Kathy Garver’s “Surviving Cissy”: From Toddlers in Tutus to Textural Tales of Life’s Great Tapestry!

Okay…Okay…So I know Kathy Garver played everyone’s favorite sitcom teenager in the form of Cissy of “Family Affair” fame back in the late ’60s/early ’70s. But did you know she currently does everything else from playing Aunt Polly in the latest musical rendition of “Tom Sawyer” along with voicing multitudes of fantastic female cartoon characters, most notably Firestar, from the ever popular “Spider Man and His Amazing Friends?”  Sporting much the same vibe today, she has the added distinctive evocation of affection reserved for only the grooviest of TV Sitcom moms to rival that of Florence Henderson herself! Possessing a surplus of experience to actualize such an outer perception, she has recently penned her very first autobiographical book—and quite superlatively well written I might add–entitled “Surviving Cissy: My Family Affair of Life in Hollywood.”

This self-woven, untouchably textural tale, takes us through her colorful childhood: From tenacious toddler dance recitals with the Meglin dance school, to the reproduced Papier Mache mountains, braying donkeys, spitting camels and conversations with Charlton Heston on the set of Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments,” on into warmhearted memories of ever-rapt familiarity with Brian Keith, to the rewarding but lonely life of a stage actress preceding the most unique and nothing-short-of-fortuitously-fated, miraculous meeting of the man she would marry!

But the fascination doesn’t just start there, for even before Garver’s birth, the book sets off at an unequivocally intriguing clip!  Originating from a long line of enterprising women (to speak nothing of their male counterparts), would it surprise you (as it did me) to know that her great aunt was one of the first women ophthalmologists in Oklahoma, who would, in turn, marry the first male ophthalmologist who inaugurated the use of moving pictures to explore various parts of the eye, ear, nose and throat?  Oh, and a grandmother who, after the premature death of her husband, escaped the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma for California only to become a noted real estate mogul?

Marie was given as Kathy’s middle name to honor her innovative grandmother.  And when you hear more about her you will understand why; just as impressive as Grandma Marie’s independent Depression Era business savvy was her brave and enterprising spirit upon boarding a boat at the tender age of 18, all the way from Austria to make a life in the good ol’ U.S. of A.! To top it all off, Grandma Marie would live to be 101!

Another such autonomous woman was Marie’s daughter and Garver’s mother Rosemary: a 5’3” high school basketball star and captain! Having acted in high school plays, Garver is quite convinced it was she who unwittingly bestowed a love of theatre upon her precious daughter.

Rosemary would leave the home of her maternal real estate maven and go on to study, then practice, nursing wherein she would meet Garver’s father Hayes during a routine appendectomy.  This romantic scene would culminate in a marriage lasting 50 years!

Photo Courtesy of Kathy Garver

Photo Courtesy of Kathy Garver

Oddly enough, Garver’s parents bonded in part because both Rosemary’s and Hayes’ fathers died of heart attacks at the ages of 30 and 31 respectively leaving the women of their households  to carry the family onto survival and subsequent success!

Garver then went on to bond with her parents because they were well…AWESOME granting her the latitude to do what she wanted along with the nurturing guidance to know certain life saving limitations.

The biography, chock full of photos both historical and current, includes the very first prototype of Mrs. Beasley which, is to say the least, slightly creepy, in rather an hilarious sort of way, and upon its first viewing kind of makes me giggle. “That thing never came alive on set and went sentient on you guys,” I can only guffaw.  “Yeah, Chuckie,” Garver giggles in return.

Not only was “Family Affair” the first–and most likely last–singular sitcom to feature an elderly woman doll in the form of a child’s toy, it was also the earliest to be broadcast in full color, hence the motive for the kaleidoscope of sparkles at its opening credits.  It was also the foremost and original family TV show centering around a broken one—family that is…

Decidedly arresting and heartfelt is Garver’s account of her memories of Brian Keith, whom she writes about with such fondness and attention to detail, you’d think you were right in the room with him –the living room-themed set that is, for all four years of the show’s production! From her description of his no-nonsense-beyond-sincere antithetical “Hollywood” personality, to his sense of family both on and off camera, to his divorce, then second marriage, to one of his costars on the set of a film shoot in Hawaii, she devotes at least three chapters to this television icon.  Later I will notice a present day photo of Johnny Whitaker and mistake him for Keith himself and remark that the apple doesn’t fall too far from the avuncular and reel red-headed tree!

