, special guests included Keystone’s headmaster, Dr. Billy Handmaker, and alumni coordinator, Hannah Hyde. Dr. Handmaker is exactly the headmaster to lead the school into the future as he described some of the school’s upcoming refurbishing of the present buildings (in full accordance with historical codes), and he referenced with such great ease and knowledge the various rooms, knowing where Coach Eargle’s office was, where Prof. and Mr. Greet lived, where the various locations of the Cobras student lounge was, and where the four-square courts were once. You’d have thought he’s been there for 20 years. That’s the blessing of having a headmaster who “gets” what Keystone was all about and is to become as it takes its natural course of changing to meet the demands of present-day students.

Best news also was hearing about the progress of scholarship funds available for lower-school students toward tuition, books and fee expenses. This will assure the continuation of the tremendous diversity in the student body. In reflecting today with a Class of ’69 member, we remembered that some students arrived at school being driven in late model luxury cars, others were in ten-year-old station wagons, and other students took the city bus to get to the same place.

Once inside the buildings, you couldn’t tell one student apart from another, because everyone at Keystone was family on equal footing, distinguished only by a point or two on a test score, or a place atop the Top 10 academic leader board in South Hall.. Reunion organizers presented Dr. Handmaker with a gift toward the scholarship fund from the Class of ’69. Alumni activities have been encouraged and supported substantially by the school, and it was noted that any Keystonian who wants to see the place again is most welcome to come by for a personal tour.

Following the slide show, alumni participated in a rousing game of “Who is it here who has…” questions, and for every question that was answered correctly, alums were to come up and get a brick (four different colors and sizes and would you believe that in the free choices, every alum picked out all four different types of bricks? Again, not a nerd in the batch!).

By the time the questions were done, tables were filled with bricks in front of the alumni, all rather evenly matched. Who won? That’s the beauty of the game. The winner was: The entire Class of 1969, because each one of them had encouraged, nurtured, contributed, served, given back, and furthered knowledge and inspired others to pursue their dreams both by their examples and by their actions.

As this 50 year reunion took place, it was noted by name that only one member of the class had passed away in that time. Reunion organizing committee Carmen Tafolla, Ciro Ramirez, and Velma Nanka-Bruce did an absolutely amazing job of locating as many graduates as they did. Response via the slide show (photos and life updates) was grand, and promises were made to meet again next year, because it was too much fun to wait five more years until the 55th.

For most, Keystone is a place that lives on in the hearts of those who experienced it. Time will never take away the memories of some of the very best years of their young lives, for they all went through those times—together. That’s just what family does.

It was a joy to be present today, among the upperclassmen who were my early role models, my heroes, and who showed me how to treat those students coming up in classes behind me—with love and patience. You all haven’t changed a bit, and you all will be “forever 18” to me.

Respectfully submitted,


Monday, May 27, 2019

Lee Meriwether: For a Beautiful Leading Lady on Her Birthday

The titles that have been bestowed upon the lovely and talented Lee Ann Meriwether in her lifetime are numerous. As she celebrates her birthday today, I have been in reflection for many days as to how and why I will always remember this date as “hers” on my calendar. Here she is pictured receiving her crown from Miss America 1954, Evelyn Ay, in what was reportedly the very first live broadcast of the crowning ceremony on TV. The first title I ever learned she’d won was Miss America 1955.

And, I remember exactly where I was when I learned this fact. I was 9 years old and transfixed in front of the television watching an episode of “The Time Tunnel.” This show featured a scientific team, led by Robert Colbert as Dr. Doug Phillips, and teen idol/actor James Darren as Dr. Anthony Newman. They had a machine that involved setting all the target coordinates for time travel and the plot involved a question, the journey, the action, the mystery of whether or not they could return back to present day, and the heroics to get home. It was an early Irwin Allen production of merit.

When I informed my mother that Dr. McGregor was actually Lee Meriwether, as I was an avid credit watcher at a young age, my mother one-upped me and said, “Actually honey, that’s Lee Ann Meriwether, and she’s our Miss America from 1955.” I said, “She’s very intelligent, playing a doctor in a laboratory!” Mom’s reply was, Yes, dear, and she’s a real lady, you can just see it in how she carries herself.” I nodded and watched for that, too. That wouldn’t be the last time we spoke of her.

In the opening of ABC’s “The Time Tunnel,” you saw a colorful montage and ultimate title logo (in a perfect font) with theme music that set the stage for Irwin Allen’s journey. It was amusing to learn that a (very) young Johnny Williams, had written that, and that he’d also go on to write the theme from “Lost in Space.” His career, best known today as John Williams, continues to span six decades of unforgettable scores.

