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After publishing a memoir, 2012’s Jeannie Out of the Bottle, Barbara Eden is setting her sights on a younger demographic with the launch of her first children’s book, Barbara and the Djinn. Ahead of its Aug. 3 debut, the iconic Hollywood star opened up on the inspiration for her new tome, how she spent the COVID-19 pandemic and what she misses most about old Hollywood.
What inspired you to write a children’s book?
I was in Australia in 2013 and Dustin Warburton, who is a writer, was there also and we met up and talked about books. During our conversation, we decided that we should be writing a children’s book together. I’m a reader, and I think it’s a wonderful gift for a child. My aunt and my mother read to me when I was 2, 3 and 4 years old, enough that it just made my imagination bloom. When I was old enough, they took me to the library and I got my own library card. By the time I was 7, 8, 9 and 10, I would go to the library on a Saturday and check out the full limit of books — six at a time — and bring them home to read all week.
I started with The Secret Garden and the read all of the Oz books. I remember I did all the Zane Greys, all of the Western books. I’m so grateful for that time because it really transported me to another world. That doesn’t mean I didn’t go to the movies — I did and loved them — but I would’ve never had an understanding of other people, other countries, other cultures if I hadn’t started reading young. The imagination is a wonderful thing to have if it’s used.
Do you have any favorites of children’s books that have stuck with you all these years?
The Secret Garden. I would like to read it again today. It was a beautiful story of kindness, love and understanding, and it’s so beautifully written, oh my God.
How do you describe the story for Barbara and the Djinn?
It follows a little girl on a journey of finding these beings who are different, but who need help. It’s very simple, and it’s all about understanding people who are different and having empathy and love for them. When the Djinn comes out of the lamp, she deals with it and goes on a journey. We couldn’t use a bottle because we don’t own the rights.
How has the pandemic been for you? How have you been spending the past 15 months?
I was working up until the shutdown point last March. Since then, I’ve been at home. I’m very lucky because I have a beautiful vista out my windows and I wasn’t stuck like many of my friends in New York, who live in apartment buildings and they couldn’t even get in their elevators. I was very lucky in that way. I have good friends who are careful and wear masks, all of that. But we did get COVID.
Oh, you did?
Yeah. We shouldn’t have, but we did. My husband went to visit his son in Las Vegas. I did not go for that very reason. Jon drove himself up there, spent three nights having dinner with his grandchildren who are young adults. When he came home, he didn’t know that he’d been exposed. Of course, we sleep in the same bed. My girlfriend happened to be here at the time and she took him to get tested. They sent people here to test us and Mary Jane and I tested negative, but Jon was positive. Mary Jane drove him down to Cedars, the antibody infusion center and he had the infusions. When he came home, we were very careful, wearing gloves, masks and placing his food outside the bedroom door. A few days later, my business manager said, “You should be tested again just in case.” She had the guys come up here and they tested us and sure enough, we tested positive.
Did you ever get sick?
Right away, my doctor sent us down to get the antibody infusions. It was the lightest case of COVID I think anyone’s ever had in the whole world. I was a little uncomfortable and I had a slight headache, but it went away. I was so lucky. Mary Jane, too. But Jon had a pretty hard time of it. He slept through it, mostly. We’d hold our breath, peek at him and look, come running out again.
Things are opening back up here in Los Angeles. How do you feel about life returning to normal?
If people have a brain in their noodle, they will be careful and abide by the rules, but unfortunately, there are a lot of people that just don’t think. I’ll continue to wear my mask. I have been inoculated, although I was told I didn’t need to be. I just got my second shot, actually. I had to wait 90 days after the infusions before I could do anything, because I guess the little antibodies fight or something. There’s my imagination, again, antibodies fighting in my body.
How did you spend your time at home? Do have any favorite TV shows or films that you spent time with?
Oh, honey. I’d have to get my list out. I read dozens of books. I’m also a member of the Academy, so I watched movies. The one that hit me the most was My Octopus Teacher. Oh my, what a beautiful film.
You mentioned when we got on the phone about your connections to the previous Rambling Reporter columnists at The Hollywood Reporter, Mike Connolly and Robert Osborne, the beloved TCM host. What did they mean to you?
They were my roots in Hollywood. Those were my beginning days at Fox, and then, of course, years later was I Dream of Jeannie with Mike. It was just a wonderful relationship. I loved it. They had a lot of movie openings in those years, and my husband at the time, Michael Ansara, and I would go to all of them. It was always so good to see Bob Osborne and Mike Connolly there. It was a happy, happy time.
You mentioned that Mike Connolly had a fascination with your belly button that brought a lot of attention or boosted your star status …?
It didn’t so much help me become a star, as I was known because I had done lots of movies before I did I Dream of Jeannie at studios like MGM, Columbia and Universal. Fox would loan me to these studios for movies. So, I was known but mostly kissed, rescued and sung too. When Mike came in and started teasing me about my belly button, it spread like fire and spread around the world. We had a good time with it and I would tease him back, but I had no idea it would become something. Robert was kind and sweet and fun. Mike was a wild man.
Is there anything that you miss most about that time?
I don’t miss a thing. I’m very happy that I lived during that time. I’m happy that I had my beginnings then, but things change. What a wonderful time now, more actors are working than ever before with all of the companies like Netflix and Amazon, all of these movies and TV shows they are producing.
You have a milestone birthday this year. I wanted to wish you an early birthday and ask you how you’re celebrating and how you feel about turning 90?
It’s like any other birthday, I’m just happy to be here. I really don’t think about it. Everybody else does but I never have. I’m looking forward to going back to work. In February of 2022, I’m going to do a show with the Edwards Twins. They’re wonderful impersonators. I’ve seen them many times and they’re great artists. They do all kinds of people, Celine Dion, Barbra Streisand and, of course, Judy Garland. They asked me to come and do their show, so I’ll do a little singing and we’ll probably have interaction with the audience. It’ll be fun. I’m really looking forward to it.
Now that you’ve made your first foray into children’s books and going back to work next year, anything else that you still want to accomplish?
Bring it on. I like to work. I really do. It’s just what I do. That’s all, that’s my life.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
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