Further addressing costar Anissa Jones’ (aka Buffy’s) passing with most gentle but matter-of-fact detail, we intuit quite the sense of the sisterly affection woven into said scripted but genuine ancestral portrayal. Moreover, Garver’s affection for the entire cast and experience is palpable, along with all those with whom she would meet and collaborate along the way…

A sincere and heartfelt romp, there are also quite an abundance of fun and juicy parts:

Would it surprise you to know that Garver dated “Family Affair” (producer) Don Fedderson’s dreamy son Gregg? It was short-lived however, because Fedderson compartmentalized Garver as part of the “help/staff” (within the auspices of his storied career) and partially because as 3 years Gregg’s senior, Garver was technically the “older woman” in the relationship? Ooh Scandalous!!!

Oh and saaay, ever muse upon what it might have been like to sit in one o’ those boxes on Hollywood Squares?  Well, Garver knows, and then some, to speak nothing of certain squares’ significance–Oh yes, they had them! Read the interview further for a nice healthy preview—and the book for all the details!

We speak of her career, the ’60s and life, which, if you’re talking Kathy Garver, are all one in the same…

What were some of the more arresting memories while writing the book that all came flooding back to you…?

…With Brian Keith when I was working on the series. I remembered a lot that was happening with him and his strength…his charisma and I hope that I got his essence into the book which I think I did. And there were some parts that were hard to write, like about Anissa. Then my husband had some difficulties. That was a little hard to write. It was interesting, when I wrote about my origins in the entertainment business; going to the Meglin Studios.  I have a couple of pictures of when we performed at the Ebell Theatre in Los Angeles on Wilshire Blvd, near Crenshaw.  So when I saw those…all these floods of memories came back… My mother was this inveterate hoarder.  So I still had the little dance costume…and I have a picture of that in the book: “Oh I remember this [costume] and it was scratchy!” I could usually see Mrs. Meglin on the side of the stage saying okay, “Smile…smile…” and she was doing the dance right along with us.  So that really brought back a flood of memories as well…

Did you have a schoolgirl crush on Brian Keith?

 I didn’t. You know I didn’t.  I thought he was wonderful but I was so like into my character, I didn’t even think of anything else. Of course he was always my uncle. And then I’d be very surprised when we got him his star on the walk of fame posthumously… His wife Victoria made a speech. I made a speech…and then I was doing some research…on the book and I found out she’s exactly the same age I am!  And I said, ‘Well there could have been a family affair but I’m certainly glad there wasn’t!’

Photo Courtesy of Jennifer K. Hugus for the Los Angeles Beat

Photo Courtesy of Jennifer K. Hugus for the Los Angeles Beat

When did he marry Victoria?

Right after “Family Affair.” He got a divorce from his first wife, in between the first and second year I think…and then he went to do this movie Krakatoa, east of Java—Krakatoa west of Java and met this darling woman Victoria and had two kids and then they got married!  And that was all during the third fourth and fifth year of “Family Affair.”

Now as to how your show was shot, I couldn’t believe that for Fred MacMurray on “My Three Sons” there were cut aways  and the actors were acting to a broom or ladder with Fred’s face on it for most of it. And your show was shot—it was shot the same way.

Yeah, ‘cause we had the same producer and Brian Keith [was such an in demand actor] he had the same deal as Fred MacMurray.

Now how did you get the idea for the book? Did someone have to talk you into it or were you just like, “I want to write about my life?”

As an actor, you do something–you have down time–you do something–you have down time. I’m not good with downtime. So I like to fill it and said, ‘So this is the time I’d like to start writing my book,’ and that was ten years ago.  So I started writing it and my life kind of got in the way: My house burned down and then other projects came up and I lost some of my pages. So I regrouped, took a writing class and each week I would bring in my new chapter along with photographs and pass it around to everybody and then I’d get feedback and the teacher would take it away. This was a seasoned citizen class!

Was this up in San Francisco?  What college?

This was a senior citizen center.  I call them ‘Seasoned Citizens’… and it was specifically a memoir class. So I was writing, and I had a proposal. Then I got a two book deal and I said “Oops!”—a two book deal and a deadline—that REALLY puts a fire under you! [So] I said, “Whoa! Okay then! I will have to get this done.”  So I got it done.  Met my deadline… And that was good…photographs all over my office floor. Quick packing and my dog on my side but we all got it done and my friends Fred Ascher and Manny helped me with the pictures.

Your cocker spaniel!

She wanted to go on my book tour, boy I tell you, she was right in that suitcase immediately and then when I took her out I started putting more clothes in then she was right on the cupboard that was open then she’d settle right in there and say “I’m here. Hello. Are you taking me?”  But she has to stay at home [in San Francisco].

