June 1 - 3, 2012 • 7:30pm
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For over six decades, our lives have been enriched by the talents of a singer, dancer and actress we know as Debbie Reynolds. Born Mary Frances Reynolds on April 1, 1932, in El Paso, Texas to Raymond Francis Reynolds and Maxene Harman Reynolds; her brother Bill was just a year older. When her father lost his job at the height of the Great Depression, the little family moved in with Maxene's parents. Providing for a family in those desperate times, was often a struggle which could be lost. Perhaps because of the hardships, the Reynolds children grew to be happy and resilient, secure in their parents' love. In 1939, Raymond Reynolds went to Southern California to take a job with the Southern Pacific Railroad. As the year drew to a close, his wife and children joined him. Just one year later, they built a home in Burbank.
Mary Frances (or Frannie, as she was known) attended public school, excelling in sports, baton twirling and music; her specialty was the French horn. She was an ardent member of the Girl Scouts, a love she would never lose. Despite her Mother's Nazarene upbringing, Frannie was allowed to go to the movies, and her flair for comedy and entertaining began to develop. Mary Frances the comedienne would often entertain friends and family with her mimicry of radio personalities and by lip-syncing to popular recordings of the day.
|In 1948, Lockheed Aircraft sponsored the local "Miss Burbank" beauty pageant; Mary Frances entered and won. She was sixteen, and her talent entry was lip-syncing to a record of Betty Hutton's "I'm a Square in the Social Circle." Two of the judges of the pageant were talent scouts from Warner Brother's and MGM. Both scouts perceived the young girl's potential. The Warner Bros. Scout won a coin toss which gave him first chance to offer Mary Frances a screen test. The result was so impressive, that she was signed to a contract which paid $65 a week. Jack Warner changed her name to Debbie. It was suggested that her last name be changed to Morgan, but she adamantly refused. She was required to leave public school and continue her education on the studio lot. Mary Frances' Mother would not allow her daughter's education to be compromised. She arranged for Debbie to attend John Burroughs High School in Burbank on an adjusted schedule.
Although Warner Brothers had recognized Debbie's potential, they had difficulty finding a showcase for her unique personality. .After being cast as a teenage extra in JUNE BRIDE (1948), with Bette Davis and Robert Montgomery, and subsequently, in early 1949, as June Haver's younger sister in THE DAUGHTER OF ROSIE O'GRADY, Warners decided that her age and inexperience would limit role opportunities for Debbie. So, when MGM expressed their interest to work with her, Warner Bros. did not pick up their next option on Debbie's contract.
After her appearance in THREE LITTLE WORDS with Fred Astaire and Red Skelton, MGM signed Debbie to a standard seven-year contract, starting at $300 a week. MGM , was able to broaden her opportunity to play a variety of roles. In the spring of 1950 she was cast as Jane Powell's younger sister in TWO WEEKS WITH LOVE and stole the show. Shortly after, Debbie graduated from John Burroughs High School with her class and spent that summer with the USO, at bases in California, MASH units in Korea, and later in Japan. Meanwhile, On 'loan' to RKO for 10 weeks she made SUSAN SLEPT HERE. And then, in 1951 the renowned LB Mayer was convinced that she should be cast alongside Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor in one of the greatest musicals of all time: "Singin' In the Rain". By her own indomitable enthusiasm and drive, she kept pace with her professional co-stars, and emerged a dancer in her own right.
By the mid fifties, Debbie Reynolds was one of Hollywood's most sought after female stars. Her romance with teen idol and singing sensation Eddie Fisher captured the headlines, and they were married in 1955. Debbie gave birth to a daughter, Carrie, in 1956, and to a son, Todd Emmanuel in 1958. It was shortly after her son's birth that Mike Todd, Elizabeth Taylor's husband and Eddie Fisher's best friend, died in a plane crash. Eddie spent much time comforting Elizabeth and they fell in love. A scandal ensued. The Reynolds-Fisher-Taylor triangle resulted in dissolution of Debbie's marriage in 1959. This was also the year Debbie became one of the top ten box-office stars of the year. She placed fifth in the Quigley Exhibitor's Poll of Box-Office Champions behind Rock Hudson, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day.
THE 60s: Debbie formed Harman Productions IN 1960, signing a three year, $1 million agreement with ABC to produce a series of yearly television specials, entitled "A Date with Debbie." She also put together her first nightclub act and debuted at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas, and has remained a headliner on the casino circuit. In November of 1960, Debbie Reynolds married Harry Karl, millionaire shoe store magnate. Continuing to endear herself to millions, Debbie contributed an exceptional, human element to MGM/Cinerama's historical western epic HOW THE WEST WAS WON (1962). Audience tastes began to change in the 1960s. She revived her career with an Oscar nomination for her title roll in THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN (1964), one of the years biggest money-makers. The resilient Debbie continued to appear frequently on stage in Las Vegas. As she began to free-lance, Debbie focused on television, signing with NBC to do the comedy series "The Debbie Reynolds Show", cancelled in 1970. She returned to film and made WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH HELEN, starring Shelley Winters, another dramatic role.
