Six years ago I spent the day with Debbie Reynolds at her home in Coldwater Canyon to interview her for her forthcoming concert tour of England. This is the article that appeared in the Daily Telegraph.
Every day, in her ranch-style home in a canyon not far from Hollywood’s Sunset Strip, Debbie Reynolds swims in her indoor pool, lifts weights and hangs upside down for 15 minutes.
It is all part of the 77-year-oldactress’s vigourous preparations for a forthcoming 15-city concert tour of England which will culminate in ten dates in London, her first performances there for 35 years.
While most of her contemporaries from Hollywood’s Golden Age are either chronically infirm or dead, Debbie Reynolds still works 42 weeks a year, singing, dancing, doing impressions and telling anecdotes from her seemingly inexhaustible fund of memories of her legendary career.
“I’m fit, I have good genes and my family have lived long lives and so far my health is excellent,” she says. “I’m feeling really well and I’m still being booked everywhere so I’m very blessed to keep working. Yesterday I had six hours of tests just to be sure I’m ready for a tough tour like this. We’ll be travelling by bus. We start in Norwich and we’ll do a show, get on the bus, go to the next theatre, do another show and so on. It’ll be like the old days…bus and truck.”
A trim, petite Debbie Reynolds, looking 15 years younger than her age, had greeted me at the gate of the six-acre compound where she and her daughter the writer-actress Carrie Fisher live in separate homes but share a common driveway and custody of a fluffy white dog named Dwight. As she led the way into the house, chatting as she went, it was easy to detect traces of the charm, energy and girl-next-door looks that made the actress-singer-dancer so popular on screen during the youthful innocence of the post-World War 11 era.
Dwight curled up next to her on the couch in her memorabilia-filled living room as she poured tea and reminisced about her 60-plus years in showbusiness. Listening to her is like being taken on a tour through Hollywood’s heyday: Parties with Frank Sinatra; dance routines with Fred Astaire (they made two pictures together), Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor (Singing In the Rain) and Bob Fosse; a Western with John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart; good times, bad times; successes and scandals.
|with Carrie, named after Cary Grant|
Framed photographs line the walls and take up every available surface: Sinatra (he signed it to Sweetie), Cary Grant (she named her daughter Carrie after him), Astaire, Katherine Hepburn, Judy Garland, family photos and, on what she calls her “MGM Wall,” are signed photographs of all the actresses who were under contract at MGM the same time she was.
Every picture evokes a memory. “Bette Davis was a close friend. She loved to have a good time. People thought she was a big drinker but I only knew her as a social drinker….Lana Turner and Ava Gardner were my special friends at MGM….. Esther Williams lives just a few blocks down the road and she’s having a hard time right now. I go over and see her…. Jane Powell lives in New York and is doing really well but I don’t see her nowadays and Leslie Caron and I were very close when we were young but she lives in France and I don’t see her now.
“I made A Catered Affair with Bette Davis and Ernest Borgnine when I was 21 and some of us gave him a surprise birthday party last week at a friend’s house, which was difficult because he wants to know everything that’s going on. He’s 93 now.”
As she talked she occasionally sang snatches of songs from a 1940s medley she will be including in her U.K. concerts, along with dead-on impressions of Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis and Jimmy Stewart. “I grew up with these people and I started doing impersonations because their voices fascinated me.”
She likes to say that her long career began by accident, because she wanted a free blouse. Born Mary Frances Reynolds in Texas, she moved with her family to Los Angeles when she was seven-years-old. “We were very poor and I entered a talent contest as a young teenager because if you entered, even if you didn’t win, they gave you a free blouse,” she recalled. “I entered and there were talent scouts there and they changed my name to Debbie and I was given a film contract. So in 1949 I started a new life, and that was when I entered the fast lane.”
It was the era of handsome leading men and squeaky-clean, virginal women and the perky Debbie Reynolds fitted right in. She was cast mainly as a young adult in the throes of puppy love in light, cheery comedies and musicals such as 1957’s Tammy and the Bachelor----whose theme song Tammy gave her a hit single which spent five weeks at No. 1--- and Singing in The Rain. That image came in particularly useful in snaring the public’s sympathy when, in the biggest Hollywood scandal of the 1950s, her then-husband, the crooner Eddie Fisher left her and their two children, Carrie and Todd Fisher, for Elizabeth Taylor.
“That was a difficult time,” she recalled with a smile. “But Elizabeth and I talked about that a long time ago and got over it when we did a picture together called These Old Broads which my daughter wrote. We talked about a lot of things at that time and we still talk sometimes although we don’t see each other much. She isn’t feeling in good health these days but she’s trying to take care of herself which is most important at our age---do what we can and be as happy as our health allows and that’s what she does. She has a small group of friends and a lot of fans.”
As the studio system disintegrated and new sexual mores surfaced, Debbie Reynolds reinvented herself, switching her focus to television and then to nightclub and theatre stages. “I was doing musicals and there was a demand for Lena Horne and Judy Garland so I put an act together too and it went over quite well,” she said, adding, “and it has for all these years.”