So now do you have your story of how you met your husband? That was one of my favorite stories.

Yeah, that’s in there.

That’s so cool.

I have also another book…out.

Wow! So you have “Cissy Sizzles” (the Family Affair Cookbook) and “Surviving Cissy” (your autobiography), both with dynamic alliteration to boot! I’m a fan of alliteration.  So what’s your next book?

“X Child Stars: Where are they now.”  It came out in March 2016.  It’s taken from interviews that I have done. I have a co-writer on that–Fred Ascher. I interviewed Angela Cartwright and Tony Dow along with Jeannie Russell from “Dennis the Menace” and lots of people.

Photo by Jennifer K. Hugus for the Los Angeles Beat

Photo by Jennifer K. Hugus for the Los Angeles Beat

So, “Hollywood Squares” (referring to a picture I see in the book). Oh my gosh Paul Lynde—I remember this—Artie Johnson—Ricardo Montalban…Sally Ann Howes…And Oh there you are!

 In the Lox Box. Yeah I have a whole story about the Lox Box!

Did you get lonely sittin’ in there by yourself? Did you feel isolated…?

 Well—yeah! And they would put the pretty girl on the sitcom in the Lox Box…but that would be fine because they thought the Lox Box didn’t get very many questions.

Now when you say Lox Box are you talking about the lowest one?

[On the bottom row; center.]  They called it the Lox Box because that person would just sit there like a salmon and swim upstream or do anything… So that was my first [appearance] but then they realized ‘Oh well she’s pretty cute.  Oh well she’s really responding to these questions. Oh well–oh she’s really doing [well]!‘ They asked me back many times and I never sat in the Lox Box again! They even started writing for me…  They would give [actors] responses to questions that were asked. [But] before they gave the real answer to the questions they would say a joke first.  So you would expect a joke out of Paul Lynde or George Gobel or Burt Reynolds or anybody so then they started giving me a couple:  Some laugh lines and some joke lines so I liked that better.

Photo Courtesy of Kathy Garver

Photo Courtesy of Kathy Garver

You said you started doing the voiceovers in the 1980s?  That’s so fascinating.  What would you say is one of  your favorite Spiderman episodes that you remember?

Well I like that one about the bee [creature] (referenced below) and I also liked the first one which was the pilot and it was The Birth of Firestar…—that was one of the first female superheroes…Stan Lee created it for an animated series rather than taking a comic book character and making a show for the character.

Throughout the book and conversation I will reference the fascination of the autobiography being one of the many threads in the tapestry of human life and/or a person’s life having a tapestry all its own.  Surprisingly, and before I have even set eyes on the book’s inner pages, Garver will confess that she views life exactly the same way.  This simile is evident in her cleverly entitled chapters such as Beginning of Threads, Ties to Oklahoma, Los Angeles Strings, Siken Cords, Changing Swatches, Knots in the Yarn, Knitting a Degree, Piecing the Quilt, Knitting Succeeding Rows, Charitable Threads, Throwing Threads to the Wind, The Garment Lengthens, Still Sewing, Unraveled, and Completing the Garment.

But in the end she has an equally textural metaphor for life’s great symbiosis and synchronicity, culled right from the animated world itself:

“I think we’re all part of this great big [being].  We did that once for the animated series “Spiderman and his Amazing Friends” where there was this creature who was made up of bees. So maybe we’re all like bees but little universes within this great being.  We don’t know…”

All in all, a deliciously informative read from beginning to end.  Not a word is wasted or a reference needlessly repeated and in most successful script/story fashion, each and every scene moves the tale along to the next grandest plot arc!

To procure this book and/or for more information about Ms. Garver, simply visit:

http://www.kathygarver.com/

https://www.facebook.com/kathygarverfanpage

https://www.amazon.com/Surviving-Cissy-Family-Affair-Hollywood/dp/163076115X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1469124503&sr=8-1&keywords=Surviving+Cissy 

Jennifer K. Hugus

About Jennifer K. Hugus

Jennifer K. Hugus was born at a very young age. At an even earlier age, she just knew she would one day write for the LA Beat! Having grown up in Massachusetts, France, and Denmark, she is a noted fan of Asian Cuisine. She studied ballet at the Royal Danish Ballet Theatre and acting at U.S.C. in their prestigious BFA drama program. She also makes her own jewelry out of paints and canvas when she isn’t working on writing absurdist plays and comparatively mainstream screenplays. Jennifer would like to be a KID when she grows up!
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