His name was Christian Ludorf Ebsen, Jr., or Frank "Buddy" Ebsen, or just Buddy Ebsen. I first knew of him in my living room, when I was 8-years-old, as "Georgie Russell", on the Walt Disney's television show, "The Magical World of Disney", December 15, 1954, in the episode entitled, "Davey Crockett: Indian Scout". Buddy is seen below with Fess Parker as "Davy Crockett", but I'm at the end of my story.
CHILDHOOD TO BROADWAY MELODY OF 1936
We need to go back to Belleville, Illinois, April 2 1908, the day he was born. Buddy's father had come to America in 1888 and found work as a dance choreographer, his occupation in Denmark not Germany as some sites state, and opened a dance studio. At the time of his son's birth, he was operating a natatorium, or indoor swimming hall for a local school. He also ran a swimming school to teach people how to swim and play water polo.
Buddy's mother was Franciska "Frances" Wendt Ebsen, and she was a painter. Buddy's four sisters were, Helga, born in 1902, Norma, born in 1906, Vilma born in 1911, and Leslie, born in 1915.
In 1918, the 10-year-old, his sisters, and their parents moved to Palm Beach County, Florida. In 1920, the family relocated to Orlando, Florida, and their father opened up another dance school, and taught his five children how to dance.
In Orlando, while attending "Orlando High School", Buddy joined the "John M. Cheney Chapter of the Order of DeMolay.
Cheney was a Florida attorney who became a United States Attorney in 1906 and then a District Judge for the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida. John M. Cheney was active is registering African Americans to vote and prosecuted those involved with the "Ocoee massacre" that killed approximately 35 African Americans by white supremacists on election day, November 2, 1920.
For those unfamiliar with the "Order of DeMolay", the masonic order is for young men between the ages of 12 and 21-years. In adult life, "Buddy Ebsen" would receive the order's "Legion of Honor Degree" and be inducted into the "DeMolay Hall of Fame" with others such as Walt Disney, Burl Ives, John Wayne, Bill Clinton, Bob Mathias, Fran Tarkenton, John Steinbeck, and John Cameron Swayze.
While still teenagers, Buddy and Vilma formed a vaudeville dancing act called the "Baby Astaires", a take-off on the popular dance team of Fred and his sister Adele Astaire. The siblings started appearing at local Florida supper clubs.
From a 1988 interview found on IMDb, is this quote by Vilma.
Somehow or another Buddy and I got booked throughout Florida. We had an act that he put together where I was the dancing teacher and he came in like a country bumpkin and wanted to learn to dance. Then I taught him, and then we danced.
The two came to the attention of Arthur Murray, 11-years before he started to form his dancing studios, and with their parent's approval, he hired the duo to perform for their first time professionally at the "Grove Park Inn", in Ashville, North Carolina, for one summer.
Buddy Ebsen graduated from Orlando High School in 1926 with a interest in a medical career and entered the "University of Florida" at Gainesville.
Above, Buddy Ebsen on the "Orlando High School" football team.
At the end of 1927, Buddy changed his school to "Rollins College" in Winter Park, Florida. However, the Ebsen family fell a victim to the collapse of the Florida land boom. That real estate bubble had burst in 1924 over large amounts of speculation and swindling connected to the building of very cheap housing. At the age of 20, Buddy Epstein's college dreams were over!
Buddy left Florida for New York City to try his luck as a dancer, his finances consisted of $26.75, equal to as of this writing, $449.75, and found work as a "Soda Jerk" at a soda fountain. Buddy tried out for the chorus of several musicals, but was turned down as being too tall. Enter his sister Vilma come to New York City to also find a job dancing and the two teamed-up once more.
On December 4, 1928, at the "New Amsterdam Theatre" on Broadway, Buddy and Vilma Ebsen appeared in the Eddie Cantor musical "Whoopie". The brother and sister act had been hired by showman Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. the producer. The show ran until November 23, 1929, but they did not appear in the 1930 motion picture version.
The two next appeared on the Broadway stage in the musical "Flying Colors", at the "Imperial Theatre", from September 15, 1932 until January 25, 1933.