Fast forward a little bit in 1966. During an episode of “Batman” I recall exclaiming joyfully, “She’s Catwoman!! Lee Meriwether is Catwoman!!! And Batman is in trouble now!” Yes, I was only 10 years old, but I knew to look for my favorite actors across episode TV even then. As Batman progressed in its full TV and movie journey, I’d also see Julie Newman and Eartha Kitt portraying Catwoman. All were good, at being bad girls, but my favorite was already Lee. Another note to self: Bad girls certainly were glamorous. I'd remember that, too.

I gave some serious thought to being a crime fighter, having been influenced earlier by Dame Diana Rigg as the inimitable Mrs. Peel on “The Avengers.” It was going to be hard to be naughty like Catwoman when all my instincts were to be a crimefighter like Mrs. Peel.

You'll remember there are three actresses who portrayed Catwoman, Julie Newman, Lee Meriwether, and Eartha Kitt (pictured). After enjoying her portrayal of such a diverse character change, I realized that I, too, could shift gears anytime I wanted to, and I found myself less interested in science and more interested in the behind-the-scenes of TV productions. My credit watching grew even more intense as I was determined to master the minutia of who did what on what shows, studying how certain talents crossed over between shows, loyal to one network or another, and I almost thought that would be my future career, again behind the scenes. Options...there were always career options; that was my takeway from seeing Dr. Ann McGregor to Catwoman from the same lovely actress.

During high school and college, TV time was tighter but I always made time for “Barnaby Jones,” where I found her again as “Betty Jones,” co-star to Buddy Ebsen and a very capable detective’s assistant who played perfectly with Ebsen’s “Barnaby” character. Betty was behind the scenes of some of Barnaby's breakthroughs and thanks to some brilliant acting, I learned that you could say more with looks and reactions than with two pages of dialogue filling up a script. I filed that fact in the back of my mind for future reference.

I was lucky enough to have her there for eight seasons. Through her role, the role of assistant to a forensic detective with his own in-office laboratory looked just fine as a career choice from this side of the screen! She always looked so capable, and it felt like it went far beyond acting talent. It would be clear later that her projection of confidence invoked confidence in me. Message sent and received. I'd use this fact a few decades later when having to address a room full of scientists on the topic of quantum mechanics. My pre-talk preparation included reminding myself that "Look like you believe in what you're saying, even if you don't!" Thanks to "Betty" with a dash of Susan Lucci's "Erica" thrown in for good measure, I made it through quantum mechanics. I should have sent her a thank-you note...but...

Lee spent a good portion of her career (my graduate school days) acting in movies with occasional guest spots on TV shows. Lee didn’t know this but she was an early role model for me, one I recalled as I was busy carving out my graduate studies in physical chemistry, stuck in the library or the lab most of the time doing research. Turns out I wasn’t the only one. On Father’s Day 2016, I was fortunate to attend Kiki Ebsen’s cabaret version of her theatre show “To Dad with Love,” where Lee Meriwether and her daughter Lesley Aletter were special guests.

Following the show I waited in a (long) line of people waiting to speak with Kiki and Lee, and said to Lee, “Thank you so much for being such a beautiful role model. I went to grad school in science because you made it look beautiful and fun!” She was so gracious, noting “Over the years, I’ve had so many women (and men) come up to me today and say that her year as Dr. Ann McGregor had made such an impact on them, that they, too, earned PhD degrees.” Some were working at NASA and others in chemical laboratories. It was predictable and yet adorable, how she was so modest and humble about inspiring the youth of the day to strive for advanced degrees.

Now, Lee had made it look delightful and even glamorous to be in a lab with a clipboard while wearing makeup. Reality was that my white lab coat had a “Mr. Bill” character over the back saying, “Oh Nooooo!” because I taught chemistry and empathized with my students about the work it was going to bring. I did strive to be like Lee but my lab coat had a few hard-earned ink stains and a few mementos of various reagents.

Life went on and one day in 1996 while playing back the “Beta” recording of “All My Children,” there Lee was again! A complete surprise, I was delighted to see her taking on the role of “Ruth Martin,” one that had been identified so closely with actress Mary Fickett, who inaugurated that role from the beginning of the show on January 5, 1970. That day matched the month and year I’d begun watching Agnes Nixon’s best daytime TV creation and I was one of the regulars who followed the show whenever time and videotape permitted.