THE 70s: Debbie knew that the real golden era was gone and developed a passion to preserve it. She purchased thousands of items from the great MGM auction of 1970. She formed a non-profit corporation in 1972, laying the groundwork for the future Hollywood Motion Picture Museum. In the early 1970s, her marriage to Karl faltered; in 1973, Debbie filed for divorce. Finding herself in financial difficulty because of Karl's insolvency, she signed a one-year contract to make her Broadway debut in the title role, reviving the 1919 musical hit IRENE. After a rough beginning, it became a smashing success and Debbie won the Outer Critics' Circle Award for Best Actress in a Musical in 1974. After IRENE, she returned to Las Vegas. The rest of the 70s was spent fundraising for the newly opened Thalian Mental Health Clinic at Cedars-Sinai for emotionally disturbed children. Debbie is President and Founder and works selflessly with other celebrities to guarantee support for this entity. Debbie has also been a life- long supporter of the Girl Scouts of America, an early love since her childhood; she became her daughter's Scout Leader .
Also in the 70s, Debbie starred in a West Coast revival of ANNIE GET YOUR GUN, she toured live, performing at the Palladium and in Australia. Debbie has been in concert in every major American city, touring an average of 42 weeks a year.
THE 80s: In 1981, Debbie's comedy series, "Aloha paradise" for ABC was shortlived, but she went on to play occasional comedy series guest roles, including ALICE, THE LOVE BOAT and JENNIFER SLEPT HERE. After a brief return to Broadway in 1982 to replace Raquel Welch in WOMAN OF THE YEAR, she produced a highly successful exercise video entitled "DO IT DEBBIE'S WAY." In 1984, Debbie married her third husband, Virginia real estate developer Richard Hamlett. They bought and renovated the Paddlewheel hotel in Las Vegas. It became the Debbie Reynolds' Hollywood Hotel and Casino, and also showcased her extensive collecton of Hollywood props, sets and costumes. In 1988, she published her autobiography: "Debbie: My life. This work was in great part a response to Eddie Fisher's recollection of Debbie and their marriage in his 1981 autobiography. In 1989, Debbie and Harve Presnell toured the U.S. in a revival of THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN.
THE 90s: In the mid 1990s, this exceptional lady revived her film career once more. She earned a Golden Globe nomination for her perfomance in Albert Brooks' MOTHER (1996). In 1998 she was nominated for Favorite Supporting Actress in a Comedy based on her performance in IN AND OUT. She went on to do ZACK AND REBA (1998), and she was the voice of "Lulu Pickles" in the animated children's film RUGRATS IN PARIS: THE MOVIE.
Debbie divorced Hamlett in 1994, after the financial collapse of the hotel and casino (not for any failure on her part ) , and was left to bear the entire brunt of that disaster. In 1997, she filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Protection. Her son, Todd, dropped his own career to help his mother. Debbie has mused that Todd is the only man who never left her. At auction the hotel and casino went for $10 million to the Wrestling Federation, an insufficient amount for the claims against it. The doors closed and the costumes were put in storage where they now sit. Warner Brothers and Debbie have filed lawsuits charging that collectors took countless items for auction on the internet. It should be mentioned that some of the items in question are Judy Garland's 'Dorothy' dress from the Wizard of Oz, Marilyn Monroe's 'subway' dress, a Betty Grable bathing suit, and Julie Andrews' jumper and guitar from sound of Music.
A NEW CENTURY: More recently, the made-for TV movie "THESE OLD BROADS, written by (daughter) Carrie Fisher and Elaine Pope was a 2001 hysterically memorable treat, starring Debbie, Shirley MacLaine, Joan Collins and Elizabeth Taylor. On the NBC sitcom, "WILL AND GRACE", Debbie has played a recurring roll as Bobbi Adler, the mother of "Grace" (placed by Debra Messing) for which she received an Emmy nomination. In March of 2003, Debbie was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award from the 82nd Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. She is the first woman to receive this award honoring her outstanding contributions to Hollywood. In the 2004 film, CONNIE AND CARLA, Debbie plays herself.
PRESENTLY: Debbie's primary focus is on her nightclub act. She is reinforced by the love of her children. She is grandmother to Carrie's daughter, Billie Catherine, who is fast picking up Debbie's talent for dialects and impressions, and loves to sing. Billie Catherine prefers to call Debbie Aba Dabba, instead of grandma.
And the Museum? Despite dark days and relocations, Debbie's Hollywood Motion Picture museum now approaches finite reality in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Debbie and Carrie and Todd are constructing this dream on Belle Island Resort. It will be the centerpiece of the Resort, dedicated to the preservation of that marvelous era. The Museum plans to open in the spring of 2005.
This writer acknowledges there was no intent to mention all of Debbie's starring roles, or her myriad of awards. The foregoing is rather the story of a woman whose solution to adversity is not to merely survive, but to constantly revive, renew, and live life to the maximum. Debbie Reynolds' grip on the American heart is one that will transcend generations. She is, and will always truly be, AMERICA'S SWEETHEART.