She was one of the few females, along with Shirley MacLaine and Phyllis Maguire, whom Frank Sinatra allowed to join his Rat Pack parties when she played Las Vegas. “I loved to party with the Rat Pack, they were so much fun,” she said. “All they did was have a good time. We’d get off work at 2 in the morning and hang out at a club and listen to other performers. Sammy Davis, Frank Sinatra, Louis Prima, Keeley Smith---we were always in the lounge, singing. I loved Frank Sinatra. He was a great guy. He was a party fellow and a very good friend. If he liked you it was forever and if he disliked you, I wouldn’t want to be there.
“When we worked together on The Tender Trap I was engaged to marry Eddie Fisher and Frank took me to lunch and said: ‘Sweetie, don’t get married. Don’t marry a singer. We’re nice guys but we’re not good husbands.’ I gave it a lot of thought but Eddie was a darling boy and at the time I loved him very much. I was very young and of course Frank was right. I shouldn’t have married him because he left me for Elizabeth.”
He wasn’t the only man to let her down badly. Her second marriage, to businessman Harry Karl, lasted from 1960 to 1973 but his gambling and bad investments landed her in deep financial trouble while her third marriage, to property developer Richard Hamlet, was even more of a disaster. She was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1997 because a small hotel and casino they had bought in Las Vegas failed resoundingly.
“He turned out to be a crook and a swindler,” she said without apparent bitterness. “I suppose it happens to many women but unfortunately it had already happened to me before. Harry Karl cost me about $50 million which was the biggest hurt of my life until my third husband tried to top that. I’ve been very unlucky in the love department so I’ve eliminated that from my vocabulary. I have so much to do and so much I want to accomplish but it seems that whenever I marry, my husband seems to take it away from me.”
Despite years of partygoing and nightclub life Debbie Reynolds remains a moderate drinker and insists she is nothing like the heavy drinking character played by Shirley MacLaine in Postcards from the Edge, which was written by her daughter Carrie (who was portrayed by Meryl Streep) and which many thought was based on Reynolds’ and Carrie’s relationship. “I love to get up and entertain at parties and I love to sing and get on the piano and Shirley put a lot of my traits in the part, but I don’t have the disease of alcoholism, thank God,” she says. “I don’t drink hard liquor, just wine. To me it’s a social thing. I could never drink vodka the way she did in the movie. I don’t even like vodka.”
Debbie Reynolds recently returned from a six-week stint in New York while Carrie was on Broadway with her one-woman show, Wishful Drinking, which takes satirical jabs at Hollywood. Carrie, who became famous around the world as Princess Leia in Star Wars, has had serious problems for most of her adult life. “Carrie’s a manic depressive and she was an addict but she’s under medication and she’s bi-polar and she has a lot of mental health issues, but she takes good care of them and we have good doctors and psychiatrists,” she said. “She’s always in treatment and will be until the day she dies. It’s a continuing problem.”
Her son Todd, who lives on a ranch near Santa Barbara, is helping her achieve her 40-year dream of creating a permanent Debbie Reynolds Hollywood Motion Picture Museum to house her massive collection of Hollywood props, sets and costumes, most of which she acquired when she bought the MGM collection in 1970, but which she continues to add to. “I just bought Audrey Hepburn’s dress from the Ascot scene in My Fair Lady,” she said.
She had the collection briefly on display at the Las Vegas hotel and casino she owned and despite losing a small fortune and having to declare bankruptcy she managed to hold on to the memorabilia. Negotiations are now underway for it to go on permanent display at Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, near Dolly Parton’s Dollywood theme park.
Debbie Reynolds is constantly on the go. She has a chain of dance studios, is active with the Thalians, a charitable organisation she founded 50 years ago, and is frequently on tour with her act around America’s casinos and nightclub circuit. The week after we spoke she was due to appear at a place called Jackpot, Nevada. “It’ll probably take two trains, a car and mule train to get there but I’ll make it,” she laughed.
The last time she played the London Palladium she had 25 people with her and took over a floor at the Savoy Hotel. “I’d been at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas and I had to come to England by boat because I had a 30 foot high staircase I danced down and I had four backup singers,” she recalled. “I had a huge act then. No one can do that anymore because no one can afford it.”
This time she will have her hairdresser, road manager, three piece band, a sound engineer and a lighting engineer. She has pre-recorded a 24 piece orchestra to accompany her and will bring her own curtains to drape the stage. “I’m a woman and I like the stage to be pretty so I travel with my own curtains. Instead of having big set pieces for the stage I would rather drape it.”
As well as singing, dancing and doing impressions, she will introduce clips from her most popular films, including Singing In The Rain and The Unsinkable Molly Brown and will sing a duet with an on-screen Sinatra.
If she has any regrets it is that although she was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of the Titanic survivor Molly Brown in The Unsinkable Molly Brown, she was not given the role in James Cameron’s Titanic (it went to Kathy Bates.)
“You could never get Molly Brown down,” she said. “She said, ‘They tried to sink me but no one’s ever gotten me down yet.’ And that’s the way I feel about my life. There have been a lot of mishaps and a lot of difficulties along the way but it’s been a wonderful life and I never let anything get me down.
“My children are all grown, my life is my work and I intend to work until the good Lord takes me to another place.”