Lee’s entrée to this show was opposite actor Ray MacDonnell as Dr. Joe Martin, and to switch out “Ruth Martin” was rather groundbreaking for the show. Frankly, Lee was the only actress who could immediately become known for and “as” a role that had been the mainstay identity of Mary Fickett for 26 years! For the next two years, she held audiences’ favor until Mary Fickett decided to unretire and returned to the show in 1998. Mary stayed two more years and then retired again and Lee returned once again in 2002. Even today, she’s beloved by the acting ensemble of “All My Children” as “one of Pine Valley’s originals.” Equal acceptance and adoration for both actresses highlights her abilities.

Lee’s popularity as actress and voice talent moved forward into the 21st century as she took on the role of “Miss Hastings” with James Garner in “The Ultimate Gift,” a film that’s shown regularly on the Hallmark Channel. She also starred in the sequels, “The Ultimate Life” and “The Ultimate Legacy.” She had an abundant tv career with guest appearances on episodic TV including five roles in 2018 alone.

Because she played in one episode of “Star Trek,” and multiple times in “Batman” and “The Time Tunnel,” Lee spent the past several years traveling as a special guest at Comic Con events, to the delight of everyone there. She patiently posed for photos, answered multiple questions multiple times, and is as gracious today as she was when first greeting the public as Miss America.

Her life and home and away from home, however, has been one of first loves, the team at Theatre West. In recent years during her involvement, her dearest friend, the late Linda L. Rand, was often her sidekick in all good things and joyous occasions. On Feb. 10, 2018, a sold-out audience enjoyed a star-studded tribute to her in “Love Letters to Lee Meriwether,” coinciding with the 55th anniversary of Theatre West. Both James Darren and Robert Colbert were there from “The Time Tunnel,” Betty Garrett’s sons, Garrett Parks and Andrew Parks, represented their mother and father (Larry Parks) in saluting her, as did Kiki Ebsen, representing her father, Buddy Ebsen, in paying tribute and sharing fond memories, as did so many others.

Lee’s involvement in Theatre West spans many decades as both board member and actress. Her stage involvement is of long-standing. Her one-woman rendition of the show “The Women of Spoon River” was highly acclaimed. In April 2000, she starred in Doug Haverty’s play, “Come Baby, Cradle and All,” the world premiere at Theatre West; at age 78 she starred in William Blinn’s play, “A Short Stay at Carranor,” and in the Los Angeles Times, she referenced the longevity and bright career of her former co-star, Buddy Ebsen: “He really worked at being at the top of his game. You had to keep up with him. I adored him. I think he had feelings for me too.”

In February, 2018, coincident with the event “Love Letters to Lee,” Theatre West members paid tribute to her talents, as seen in this beautiful YouTube salute:

This is just a sampling of the heartfelt thoughts and memories of theatre colleagues—playwrights, actors, producers and directors. In December 2015, Lee was invited by Cabarabia producer Clifford Bell to participate in his and Tiffany Bailey’s showcase, “Season’s Greetings from the Corner of Jazz and Cabaret.” Lee’s medley had a funny story that she shared, and unsurprisingly it involved Theatre West. Enjoy it here:

As she celebrates her 84th birthday today, Lee is fortunate to have two her loving daughters, Lesley Aletter and Kyle Aletter, as the best gifts in her life she can count among the likely multiple accolades via social media, phone calls, and good old-fashioned greeting cards she received today. Her birthday was listed first in newspapers across the country today, as just one small example of how faithfully she is remembered by those she will never know or meet in person.

Last summer, Lee was out on the town with her daughter Lesley and dear friend, the late Linda Rand, to hear Kiki Ebsen sing jazz at the San Gabriel Mission Playhouse. Sharing this picture because no matter where she is, you will always see Lee smiling, from the inside out.

L to R: Lesley Aletter, Linda L. Rand, Kiki Ebsen, and Lee Meriwether [Photo: Steve Wallace]

In this way she reminds us that projecting joy is a great way to feel that joy. Lee continues to be an advocate for live theatre, one “home base” that she loves so much. For just this one writer, I will always appreciate the example of beauty, grace, style, class, intelligence, strength of character, devotion to family, and the ability to take whatever life throws at you and never look dismayed or perturbed as “life happens.” She’s been a role model to so many for so long.

Today, she stands as an example of elegance as a gently aging star in our present-day galaxy. Hollywood needs to return to that day and time where people took time to prepare thoroughly for the roles we play in life. It was best in a day and time in life where we were kind and gracious to others, mentoring those behind us, while paying tribute to those who paved the way for us. Perhaps we can return to that kind of life once again. There’s always hope.

Love, light, laughter, and bouquets of pink roses to Lee. Happy birthday and many, many more.