BWW Interview: A Talent in Her Own Right, Kiki Ebsen's Much More Than Just Her Father's Daughter
In TO DAD WITH LOVE, A TRIBUTE TO Buddy Ebsen; Kiki Ebsen pays tribute to her father in the best way she knows how - singing and story-telling. With only three scheduled performances (October 12, 13 & 14, 2018) at Theatre West, Kiki will share some intimate, paternal reminiscences, supplemented by some multimedia and her four-piece jazz band.
Kiki graciously walked me through some of her vivid memories of growing up the child of a famous father, a most popular figure of 1960s television, known to weekly TV viewers as Jed Clampett of The Beverly Hillbillies.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Kiki!
What motivated you to record your CD Scarecrow Sessions, the basis of this show?
I found an old trunk of my father's memorabilia that had been in my parents' attic for decades long after they both had passed away. In it were scripts, photos and letters from my dad's career starting back in the 20s all the way into 50s, long before I was born. I was singer/songwriter, and my dad was from another era. He always wanted me to sing the Great American Songbook and I wanted to sing 70s rock and roll! So after I found the trunk, I decided that my sixth record would be a standards record dedicated to Dad with songs from his career, aptly named Scarecrow Sessions. It was the making for this record that started the making of TO DAD WITH LOVE.
How did this show evolve from that CD?
I started showcasing the album, and developed all of these stories around the different songs. Each song had a connection to Dad in some way or another. "Comes Love" is from Yokel Boy, a show that Dad was in with Phil Silvers in 1936. "Moon River" is from Breakfast at Tiffany's where Dad starred with Audrey Hepburn. "Codfish Ball" is from Captain January when Dad danced his famous routine with Shirley Temple. "If I Only Had a Brain" allows me to tell the story of The Wizard of Oz and my dad's original casting as the Tin Man, and the problems that ensued in that role.
What led you come to choose Theatre West as your venue for this tribute to your father?
Earlier this year, I was invited to be a part of a beautiful tribute called LOVE LETTERS TO Lee Meriwether. Clearly our family loved Lee. When I discovered her history with Theatre West, it resonated with my own experiences in my mother's community theater in Orange County. My parents utilized these stages to hone their craft with like-minded actors. After I'd seen Theatre West, I thought it would be a lovely place to debut our new show to an enthusiastic and creative audience. I am especially thrilled that our Friday night show will benefit Theater West and all the great entertainment they present.
How old were you when you first realized your father was Buddy Ebsen: The Movie Star?
Around five years old.
Did you get to go onto the movie sets with him?
Yes, plenty of times. I remember specifically visiting the set of The One and Only Genuine, Original Family Band, and meeting Dick Van Dyke. I also remember watching the dance rehearsals with teenagers, Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn. They met on this set, and became partners for life.
Did he ever tell you what role he was most proud of doing?
He did not really talk about that, but I do think he was the most proud of his original works: Cafe Dada, Champagne General and Turn To The Right. He was always writing. Books, songs, plays, musicals. He was hoping for that hit musical. I do feel that the most fun he may of had was on The Beverly Hillbillies.
What is your favorite role your father played?
Well, everything about The Beverly Hillbillies is just genius, but I also really love Georgie Russell in Davy Crockett, Doc Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's, and I am just crazy about his dance routine in Banjo on My Knee.
Was it easy for your father to transition from being a film star to being on television? Television was considered a step down from film in those days, right?
My father's career was really taking off in the 30s after his success on the Broadway stages and in Hollywood with MGM. However, he lost a great deal of momentum when he joined the Coast Guard during WWII. He served as 1st Lieutenant on the USS Pocatello from 1943-45. He returned in 1946 to a much different climate. His career had stalled, and that year the only work he could get was a summer stock gig, and a few one-night stands. A TV break would have been a welcome respite during that lean time. Unfortunately, his agent William Morris Jr. had lost faith in him. He dropped Dad from the roster and told him to quit the business. That actually made Dad angry enough to keep going. The work was slim, and for the next several years, he would struggle financially. It was possibly one of the lowest points in his career, next to losing the Tin Man role in the Wizard of Oz. He made a lot of B movies and westerns during the late 40s and 50s, and then he met Walt Disney. That union would lead him to greater success on film and TV. For that he was grateful. At 50, my dad moved us from the Beverly Hills to Balboa Isle to be near his boat. His plan was to semi-retire to write plays and musicals. Somehow his agent convinced him to take a meeting with a promising new writer, Paul Henning, to talk about a new show he'd created with Dad as the star called The Beverly Hillbillies... and the rest is history.
Did your father ever teach you some of his snazzy dance steps?
Yes, he did. I remember us all lining up in the dining room with our tap shoes while he taught us to dance. My sister and I danced with him on several occasions.
When did you know you wanted to perform?
I knew that the arts would be my mode of expression probably as early as I could play a melody on the piano. So probably, four years old. But I have become more extroverted over the years. When I started performing, I was hiding behind a keyboard playing music for other artists, my long hair covering my face. But now, I am front and center, and I love it!
Any one particular piece of advice your father gave you that you adhere to, to this day?
He had so many great sayings, but one of my favorites is: "Nobody counts you out but yourself."
On another completely different note, what was your reaction when you first heard your name used as a club term 'Let's have a Kiki'?
I was being interviewed on a radio show, and these lovely gay hosts were going on about this "Let's have a Kiki" song. I had no clue what they were talking about. I was curious, of course, because over the years I have heard some very "creative" uses and definitions of my nickname (My given name is Kiersten). But I was relieved to hear that "Let's have a Kiki" is just a good ole time dishing with friends.
If there's one take-away you'd like the Theatre West audience to leave with after TO DAD WITH LOVE's curtain call, what would it be?
The lessons you learn from your parents are lifelong and can grow as you mature whether they are alive or not. I had a hard time connecting with my dad growing up, which led to distance during a big part of my adult life. By getting to know his life better through my own journey, I have grown to love and appreciate him so much more than I ever could growing up. Love is everything, and forgiveness is the door we enter to get there.
Thank you again, Kiki! I look forward to experiencing your father through your voice.
For ticket availability and show schedule October 12 through 14, 2018; log onto www.theatrewest.org