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Vilma Ebsen, 96; dancer teamed with her brother Buddy on stage

March 20, 2007|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Vilma Ebsen, a dancer who, with her brother Buddy, performed on Broadway before appearing in MGM's "Broadway Melody of 1936," has died. She was 96.

Ebsen, a longtime dance teacher and co-owner of the Ebsen School of Dancing in Pacific Palisades, died in her sleep March 12 at the Thousand Oaks Health Care Center, said her son, Robert Dolan.

Ebsen was performing in a club in Atlantic City, N.J., in the summer of 1930 when she teamed on stage one night with her brother.

Ebsen, who had been dancing and teaching dancing at their father's dance school in Orlando, Fla., since she was a child, had moved to New York the year before, and Buddy had helped her get a job in the chorus during the run of "Whoopee," the hit Broadway musical comedy in which he was a dancer.

That night in Atlantic City, the Ebsens' lively dance routine, choreographed to "Ain't Misbehavin'," was a big hit at the sold-out club. Among those in the audience that night was Walter Winchell, the powerful columnist, whose one-paragraph rave review in the New York Daily Mirror the next day put them on the show-business map.

The team of Vilma and Buddy Ebsen was featured in the vaudeville revue "Broadway Stars of the Future," which took them to the legendary Palace Theatre.

The song and dance duo also appeared in the 1932-'33 Broadway musical revue "Flying Colors," in which they introduced "A Shine on Your Shoes." And they were featured in the 1934 edition of "Ziegfeld Follies," in which they sang "I Like the Likes of You."

Their success brought them to Hollywood to appear in the 1935 MGM musical "Broadway Melody of 1936."

In the film, the Ebsens introduced "Sing Before Breakfast" on a brownstone rooftop with Eleanor Powell. They also performed "On a Sunday Afternoon" and danced in the big "Broadway Rhythm" finale.

"Vilma and Buddy Ebsen danced together in just one movie, 'Broadway Melody of 1936': He tall and charmingly gawky, she gentle and warm. The combination was irresistible both on stage and in that film," Miles Kreuger, president of the Institute of the American Musical in Los Angeles, told The Times on Monday.

Added Kreuger, a friend of Vilma Ebsen's: "Her warmth was genuine and touched everyone she knew."

Although Buddy Ebsen went on to appear in other movies after completing "Broadway Melody of 1936," Vilma returned to New York, where her husband, Robert Emmett Dolan, was a Broadway conductor.

Said her son Robert: "Her story is [MGM chief] Louis B. Mayer said, 'I could make you the next Myrna Loy.' She looked at Mayer and said, 'I don't want to be the next Myrna Loy. I'm Vilma Ebsen.' "

Back in New York, she appeared in the musical comedy "Between the Devil," which ran on Broadway from 1937 to 1938, and she gave birth to Robert, her first son, in 1939.

In 1941, she and her husband moved to Pacific Palisades, where Buddy and his wife were living. She and Dolan, who became a seven-time Academy Award-nominated film composer, were divorced after World War II. In 1948, she married Stanley Briggs, an inventor and professional tennis player, with whom she had another son, Michael. She and Briggs later divorced.

In 1943, Ebsen and her sister, Helga, started the Ebsen School of Dancing in Pacific Palisades. They both taught at the school, which focused on ballet and tap dancing for children. The school, which was featured in a 1948 Life magazine cover story, continued to operate until the mid-1990s.

"It really became her life," her son Robert said. "She's got adoring students that go back for decades."

He said his mother, who continued to dance with her brother until 1942, was happy for his great success, which included starring as Jed Clampett on the long-running hit TV series "The Beverly Hillbillies."

"She absolutely adored Buddy," he said.

Buddy Ebsen died in 2003.

The fourth of five children, Vilma Ebsen was born Feb. 1, 1911, in Belleville, Ill. In 1917, the family moved to Florida, where Ebsen's father established the first Ebsen School of Dancing in Orlando.

Ebsen also was a strong swimmer. Coached by her father, she became a Florida state champion in the breaststroke in 1927.

While still in high school, she became director of the dance department at Rollins College in Orlando. She joined Buddy in New York in 1928, a year after graduating from high school.

In addition to her two sons, Ebsen is survived by two granddaughters and four great-grandchildren.

Instead of flowers, the family asks that donations in Ebsen's name be made to the Music Center Performing Arts Center of Los Angeles County, where the donations will go to children's dance education. Donations may be sent to Annette Simons, director of Institutional Giving, Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90012.

Her sons will host a celebration of her life for friends and family. Details are available by calling (805) 208-2554.

dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

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