Remembering Debbie along the way

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Cherry blossoms in focus around the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir. Photo: JH.

Monday, April 3, 2023. Saturday morning brought some rain before temps reached the mid-60s by late afternoon. Chillier after dark. The chill stayed on Sunday.

Happy Birthday Debbie. A friend sent me this clip of Debbie on Instagram this past Saturday, April 1 — who is remembered on what would have been her 90th birthday. It brought back memories of Debbie, who was 20 years old when this film was shot in 1952 at MGM Studios in Culver City.  

Debbie Reynolds performing “Lady Loves” in I Love Melvin.

I was a kid then, but I’d seen her in the movies in Singin’ In the Rain and a couple others. She was — for my generation (the first post-war) — an All-American girl. That meant nice, pretty, smart, kind, sweet, funny maybe, serious always perfect. I mean that was the ideal. 

The money was made at the box office with stories of her – singing, dancing, making jokes, dreaming of love.  Still innocent. On the other hand when a lot of those girls (her ‘type’) went home, they were far from it. In Debbie’s case, she was lucky. It so happened that she had enormous innate talent to entertain which is ultimately a great natural skill. By the time she was in high school, she was the class clown, aside from  being an aspiring phys ed teacher.

Mary Francis Reynolds wins Miss Burbank, 1948.

When she was a sophomore at Burbank High School, they ran a Miss Burbank contest where the winner would win a blouse. Debbie, who was then always known by her birth name Mary Frances, had no intention of entering. She never thought of herself as Miss anything. But her friends, loving what a cut up she was, persuaded her.

When it came to the performance on the night of the contest, Mary Frances aka Frannie, tiny little thing that she was, performed by lip-synching a real movie star glamour girl cut up — Betty Hutton’s My Rocking Horse Ran Away, which had been a hit single back in 1947 just after the end of the WW2.

There were two movie studio talent scouts in the audience the night of the Beauty contest — one from Warner Brothers and the other from MGM named Solly Biano. In those days, the studios had “talent scouts” on salary, always looking for new talent. The entire system was based on this. It was Solly Biano himself who told me the story when I was researching Debbie’s memoir that I’d been hired to write. 

The two “scouts” were also pals and often went talent-searching together. Watching little Mary Frances Reynolds up there on the stage lip syncing the famously funny Betty Hutton, a major star in those days, they turned to each other and said, “she’s got personality!”

They both immediately wanted to “screen test” her. So they flipped a coin to see who could test her first (and sign her if they liked the test), and the guy from Warners won.

Stills from a Hollywood screen test for little Mary Frances Reynolds. She was a worker from the first day at Warners, then moving to Metro.

By her sixteenth birthday, she was under contract. M-G-M was not happy not to get the girl their scout wanted, but within a year they borrowed her from Warners. The film was Two Weeks With Love starring Jane Powell and Ricardo Montalban. Debbie’s part was a song and dance number called “Abba Dabba Honeymoon” which became a hit record, too.

Debbie used some of the royalties to build a swimming pool behind her mother and father’s little house in Burbank. She lived there until she got married, and often entertained other actor friends by the pool. When she married and moved out, her father had the pool filled in. And so began a career that lasted almost SEVENTY years.

By the late 50s, I’d lost interest in her as my generation was growing up/older and changing tastes beginning with Elvis and then on to the Beatles. I followed Debbie in the press, however off-handedly, partly because they were often the top entertainment stories through the 1950s/80s. Her marriage to Eddie Fisher was the movie moguls’ dream as they were two of the biggest popular entertainment stars in America.

Her marriages for example, were leading news; with headlines in the tabloids beginning with her marriage to Eddie, father of Carrie and Todd – who was named after Mike Todd, Elizabeth Taylor’s husband. Fisher was an admiring pal of Todd. Todd died in a private plane crash in 1958, only a year after he’d married Taylor. When Todd died, Eddie left Debbie and married Taylor, Debbie’s schoolmate in the MGM schoolhouse. The Fisher/Taylor marriage ended in Rome when she met another actor — Richard Burton.

Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher on their wedding day, 1955.

The whole world knew all of this! Everyone, without exception, got their news from the printing press. And then all the world read it. That’s how news was delivered. And movie stars to the American public were a kind of faux royalty, presented to the public accordingly. And regarded thusly. Their private lives and rumors of their sexual activity off-camera was always at the top of the list of special interest of the movie-going public. 

The studios’ stars were marketed as product. They lived by the moguls’ rules. However, public curiosity about their private lives was very good for business (and still is). And when they went home after work and turned out the lights, they often turned out the image rules too. 

Debbie was the good girl, the all-American girl of that age. And talented holding her own dancing with Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor at the same time. She was also the worker whose career continued to blossom even after Metro’s studio days were over.

When they were, she took the show on the road — to Las Vegas where she became a regular performer, and to private concerts across the country; at state fairs and special concert engagements, taking time off for film assignments, then to Broadway and then back to Vegas. She worked 44 weeks a year on the road until she was in her early 70s, and even then kept up a business schedule.

Marquee listing Reynolds’ world premiere at the Riviera Hotel, Las Vegas, December 1962. EditorASC at English Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Always a pro, long after we’d worked together she appeared on My Life with Liberace, who was a friend of hers from her Las Vegas days. In the film, she played Liberace’s mother who was born in Poland and grew up in Wisconsin. Mrs. Liberace had a bit of a foreign accent all her life. I watched the film to see Debbie. There was no sign of her (to me) on the screen. She’d taken on the persona with the way she walked, the way she talked, with a different nose, a different face and and even the temperament. I only saw Mrs. Liberace on screen. That was the pro, always at work.

Once into her late 70s and early 80s, despite her ambition, she was losing her touch; sometimes a bit of her memory. This was a crisis for her because she was entirely by nature a worker. By her mid-80s, although she had the energy, her sensibilities were beginning to break down and she was forced by her own judgment to quit.

Debbie’s house on Coldwater Canyon, which was only a few steps from Carrie’s.

At the end of her life she was living in a house at the foot of her daughter Carrie’s driveway on Coldwater Canyon. She knew she’d come to the end of the ride for the girl who only knew to work from the beginning of her career 70 years before and now needed assistance and to be looked after to assure her safety.

On the day the world heard about the death of her daughter Carrie on a plane going over to London, I knew Debbie  would leave too very soon after — if not immediately. It turned out to be the very next day. She was first and foremost a realist. The show had closed and the star had withdrawn.

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