The Celebrity Collector

Cynthia Pepper Who Once Cozied Up With Elvis in
"Kissin' Cousins" Collects Stuffed Animals
 

By Ken Hall 

Cynthia Pepper always loved stuffed animals when she was a kid, so it only made sense she would collect them as an adult. The veteran film and TV actress who starred in one series (Margie), had a recurring role in another (My Three Sons), and had the privilege of playing a lead role opposite Elvis Presley in Kissin' Cousins has about 75 stuffed animals, which she keeps at home in Las Vegas.

"It started with bears," she said. "My husband and I both love bears, and he'd buy them for me or I would buy one here and there, and before long, we had a collection. One of the bears is so huge it could fit in the seat of a car and look like a passenger. Another one is a New Year's Eve bear wearing a top hat and vest that sings Auld Lange Syne. Of the 75 stuffed animals, I'd say 50 of them are bears."

It was inevitable that an Elvis-themed bear (one of his big hits was Teddy Bear) would make its way into Cynthia's collection, since they were once co-stars. She's actually got several Elvis teddies, playing little plastic guitars. Aside from bears, she also has dogs, monkeys, cats, rabbits (for Easter) and other animals. "Most have sentimental value. They were gifts from my husband," she said.

Cynthia is able to keep most her stuffed animals on one long bench, thanks to some creative arranging on her part. "The smaller ones sit on the laps of the larger ones and that way they all fit nicely together," she remarked. "But I also like to display them, a few at a time, throughout the house. That way I get to enjoy them in almost any room I'm in. And the guests like them, too. They're fun."

She used to have more than the 75 she now owns, but Cynthia got the giving bug some time ago and donated a good number to charity (the Veterans of America). "I gave away a bagful," she said wistfully. "It just seemed like the right thing to do. I wanted to know they were being taken care of. I loved them like I love my animals." (She has two dogs and three cats; all of them were shelter rescues).

The stuffed animal collection came after another collection that met an untimely demise in the famous California earthquake of 1994. "I had some wonderful teacups and saucers in a curio cabinet, when we used to live in Los Angeles," Pepper recalled. "I had about 20 sets and had collected them since around 1960. But that day I lost it all when the quake hit and that cabinet pitched forward."

Cynthia Pepper was born Sept. 4, 1940, in Hollywood, Calif. Her father, Jack Culpepper, was a vaudeville singer-actor who was once married to the legendary dancer Ginger Rogers. That was before he met and married Cynthia's mother, Dawn, herself a dancer with the Ziegfeld Follies and Billy Rose. They remained married until Jack's death in the late 1970s; Dawn passed away a few years ago.

Being born into an entertainment family, young Cynthia had a colorful and well-traveled upbringing. Her father, being in vaudeville, moved around a lot. Cynthia's first memories were of New York City, where she "slept in a drawer." Her dad had a radio show there. At four and a half, she was cast in her first acting role ­ on Broadway, no less ­ playing Julie Harris' young sister in the play It's a Gift.

Jack Culpepper led a life that was as spicy as his last name. After vaudeville, he appeared in movies Cat Ballou (Jane Fonda, Lee Marvin) and Papa's Delicate Condition (Jackie Gleason). He owned a nightclub in Dallas, where he performed for Al Capone and later got to know Jack Ruby, himself a nightclub owner who gained notoriety as the man who shot Lee Harvey Oswald, JFK's killer.

One time, in 1955, Culpepper was on the set of the movie Giant, starring Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean. He was there visiting friends. He mentioned to Dean that his daughter was turning 15 years old that day; then the idea came about for the young idol to actually phone Cynthia up and wish her a happy birthday, which he did. James Dean died in a car crash about two weeks later.

After her debut on Broadway, Cynthia later made an uncredited appearance in the 1950 film Room For One More, starring Cary Grant and Betsy Drake. She was one of a group of young girls; it was a non-speaking part. Ten years later, in 1960, Pepper got her first taste of TV, appearing in popular series of the day like 77 Sunset Strip, Bourbon Street Beat and Boris Karloff's Thriller.

Cynthia's first big break came that same year, when she was cast as Jean Pearson on My Three Sons, the enormously popular family series starring Fred MacMurray and William "Bub" Frawley (formerly Fred Mertz on I Love Lucy). Pepper's role was recurring; she played the girlfriend of the eldest son, Mike, played by Tim Considine. She returned to the series, briefly, a few years later.

In 1961, a huge break came her way. She was cast in the lead of a new TV sitcom set in the 1920s called Margie. Cynthia, of course, was Margie. It was a campy comedy that saw Margie, a high school student, getting herself into and out of various predicaments. A high point came when Pepper, as Margie, appeared on the cover of TV Guide. But the series was canceled after one season.

In 1963, Cynthia had a supporting role in the movie Take Her, She's Mine, starring James Stewart and Sandra Dee. That part led to her selection as a co-star in the 1964 Elvis romp Kissin' Cousins, in which Presley played a dual role: Air Force Lieut. Josh Morgan (dark hair) and Tennessee hillbilly Jodie Tatum (blonde hair). Pepper played Corporal Midge Riley ­ blonde Elvis' love interest.

Pepper's memories of Elvis Presley are fond ones. "It sounds like a cliché, because it's always said about him, but he was very sweet and genuine, and with everybody on the set, not just the actors. But he was insecure. He asked me if I thought his fans would still remember him when he was gone." As for her kissing scenes with him, "I asked for more takes, just to get it right!"

Kissin' Cousins is the only Elvis movie in which a leading lady (Pepper) is referred to as "pretty as a speckled pup." In one memorable scene, Cynthia, exasperated at Jodie's (blonde Elvis's) crass and forward behavior, judo-throws The King to the ground. Elvis responds by singing Tender Feeling to the scrappy Corporal Midge, who manages to resist his advances with her dignity intact.

Throughout the 1960s, Pepper appeared on many of the more popular TV shows of the day, like Perry Mason, The Addams Family, The Flying Nun, Julia and Wagon Train. In 1972, she had a part in The Jimmy Stewart Show and in 1979 appeared in a made-for-TV movie called Crisis in Mid-Air. In 2005, she had a movie part in Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous.

Today, Cynthia Pepper stays busy making appearances at autograph shows and some Elvis gatherings with other leading ladies. She lives in Las Vegas because that is where she met her husband, Stephen. She has a son, Michael Edwards, 42, who works in Los Angeles in the entertainment industry. Her dogs' names are Fluke and Sparky. Her cats' names are Jack (a male calico!), Pepper and Rosebud.

Fans of Cynthia Pepper may write to the star c/o Living Legends, Ltd., P.O. Box 5290, Santa Rosa, CA 95402. The e-mail address is livinglegendsltd@juno.com .

Cynthia Pepper stays busy today making appearances at autograph shows and at some Elvis gatherings with other leading ladies.

Most of Cynthia's stuffed animal collection is plopped on a long bench in her Las Vegas home.

Cynthia custom-makes tabletop Christmas trees, tailored to the individual.

Pepper played Jean Peterson on '60s family series, My Three Sons, as Mike's girlfriend.

In Kissin' Cousins, Cynthia played Corporal Midge Riley.

Cynthia's big break came in 1961, when she was cast in the lead role of the TV show Margie, set in the 1920s.

Gracing the cover of TV Guide, as Margie helping to ring in the New Year (1962), was a highlight of Cynthia Pepper's acting career.

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