The siblings appeared at the "Winter Garden Theatre" in the "Ziegfeld Follies of 1934", from January 4, 1934 to June 9, 1934. In billing order, the cast was Eve Arden, Fanny Brice, Robert Cummings, Buddy and Vilma Ebsen, Jane Forman, Patricia Bowman, Agatha Hoff, Willie and Eugene Howard, Everett Marshall, June and Cherry Presser, and the Ziegfeld Girls.
The "Baby Astaires" were appearing at a supper club in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and columnist Walter Winchell happened to be in the audience and wrote a "rave review" of the duo. His review led to a booking at the "Palace Theatre" in New York City, considered the pinnacle of the vaudeville circuit.
Above center, the "Palace Theatre" in the 1920's.
Among those who played the "Palace" were, Ed Wynn, Ethel Barrymore, Will Rodgers, Lillian Russell, Bob Hope, Eddie Cantor, The Marx Brothers, Burns and Allen, Ethel Merman, and, Ethel Waters.
In 1935, Buddy and Vilma were approached by "Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer" for a screen test. They signed a two-year contract, with a two-year option. Left the East Coast and came to Hollywood, actually in the case of "MGM", Culver City, another Los Angeles suburb. My article, "HOLLYWOOD: Segregated Housing, Motion Picture Studios and Movie Palaces", can be read at:
The "Baby Astaire's" first motion picture was:
BROADWAY MELODY OF 1936 released on August 25, 1935 in New York City
On the above poster for the Jack Benny, Eleanor Powell and Robert Taylor musical. Buddy Ebsen as "Ted Burke", was billed eighth and his sister Vilma Ebsen, as "Sally Burke", was billed ninth.
The plot is typical of the period, "Irene Foster", Powell, wants her high school sweetheart and big time Broadway producer, "Robert Gordon", Taylor, to give her a chance to star in his big musical. Things get complicated when Hollywood gossip columnist "Bert Keeler", a too obvious parody of Walter Winchell, Benny, gets involved.
Above, Eleanor Parker, in her first feature film, with Buddy Ebsen, and Vilma Ebsen in their first. Below, Buddy and Vilma watch Parker's "Irene" rehearse.
Yes, in his first feature film, Buddy Ebsen was wearing a "Mickey Mouse Shirt".
SHIRLEY TEMPLE, JUDY GARLAND AND JEANETTE MACDONALD
For his next motion picture, Buddy Ebsen found himself loaned out to "20th Century Fox".
CAPTAIN JANUARY released on April 24, 1936
By this motion picture, "America's Sweetheart", Shirley Temple, had appeared in 13 short subjects, and 18 motion pictures, three of which are without credit and one had her scenes deleted.
On the above poster, Buddy Ebsen is billed fifth, but on the "Official Cast List", he was billed fourth, portraying "Paul Roberts".
The main plot revolves around Lighthouse Keeper, "Captain January", played by Guy Kibbe, who is raising "Helen 'Star' Mason", Temple, he rescued after her parents drowned at sea and is now facing the closing of the Lighthouse, from automation, and the loss of his job.
Buddy Ebsen's character of "Paul Roberts" is described as "January's friend", but the unemployed sailor is also a friend of "Star" and Ebsen is used as a dance partner for Shirley Temple, his real purpose in the film.
Above, Shirley Temple and Buddy Ebsen dance "At the Codfish Ball", that many consider the "Showstopper" of the motion picture and an excellent dance number.
Above left to right, Silm Summerville as "Captain Nazro", Shirley Temple, Guy Kibbee and Buddy Ebsen, below, Shirley and Buddy.
If Robert Taylor could be opposite singer, dancer, and actress, Eleanor Powell in a musical for "MGM", why not James Stewart in another?
BORN TO DANCE released on November 27, 1936
Eleanor Powell was aspiring musical star "Nora Page", James Stewart was "Sailor Ted Barker", and Virginia Bruce was "Lucy James", the show's established star. While ninth billed Buddy Ebsen was "Mush Tracy".
This was the established plot of the aspiring star taking over for the show's star, while both appear to be in love with the same man.
