Keeping Kansas City in the Loop
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Barbara Eden's Life Outside the Bottle

Barbara Eden is stunning.

The 78-year-old actress is seemingly oblivious to the attention her presence commands as she walks into the New Theatre Restaurant’s rehearsal space one scorching afternoon in mid-August. Designers are scurrying about, putting finishing touches on the set of “Social Security” — the Broadway comedy hit that Eden will star in for two months at the Overland Park dinner theater — but pause when Eden glides through the room.

Dressed in a vibrant blue silk pantsuit, Eden greets the cluster of people gathered for the photo session and then perches on the edge of a sofa bench, ready to take direction.

Halfway through the shoot, the photographer asks Eden if she would indulge him and do the famous Jeannie move and she obliges. I watch as Eden puts her right arm over her left and does a simultaneous blink and head bob.

“Your wish is my command!”

Although Eden doesn’t speak that line today, the Eden in my memory does — the one on “I Dream of Jeannie” dressed in bubblegum-pink harem pants that covered her navel (her belly button did make a couple of controversial cameos during Season 4) and a tiny pink top that showed just enough cleavage during a very conservative television era (NBC, the network on which the show appeared, had a so-called “No-Navel Edict”).

Instantly I’m transported back to childhood on a magic carpet. It’s 1965 and my sister and I are sitting cross-legged in front of the black-and-white television in the family rec room, engrossed in what is now a classic sitcom that runs continuously on cable and in U.S. syndication and boasts a large audience.

The premise of “I Dream of Jeannie” always fascinated me — handsome astronaut Captain Tony Nelson (played by Larry Hagman) is stranded on a deserted South Pacific island and discovers a colorful bottle rolling around on the beach. He uncorks it and voila! — out pops a 2,000-year-old blond genie that, with a quick blink, conjures up a rescue helicopter. By the time the show left the air — five successful seasons, 139 episodes and a storybook ending in Season 5, Episode 11 as the dashing astronaut and his perky genie go off into the sunset as man and wife — I was too old for the fantasy.

Or so I thought.

Today as Eden and I settle into the green room at the rehearsal hall for a chat (first we talk shoes — she likes my heels and is amazed I can walk in them; I return the compliment on hers) I’m reminded of how smart and funny her Jeannie character was, how she was both dreamy and a dreamer. And of course, Eden’s fruitful career as an actress in Hollywood started long before she lived in a groovy pink-and-purple bottle whose interior always looked like it was ready to burst into a pre-disco frenzy.

Eden’s impressive filmography spans six decades and reveals the legacy of one of Hollywood’s hardest-working actresses.

“I like to work and am lucky enough to love my work,” explains Eden, who learned from her grandmother and mother the importance of making her way in the world. “Grandmother told her daughters to always have their own money — she said you’ll never know when your husband will need it.”

Prior to “I Dream of Jeannie” Eden, who was born in Tucson, Ariz., graduated from high school in San Francisco and attended City College of San Francisco for two years, already had a nine-year track record of working in film and television in Hollywood.

Her resume includes two seasons in the series “How to Marry a Millionaire” based on the Marilyn Monroe flick and the movie “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.” She appeared in a movie, “The Brass Bottle” with Tony Randall and Burl Ives, which led to her memorable role in “I Dream of Jeannie.”

“I also appeared with Lucille Ball on her show and with Elvis in a Western called ‘Flaming Star,’” says Eden, who recalls Presley as a genuine person, well mannered, an empathetic man.

Eden has earned her stars in Hollywood, including one on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and she has received Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Broadcasters Hall of Fame. She’s crooned at the White House (“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” for the second Bush administration) and has appeared in myriad television commercials. She’s been onstage at Starlight Theatre in Kansas City, too, where audiences are always receptive — even during a Midwest summer shower.

“I’ve performed in the rain at Starlight and the audiences couldn’t have been lovelier,” says Eden.

Eden married Jon Eicholtz, a structural engineer/architect/real estate developer, in 1991. A graduate of the University of Kansas, Eicholtz’s Heartland values appealed to Eden when they met on a blind date.

“My girlfriend initially had dinner with him and vetted him for me,” laughs Eden, whose first meal when she arrived in Kansas City to start rehearsals for “Social Security” was a pulled pork sandwich from Jack Stack — she attributes her taste for barbecue to Eicholtz. “Delicious.”

Despite her self-professed love of carbs, Eden is a fit and trim woman, working out at home three times a week, spinning at the gym and lifting weights under the supervision of a trainer.

Eden will be onstage at the New Theatre through the beginning of November; she is excited to play her character, Sophie Greengrass (“she’s hurting and cranky at the beginning and you see her evolve, which is fun”) and work with the cast.

But today Eden is fretting about leaving the love of her life behind for a couple of months. Of course she’ll miss being away from Eicholtz, who plans to fly in from Beverly Hills for a visit. It’s her beloved 60-pound, purebred chocolate Labradoodle, Djinn-Djinn, that Eden is already homesick for.

“Isn’t he adorable?” she asks, pulling up a picture of the curly-haired canine on her iPhone. He’s intently watching a large-screen television in Eden and Eicholtz’s Benedict Canyon home — and it’s Eden on an old “Regis” show that has his attention. “He knew this was me, and Jon snapped it and sent it to me. Djinn-Djinn ran around the house looking for me.”

According to Eden, Djinn-Djinn, named after a dog that appeared briefly on “I Dream of Jeannie,” sits and watches other dogs on television and possesses all sorts of other irresistible personality quirks. “You look into his eyes and knows he has a kind soul,” she says.

For Eden, it’s “I Dream of Djinn-Djinn.”

For me, it’s an encounter with one of the nicest Jeannies you’ll ever meet.

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