by Elizabeth Gracen:
I met Kiki Ebsen in 2017 when I interviewed her for a documentary about the lovely Lee Meriwether. Lee co-starred with Kiki’s father, Buddy Ebsen, for six years on Barnaby Jones—a television staple of the 1970s.
Kiki was a teenager during that show’s popularity, and the lasting bond that Kiki formed with Lee and her two daughters, Kyle and Leslie, has held fast and true through the years.
At the time of the interview, Kiki shared her memories of Lee and the respect and affection her father had felt for his co-star during the long run of the show. Buddy Ebsen and Lee Meriwether shared a strong, mutual admiration that spanned many years, up until Mr. Ebsen’s passing in 2003.
Kiki describes her musical and theatrical production of “To Dad with Love—A Tribute to Buddy Ebsen” as a serendipitous journey that started with a performance two years ago at the Catalina Jazz Club.
Ms. Meriwether had been attendance, and from the encouraging feedback for the show, Kiki saw “an opportunity to expand the show and include even more of Buddy’s career experiences and stories.” The newly envisioned production found a perfect home at Theatre West (established in 1972 as a non-profit arts organization and the oldest continuously running theatre company in Los Angeles).
The show’s direction by Steven Feinberg, with its simple set design and its projected archival footage and stills, provide a classy documentary-style support to Kiki’s story, with references to Mr. Ebsen’s performances providing just the right touchstones.
Through Kiki’s eyes, we explore Buddy Ebsen’s incredible career, from veteran ‘hoofer’ in the early days of Broadway vaudeville and Hollywood, to his most famous role as the star of The Beverly Hillbillies.
Buddy Ebsen in BORN TO DANCE, 1936
Kiki shares little-known tales of Buddy's early career and reveals that he was the original Tin Woodsman in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz before he was tragically sidelined from production due to a lung collapse brought on by the toxic aluminum dust applied over the top of his white makeup for the character!
A poignant moment in the show centers around the classic Blake Edward’s 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s and her father’s portrayal of Doc Golightly, Audrey Hepburn’s estranged husband from Texas who loses his “Lula Mae Barnes” to the big city and the arms of George Peppard.
Her father’s anguished close-up for this scene brought tears to Kiki’s eyes the first time she saw it and left many of the audience misty eyed as she recounted the story.
Throughout the show, we catch glimpses of a young Kiki as she struggles with her parents’ divorce and the lack of communication that existed in so many families at that time in American history—all the struggles her father experienced, yet never spoke of.
As she gets older, we understand her desire to pull away from her father’s shadow and become her own person; but when her father eventually suffers a stroke, we are there with her as she returns to his side, her journey coming round full circle. In her father’s final hours, by his bedside, Kiki Ebsen sits, overwhelmed with grief, her heart open.
“Thank you. Thank you for the wonderful life you’ve given me.”
Throughout this story is a thread of something quite magical—Kiki Ebsen’s music. A singer, songwriter, musician, and artist, her voice travels through jazz and pop—her onstage physicality playful and her appreciation of the musicians apparent. She has been a professional singer for over twenty years with an impressive discography that explores her musical curiosity and passions. With a heralded career as a vocalist and keyboard player and as a supporting artist for Grammy-winning performers such as Christopher Cross, Al Jarreau, Tracy Chapman, Michael McDonald, and Boz Scaggs, it is no surprise that Ms. Ebsen is perfectly at home on the stage.
Her performance for "To Dad with Love—A Tribute to Buddy Ebsen," is laced with standards such as “Moon River,” Cole Porter's, "Easy to Love," "St. Louis Blues," "Codfish Ball," and an emotional “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and can only be described as comfortable and cool. Sitting at the old piano (that belonged to Lee Meriwether’s mother and was eventually donated to Theatre West), Kiki briefly reveals her own personal struggles with an eating disorder and her fight for self-acceptance as she offers up the moving title track from her album: The Beauty Inside.
I wrote you a letter and I just might send it some day
When I stop pretending that my life’s okay
And I wake up to a new day filled with change
You know it’s coming my way
Are we not beautiful in all our brokenness
And do you still love me when I am crying out loud
Can you see that I was not put here on this earth
Just to make you so incredibly proud
All dressed up in Christmas bows
Pretty boxes in a row witting on a shelf below
So as not to call attention
One falls off the cupboard shelf another falls in spite of herself
The others left to fend for themselves and the wrapping comes apart
Oh I hate the reflection of you in me
Your tainted perception of who I should be
In your world of perfection
All I needed you to see
The beauty inside of me.
Accompanied by an inspiring jazz combo—Jeff Colella, Kendall Kay, Kim Richmond, and Granville “Danny” Young— who make it look easy, Ms. Ebsen’s smooth jazz vocals and entertaining narration tell the story of a little girl navigating her way through the treacherous waters of a childhood into adulthood.
By the time the onscreen tap dancing silhouette of her father comes to life and tap dancer Gregory Gast takes the stage to join Kiki in a joyful dance duet, we know that she has found her way back home.
“To Dad With Love—A Tribute to Buddy Ebsen” is one of those nights at the theatre that has a way of sneaking up on you and tugging all the heart strings that you thought were long worn and gone. By the final act of the show, an element of surprise, subtle and honest, steps out of the shadows, and Ms. Ebsen’s sweet jazzy vocals and pithy retelling of a childhood give way to a touch of heartbreak. Hers is a unique story, all her own, yet familiar in its shared reality of anyone who looks back and tries to assess what was passed down by your caregivers and what you have decided to take up as your own.