James Stewart does sing and dance in this motion picture, although he felt and shows himself as very uncomfortable doing both.
Left to right, Francis Langford as "Peppy' Turner", Buddy Ebsen, Eleanor Powell, James Stewart, and Sid Silvers, below Francis Langford with Buddy Ebsen.
Movie genres sometimes get mixed-up, for his next feature film Buddy Ebsen found himself in what is described as a comedy-drama-romance with two serious stars.
BANJO ON MY KNEE released on December 11, 1936 from "20th Century Fox".
Buddy Ebsen was "Buddy", seen below with Brennan.
"Ernie Holley" believes he killed a man, he didn't of course, at his wedding and flees to New Orleans. His father and new bride go after him to bring him home. This is a musical and even Barbara Stanwyck's sings, Walter Brennan's "Newt" composes music and Buddy Ebsen, as a river boy, loves to dance to his compositions.
Above, Ebsen, Stanwyck, and Brennan.
If teaming Robert Taylor with Eleanor Powell worked once for "MGM" in a musical, why not twice?
BROADWAY MELODY OF 1938 released on August 20, 1937
This motion picture is not remembered for star Eleanor Powell's singing voice, because for the fourth time, in her first four movies, she was being dubbed by the wife of actor Brian Donlevy, the forgotten Marjorie Lane.
However, it is remembered for a song at actor Clark Gable's birthday on the "MGM" lot by Judy Garland. That Louis B. Meyer wanted in his next musical, which this happened to be. Judy Garland as "Betty Clayton" sings to a picture of the actor the combined, "Dear Mr. Gable" and "You Made Be Love You (I Didn't Want to Do it)".
Buddy Ebsen was "Peter Trot" and he sang and danced with both Powell and Garland.
Above, Buddy Ebsen, Eleanor Powell as "Sally Lee", and George Murphy as "Sonny Ledgord", and below, Judy and Buddy.
Above left to right, Charles Igor Gorin as "Nicki Papaloopas", Sophie Tucker as "Alice Clayton", George Murphy, Eleanor Powell, Robert Taylor as "Steve Raleigh", Judy Garland, and Buddy Ebsen, in the closing musical number "You're Broadway, My Broadway". Not to forget the family horse that the entire story revolves around, name unknown.
Below in rehearsal for the above number:
Next, Buddy Ebsen found himself in a movie starring the popular operatic singing team of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy.
THE GIRL OF THE GOLDEN WEST released on March 8, 1938
The basic plot has Nelson Eddy as a Spanish California outlaw named "Ramirez". Who disguises himself as "U.S. Army Cavalry Lieutenant Johnson" to win the heart of "Mary Robins", played by Jeanette MacDonald, while the two sing 12 songs.
Walter Pidgeon plays "Sheriff Jack Rance", who is also in love with Saloon Singer "Mary".
Buddy Ebsen is "Alabama", who plays the fife as accompaniment to Jeanette MacDonald singing the Gus Kahn and Sigmund Romberg song: "The Wind in the Trees" . Which appears to be the only number Ebsen is shown as in.
THE YELLOW BRICK ROAD THROUGH 1952
YELLOW JACK released on May 19, 1938
Buddy Ebsen's next motion picture was "MGM"s fictional version of the battle by Army Doctor "Walter Reed", played by Lewis Stone, to find a cure for "Yellow Fever", known as:
Besides Lewis Stone, Henry Hull portrayed real life doctor, "Jesse Lazear", Charles Coburn played real life doctor, "Carlos Finlay", Stanley Ridges was real life doctor, "James Carroll", and Jonathan Hale was real life Army Major General "Leonard Wood". Otherwise all the other actors portrayed fictious characters.
Buddy Ebsen was a soldier named "Jelly Beans" and like many others, would die as a test subject to find the cure for "Yellow Jack".
Above, William Henry as "Breen", Buddy Ebsen, and Sam Levene as "Busch", below, the love interest, Robert Montgomery as "John O'Hara", and Virginia Bruce as "Frances Blake".
