Kiki Ebsen: My Buddy: The Other Side of Oz

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Kiki Ebsen

My Buddy: The Other Side of Oz

El Portal Theatre, Los Angeles, CA, June 2, 2023

Review by Clifford Bell

Kiki Ebsen
Photo: Cliff Lipson

As the tall, slender woman with the flowing honey-colored, shoulder-length hair entered, wearing a simple yet form-fitting black gown, vaguely reminiscent of the famous Breakfast at Tiffany’s dress, she began to sing the haunting ballad “Missing You.” It was clear that this performance was going to be more than a memoir about the pop culture icon Jed Clampett from The Beverly Hillbillies. From the opening notes of the melancholy saxophone solo, we were transported to another era and taken on a tour through time by an elegant chanteuse supported by the sounds of a four-piece combo of A-list jazz musicians. All this was enhanced by a wall-sized movie screen filled with images from the life and career of Buddy Ebsen.

And so it goes with Kiki Ebsen’s deeply affectionate contemplation of her father’s extraordinary history in My Buddy: The Other Side Of Oz, now playing on consecutive Fridays in the (Father’s Day) month of June in the Monroe Forum at the historic El Portal Theatre in Los Angeles. We immediately learned that this first song was just one of many that Buddy had written. In addition to playing not one but several indelible characters from his six-decade acting career, her “Buddy” was an accomplished composer, author, playwright, painter, and song-and-dance man, as well as the patriarch of a sprawling family that included eight children.

For anyone who might not be familiar with Kiki, she is an accomplished singer/songwriter with nine original solo CDs to her credit, as well as a couple of decades touring with some of the most celebrated acts in the music business, including Chicago, Al Jarreau, Tracy Chapman, and Christopher Cross, to name just a few. Sharing the story of her relationship with her father since childhood, Kiki told of their lifelong “negotiation”; Buddy wanted her to embrace becoming a jazz singer, while she was much more attracted to the rock world that he balked at. In one of her most humorous and telling lines, she said that he had to explain to her that Jo Stafford was a woman, while she had to explain to him that Alice Cooper was a man.

Kiki’s desire to explore her father’s legacy began about eight years ago after his passing when she found a trunk filled with memorabilia that she was not familiar with that illuminated the tremendous scope of Buddy’s jaw-droppingly expansive career. From his most humble beginnings to his early successes as an “eccentric” hoofer with a unique set of loose, angular movements that brought him attention in vaudeville and on Broadway and eventually led to Hollywood and his appearing in movie musicals. For those who know Buddy only as a Beverly Hillbilly or perhaps as the wizened Barnaby Jones, it was mind blowing to be introduced to the breadth of his achievements from stage to screen, from musicals to westerns, and from his heartbreaking performance in the film classic Breakfast at Tiffany’s to his ill-fated casting as the original Tinman in one of the most beloved movies of all time, The Wizard of Oz

My Buddy: The Other Side of Oz began as a recording project, then called The Scarecrow Sessions. Kiki later decided to make an album of jazz-inspired arrangements of the music associated with her father’s long and winding career. She found a wealth of material, and both the album and the live show featured standards from the Great American Songbook. These included “Moon River,” “Over the Rainbow,” “Easy to Love,” “St. Louis Woman,” “If I Only Had a Brain,” “You Are My Lucky Star,” the film-noir staple “Laura,” and the charming “At the Codfish Ball,” to which Buddy danced on-screen with that tiny titan Shirley Temple in a highlight from his early movie career. 

As the narrator of the live show, the charismatic Kiki is a study in genetics: she’s sleek and angular like her father with a stylish grace and a distinctive beauty. I have followed the evolution of this tribute to Buddy for several years, and this current incarnation was breathtaking. As she discovered buried treasure in archives from vaudeville, Broadway, Hollywood, and the coming of television, Kiki explored Buddy’s American success story from his roots to the many fruits of his many labors. In addition to all the show-business stories, Kiki also included priceless memories from their family life, ranging from Buddy’s childhood through three marriages and eight children.

Supported by world class musicians—Jeff Colella on piano, Chris Colangelo on acoustic bass, Kendall Kay on drums, and virtuoso features by Bob Sheppard on sax and flute—Kiki showed that she has become the jazz singer that her father always wanted her to be. She’s fluid, sultry, dulcet, and evocative. Presented by the El Portal Theatre and Siki Productions, Kiki’s performance was complemented by the venue itself. The chic and subdued Monroe Forum enabled an intimacy as though Kiki was performing in your living room—that is, if your living room had a jazz band and a full-size movie screen. I have to mention the gorgeous quality of the sound in the venue, which is far beyond what you might expect in a small theater. The sound design by Steve Wallace and the acoustics of the space were perfection.

If you enjoy wise and witty storytelling, celebrity insider nostalgia, exquisite jazz-influenced musical arrangements, and an examination of a life well lived, then Kiki Ebsen’s My Buddy: The Other Side of Oz was custom made for you.

Clifford Bell

Clifford Bell, known affectionately as "Lawrence of Cabarabia," is one of the leading directors and producers in the fields of cabaret, concerts, and one-person shows. As a 40-year veteran of show business, Clifford has worked in venues large and small. He has written and directed variety performances featuring icons like Walter Cronkite, Colin Powell, and Michael Eisner at the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim, California, and toured with television icon Katey Sagal and her band. With his frequent collaborator Lara Teeter (Tony Nominee, On Your Toes), Clifford also co-created the successful touring show Direct from Broadway, starring Tony Award winners Debbie Gravitte (Jerome Robbins' Broadway) and Michael Maguire (Les Misérables). As one of the most prominent figures in the West Coast cabaret community, Clifford hosts "Cabarabia The Podcast," focused on "Live Entertainment in Intimate Settings." Clifford is particularly well known for his variety evenings and showcase presentations, often for charitable causes. One of Clifford's most anticipated efforts is Our Name Is Barbra, the annual celebration of Barbra Streisand's birthday, which has been raising funds and awareness for Clifford's beloved charity Project Angel Food for the past 24 years and counting! In 2023, Clifford will be featured (alongside Chita Rivera, Bruce Vilanch, and Sam Harris) in Marc Saltarelli's documentary "Studio One Forever."