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For a blink of an eye, Barbara Eden will be in Clearwater

Bill Daily, Barbara Eden, Larry Hagman and Hayden Rorke star in ‘I Dream of Jeannie.’ Photo from Sony Pictures.
Bill Daily, Barbara Eden, Larry Hagman and Hayden Rorke star in ‘I Dream of Jeannie.’ Photo from Sony Pictures.
Published Mar. 8, 2019

"She did what?"

It was the reaction a 20-something colleague had when I tried to describe the premise of I Dream of Jeannie, one of the most famous shows in the history of television.

A lovely blond genie lives in a bottle discovered by an astronaut. She pops out in a plume of pink smoke, wearing a pink harem outfit, and immediately dubs him "master." Then she folds her arms, blinks her eyes and all manner of havoc ensues.

"I don't think I could watch that," said another colleague of about the same vintage as the first.

On the phone from her hotel room in New York, ahead of her Saturday appearance at the Capitol Theatre in Clearwater opposite Hal Linden in the play Love Letters, the genie in question was incredulous at my colleagues' raised-eyebrow receptions to my elevator pitch.

"Your friends have obviously not read a great deal," said Barbara Eden, displaying a faint hint of the mischievous malevolence that made Jeannie's evil twin sister so much fun to watch. "It's true. The theme of Jeannie is any genie. It's ancient and it's a classic."

Perhaps, but Barbara Eden was not just any genie.

She was a high school cheerleader and later, Miss San Francisco 1951. She'd appeared alongside Elvis in Flaming Star, had a leading role in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, appeared on I Love Lucy and The Andy Griffith Show and was even cast in a movie — The Brass Bottle — that led to Sidney Sheldon's creation of I Dream of Jeannie.

I was five when the show first aired in 1965 and then a pre-teen when it started airing endlessly in syndication. Eden, now 87, laughed when I told her me and many others had crushes.

"Well, that is very nice of you to say that," she said. "It was a fun show. It was a nice show and I enjoyed doing it. And I am absolutely shocked that there are so many people who are still watching it."

Eden was cast as much for her gifted comedy chops and warmth as much as her appearance in the pink outfit (black and white in the first season, a concept I didn't bother to explain to my younger colleagues).

How much of that was the real Barbara Jean Morehead, the name her parents gave her?

"I don't know. You'd have to find that out your pretty self," she said. "I imagine quite a bit of it, because in order to play a character, you delve into your own."

As Jeannie, Eden exuded a naïve sexuality and longing for astronaut Tony Nelson, played by the mercurial Larry Hagman, whom she called "master."

In today's context, it rankles, but at the time, "yes, master" was a typical greeting for screen genies in films ranging from Bowery Boys classics to The Brass Bottle.

Was the ability to portray her character a matter of timing?

"Well it was 3,000 years ago, right?" she joked about the subservient nature of her role. Besides, no matter what, Eden noted that Jeannie usually got the best of Maj. Nelson.

When I mentioned that Mel Brooks once told me that he wouldn't be able to make Blazing Saddles now, Eden insisted that I Dream of Jeannie could get green lit in 2019.

"Of course," she said. "Of course it could."

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112 . Follow @haltman .

If you go

Love Letters

8 p.m. Saturday. $35 ad up. Capitol Theatre, 405 Cleveland St, Downtown Clearwater. (727) 791-7400. atthecap.com.