"Yellow Jack" is part of my article, "Hearst, Pulitzer, Theodore Roosevelt, Hollywood and the Spanish American War", read at:
Once again borrowed by "20th Century Fox", Buddy Ebsen found himself in a film the leading actors wished they'd never made.
MY LUCKY STAR released on September 9, 1938
This was the fifth motion picture starring Norwegian Olympic Gold Medalist Sonja Henie playing "Kristina Nielsen". Richard Greene was only in his third motion picture as "Larry Taylor", radio comedian Joan Davis was "Mary Dwight", and Cesar Romero was "George Cabot Jr.
While, Buddy Ebsen was again very originally named "Buddy".
Note on the above poster is the name of actress Louise Hovick playing "Marcelle". Louise would shortly stop acting and change her name to "Gypsy Rose Lee" and become one of the best-known strippers in the world.
The plot has "George Cabot, Jr.", the son of a department store owner, enrolling their clerk "Kristina Nielsen", an ice skater of course, in a university to be used as a student in an advertising campaign for the department store. However, "George" is attempting to paying off cabaret singer "Marcelle", to annul their brief elopement, but she is threatening filing a lawsuit and will reveal why "Kristina" is a university student in it. Meanwhile, "Kristina" has fallen in love with "Larry Taylor" at the university.
Above and below the comic relief of Buddy Ebsen and Joan Davis.
Above, Cesar Romero and Sonja Henie, and below, Henie and Richard Greene.
Below Louise Hovick:
FOUR GIRLS IN WHITE released January 27, 1939
This was a comedy about four students at nursing school. What makes it interesting is who were the "MGM" contract players playing the girls.
The star was Florence Rice as "Norma Page". When she started in 1934, "MGM" had big plans for her, but by 1943, she left motion pictures into obscurity.
Una Merkel played "Gertie Robbins", she had played "Ann Rutledge" in D.W. Griffith's 1930 "Abraham Lincoln", but it was her comic timing that she became known for. Merkel was "Sam Spade's" secretary "Effie Perine" in the 1931 "Maltese Falcon", in 1939 she was in the saloon fight with Marlene Dietrich in "Destry Rides Again", and near the end of her career, Una Merkel was the maid "Verbena". Who figures out the twins change of parents in Walt Disney's original 1961 "The Parent Trap".
Ann Rutherford was "Patricia Page". For several of Mickey Rooney's "Andy Hardy" series, Rutherford was "Polly Benedict", and was one of "Scarlett O'Hara's" sisters in 1939's "Gone with the Wind". Ann Rutherford was "Lydia Bennet" in the 1940 "Pride and Prejudice" starring Greer Garson and Sir Laurence Olivier, and co-starred with Red Skelton and Conrad Veidt in the classic comedy mystery, 1941's "Whistling in the Dark".
Mary Howard was "Mary Forbes". Howard's career was short, as she married, and left the industry. However, that short career included playing "Ann Rutledge" in Raymond Massey's 1940 "Abe Lincoln in Illinois", "Edith Keating" in Robert Taylor and Brian Donlevy's 1941, "Billy the Kid", and "Frances Allan" in 1942's "The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe".
Buddy Ebsen portrayed the orderly, "Express".
In the above publicity still, Buddy Ebsen is surrounded from left to right, by Florence Rice, Ann Rutherford, Mary Howard, and Una Merkel.
THE KID FROM TEXAS released on April 14, 1939
The title sounds like any of a number of "B" Westerns at the time, but it's not. The film revolves around playing polo and a polo pony that is purchased by "High Society Girl", "Margo Thomas", played by Florence Rice, in Texas to be taken back to New York by her. The horse belonged to "William 'Wild Bill' Quincy", played by the film's star, Dennis O'Keefe, who was his friend "Snifty", played by Buddy Ebsen, accompany the horse back to New York. Of course there will be a romance between "Margo" and "Wild Bill" and a major polo match.
Photos are hard to find for this 1939 motion picture and I could not locate any with Buddy Ebsen. It was hard to find any with the two stars, but if I wanted the Audie Murphy 1949 "Billy the Kid" picture of the exact same title. I would have had no trouble finding still shots.
