A Memory Awakened on New Year’s Eve

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Photo: JH.

Thursday, January 2, 2020.  The second week of “What day is this?” for a lot of us. Tuesday felt like Friday like Sunday, and so did Monday. Temps very mild for this time of year but it’s been moving this way for quite awhile. Temps are in the upper 30s, kind of overcast, although rain is predicted somewhere around these parts.

New Year’s Eve was fairly quiet in my neck of the woods. I went to Sette Mezzo, guest of my friends Gillian and Sylvester Miniter. I’d never been to the Sette Mezzo New Year’s dinner but I’d heard it was good, and entertaining. Three sittings: 6, 8, and 10. We were doing an 8, arriving at 7:30. 

There were 80 on the docket for this hour. Filled up every chair in the place, which was decorated with masses lot of colorful balloons, and the colorful holidays lights strung throughout the room. With the sound system blaring rock from the ‘70s. (There was one night a couple of years ago when Billy Joel, Paul McCartney and Rod Stewart were all dining – at separate tables across the small room.)

Aside from all that, one of the aces of this restaurant is the staff — mainly the waiters and busboys. Attentive, cheerful, kind, humorous and rushing to serve as if in keeping with the spirit of the night. These guys make you feel at home (as if you should be so lucky at home). It was a wonderful evening.

Yesterday morning I got an email from Bob Schulenberg about a memory of his that I played a part in back in Los Angeles in 1988. I had just sent off to the publisher, an autobiography that I’d written for Debbie Reynolds (“Debbie; My Life” — William Morrow, Publishers)  It was a 2-year project from start to finish. It was, in retrospect, a fascinating experience. 

She was a woman who related. The daughter of a railroad lineman and a 7th Day Adventist, a kid from Burbank High School who won a beauty contest (she was kidding) that led overnight to a screen test (for Warner Brothers) and her first screen appearance at 15. 

We started the interviews in late ’86. Debbie, then in her mid-50s, had a very prosperous career touring with her acts across America including Las Vegas, working 44 weeks a year. By the 1980s, she was never earning less than a $1 million a year. 

She was indefatigable. All those travel schedules, the pressures, the preparations were simply part of her daily life. That was her job. And she liked it and was wise about it. So the hundreds of hours we spent interviewing (me/her) often took place over the phone as well as in a hotel room in a city where she was appearing, or in her house in North Hollywood at the time. 

She was especially energetic after a performance. The show that began at 8 or 9 and finished by 11 left her full of energy. The interviews were in depth as well as often entertaining. By the end of our project I’d got a sense of her that one has about a very close friend. 

She was also very verbal and inclined to be frank about herself. One day I told her about my friend Schulenberg who was only other person I knew who had her capacity (and interests) for long conversations. Amused by the thought, she told me she’d like to meet him. This was in late 1987 just after I’d finished the book and it was about to be published. 

I’d forgot about this incident until yesterday afternoon when I received Schulenberg’s email about his “experience” talking to Debbie Reynolds:  

Schulenberg wrote: “So many of us were mourning Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. I once spent an afternoon with Carrie but I once spent a whole night (talking) with Debbie!

My close friend David Patrick Columbia was writing Debbie’s ‘autobiography’ and spending hours and hours on the phone with her well into the night(s) after her performances. After many of these he told her that although she was ‘a good talker,’ his friend (ME!) could outtalk her!

She said to him, ‘bring him on over and we’ll see!’ so one early evening in February 1988, David and I went separately to Debbie’s house which at that time was in a regular unprepossessing family neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley. 

Debbie could not have been friendlier or more hospitable. There was also a cousin of Bobby Short’s there, a longtime friend and accompanist — so it was just the four of us chatting like old friends. 

Debbie Reynolds at home on February 4, 1988 in conversation with Bob Schulenberg who, as was his habit, drew those around him during conversations. He wrote down a remark she made about her son and daughter: “… It’s fine for some mothers — But … I’m not another mother.”

After a bit there was a ring of the doorbell and Debbie apologized saying that it was a young singing group who wanted to audition for her. She ushered them in, suddenly becoming the ‘Tammy” of her early movies and (ed. note: her gold record of the title song of the film) she introduced us to her visitors. They sang their songs and obviously movie-star-struck, they thanked Debbie who glowingly thanked THEM as they were leaving.

As they left and the door closed behind them, Debbie came back into the living room and no longer the virginal “Tammy,” smiled and said, “they eat up that shit!” She was the consummate professional and did the best impersonation of Debbie Reynolds I could’ve imagined!

After more talk, coffee and wine, and as it got to be late, David and the friend/accompanist had to leave and Debbie, looking at me, said, ‘do you have to go too?’ I didn’t, so I stayed.

Debbie and I kept talking – just the kind of talk and subject that two newly acquainted but convivial people would talk about. And after awhile, as the Sun had come up, Debbie yawned and said that David had been right – that I had outlasted and outtalked her, and that finally she had to go to bed!

I left Debbie’s house around 8:30 am the following morning! She been so real, kind and unaffected that it took me days to realize, really realize, that I had spent twelve hours talking with THAT Debbie Reynolds.  She was an impossibly hard act to follow!”

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