THE WIZARD OF OZ released August 25, 1939
The above poster for "The Wizard of Oz" shows Jack Haley as "Hickory" aka: "The Tin Man".
When filming originally began, "Hickory" was Buddy Ebsen.
Here are some of stills of Buddy in the role:
Below, Buddy Ebsen, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, and Judy Garland in the original shooting. Notice the different look Judy Garland's "Dorothy" had for the Buddy Ebsen version of "The Wizard of Oz", as compared to the 1939 release in the second still below,
Below, two more stills from the "Lost" Buddy Ebsen footage for "The Wizard of Oz".
For those who do not know what happened to Ebsen:
Originally Buddy Ebsen was to have been the Scarecrow, but Ray Bolger asked if they could swap roles? Buddy agreed and filming began, but as it proceeded, Ebsen started to develop muscle cramps, body aches, and more alarming, shortness of breathe. He was rushed to the hospital and the doctors determined this was caused by the aluminum dust used in his make-up. Buddy Ebsen was replaced by Jack Haley and the make-up for the character was changed.
Listen to every singing with the "Tin Man" of the song:
"We're Off to See the Wizard" and you will hear Buddy Ebsen's voice and not Jack Haley.
MAUREEN O'HARA, THE SECOND WORLD WAR, AND DISNEY
Buddy Ebsen finally recovered and become embroiled with "Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer", who to the actor, seemed to be dodging their contractual obligations leaving him without work. Ebsen took-up sailing and became so proficient that the United States Navy hired him to teach sailing to selected naval officers and he applied multiple times for a Naval commission, but was turned down.
Meantime, Buddy Ebsen found work at "RKO" and made three motion pictures for the studio.
THEY MET IN ARGENTINA released on April 25, 1941
This was a comedy musical romance about a Texas oil billionaire who travels to Argentina to bid on some land, but his bid is unsuccessful. The Texan, "Tim Kelly", is played by ex-"Hopalong Cassidy" sidekick and Val Lewton horror film star, James Ellison. Maureen O'Hara played the daughter, "Lolita O'Shea", of an Argentinian horse breeder. Buddy Ebsen portrayed a colleague of "Kelly", "Duke Ferrell", who teams up with him to purchase a racehorse for their joint employer/
Above, Buddy Ebsen, and Diosa Costello as "Panchita", and below, O'Hara and Ellison.
PARACHUTE BATTALION premiered in Atlanta, Georgia, on August 14, 1941, the general release wasn't until September 12 1941
The United States government asked the motion picture industry to help them out. On, September 16, 1940, the "Selective Training and Service Act of 1940" aka: the "Burke-Wadsworth Act" went into effect. This was the first peacetime conscription in United States history. The act required that men who had reached their 21st birthday, but not their 36th birthday, register with local draft boards. What the government asked the motion picture industry was to make motion pictures about different branches of the military in an attractive manor to explain what they did. This film was one of "RKO's" entries.
The plot is about three men enlisting in the United States Army and what happens to them. They are, "Bill Burke", played by Edmond O'Brien, who was intoxicated when he enlisted and is concerned about his own courage. "Don Morse", played by Robert Preston, an All-American Football player at Harvard, that enlists to avoid being engaged to two woman at the same time. While, "Jeff Hollis", played by Buddy Ebsen, is a hillbilly cajoled into enlisting by the daughter of a feuding family.
The screenplay follows the three through parachute training at Fort Benning, Georgia. Which was used by "RKO" to add realism to sell young men viewing the picture how great life there would be for them.
December 7, 1941 and "Pearl Harbor", but Buddy Ebsen had one more film for "RKO".
SING YOUR WORRIES AWAY released on March 6, 1942
This low budget musical featured the popular band leader, Alvino Rey and his answer to the Andrews Sisters, The King Sisters, Alyce, Donna, Luise, and Yvonne, are listed in the film's credit, but not the names of the other two sisters, Marilyn, and Maxine.
The picture reunited Bert Lahr and Buddy Ebsen as the male stars and their co-stars were actress June Havoc, sister to Louise. and comedian Patsy Kelly. I could not locate a still with Buddy Ebsen, but below are Lahr and Kelly.
Buddy Ebsen was now commissioned a officer, "Lieutenant", in the "United States Coast Guard". He would serve first as a damage control officer, and then executive officer on the "USS Pocatello", seen below.
The Second World War ended and in 1949, Buddy Ebsen returned to acting in the new medium of television. The program was "The Chevrolet Tele-Theatre", on January 10, 1949, entitled "Good-bye Larry K", and the only cast member we know of, was Ebsen.
UNDER MEXICALI SKIES released on November 20, 1950 from Republic Pictures
As with most "B" Westerns, the name of the star's horse, in this case Rex Allen's "Koko", got second billing in the picture. Buddy Ebsen had fifth as "Homer Ogelthrope". Allen was "Mike Jordan", third billed Dorothy Patrick was "Madeline Wellington", and the great "B" bad guy, Roy Barcroft was billed fourth as "Henchman Hays Lawson".
The plot has Allen and Ebsen as undercover treasury agents after a gold hi-jacking gang that also are into counterfeiting.
Above Rex Allen, Mary Ellen Kay as "Katie McIntosh", Buddy Ebsen, and an unknown dog.
Next, Rex Allen remained Rex Allen, Buddy Ebsen was "Deputy Happy Hooper", Mary Ellen Kay was "Dell Stafford", and Koko was billed as playing "Koko - Rex's horse". The movie was "Thunder in God's Country", released on April 1, 1951.
Then the actor was back with Rex Allen, Koko, and Mary Ellen Kay in the "Rodeo King and the Senorita", released on July 15, 1951.
In the above publicity photo, Rex plays "Rex Allen", Mary plays "Janey Wells", and Buddy plays "Muscles Benton". Of note is Koko is back in second billing as "Koko - Rex's horse".
There was a change of billing in Buddy Ebsen's last "B" Western with Rex Allen, "Utah Wagon Train", released on October 15, 1951. The billing change was for the second billed Koko, Rex's horse was now, "Koko the Miracle Horse of the Movies".
The female lead had also changed to Penny Edwards as "Nancy Bonner". As for Buddy Ebsen, his character's name was "Snooper".
Buddy followed "Utah Wagon Train" appearing in two failed 1951 television pilots for shows starringf the Andrew Sisters. Ebsen was now guest appearing in television dramas on different anthology series throughout 1952. His appearances included four different times on "Broadway Television Theatre", twice on the "Chevron Theatre", and once each on "Hollywood Opening Night", "Personal Appearance Theater", "Gruen Guild Theater", "Curtain Call", and "Schlitz Playhouse".
Then, apparently Buddy Ebsen took 1953 off as I could not locate any work in that year for the actor.
BORN ON A MOUNTAIN TOP IN TENNESSEE
RED GARTERS premiered on February 9, 1954 in Los Angeles
I want to point out the above poster's tag line for two reasons. The first, it's a good gimmick to give a potential audience the idea of how much more they'd pay to see what's in the picture as a musical Broadway show. The second, it gives my reader a look at what the cost of a Broadway show was back in 1954 and a reflection of what the cost of living was during the Eisenhower years. Add inflation and at the time of writing this article, a 10-dollar orchestra ticket would be $101.40.
The movies sets and backdrops are set up like a stage musical rather than a real life setting.
The picture is a Musical Western starring singer Rosemary Clooney as saloon singer "Calaveras Kate". Buddy Ebsen had tenth billing as "Ginger Pete".
The thin, typical "B" Western, plot starts at a town barbecue to honor the murdered "Robin Randall". A stranger, played by Guy Mitchell, arrives, of course he's "Robin's" brother, and after the murderer.
NIGHT PEOPLE released on March 11, 1954
With sixth billing, Buddy Ebsen portrayed "Army Sergeant Eddie McColloch".
An American Army Officer has been kidnapped by the Soviets after escorting his girlfriend to her home. Now it's up to "Colonel Van Dyke" to get him back and prove the Soviets actually have him.