|photos by Bruce-Michael Gelbert
Debbie Reynolds on stage (insets L-R - Debbie Reynolds arrives in Cherry Grove - Debbie Reynolds signs the Community House dressing room wall)
In “An Intimate Evening with Screen Legend Debbie Reynolds,” at the Community House, on August 15, Reynolds, 83 years young, graced us with her ever-radiant presence, thanks to George McGarvey, who also designed the stage set of subtle elegance, and the Arts Project of Cherry Grove (APCG), which benefited from Reynolds’ appearance, and we all fell in love with her. Joey Singer was her pianist and music director, Matt Baney was technical director, and Alison Brackman was responsible for sound and lighting.
After a welcome from APCG President Thom “Panzi” Hansen and the ceremonial entrance of Homecoming Queen Demi-Tasse, we were treated to clips from Reynolds’ films, including “Singing in the Rain,” “Two Weeks with Love” (“Aba Daba Honeymoon”), “Three Little Words,” “Give a Girl a Break,” “Tammy and the Bachelor,” “The Catered Affair” with Bette Davis, “Goodbye Charlie,” “It Started with a Kiss,” “The Mating Game,” “The Pleasure of His Company,” “How the West Was Won,” “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” “The Singing Nun,” “Divorce American Style,” “The Bodyguard,” “Heaven & Earth,” “Mother,” “These Old Broads” with erstwhile rival Elizabeth Taylor, and “In & Out,” where she played a gay Kevin Kline’s mother. After some kibitzing with Panzi about the set change, Reynolds made her entrance for real and the ‘intimate evening’ began in earnest, encompassing much more singing than expected, and a wealth of anecdotes about her Hollywood career during “the Golden Age, they call it,” liberally peppered with quotable quips, and pithy observations.
Reynolds sang bits of “Gee, But It’s Good to Be Here,” from “Happy Hunting,” and “He’s My Friend,” from “Unsinkable Molly Brown,” and talked about finding her way to Fire Island, “somehow or other—I do live in LA—which is right around the corner,” and recalled the Miss Burbank beauty contest, which she won at age 16 in 1948, and claimed that Demi ran against her and that they wore the same dress. Then she sang some of “From this Moment On,” dropped from Cole Porter’s “Out of This World,” but included in “Kiss Me Kate,” the film, and in later stage revivals, and Molly Brown’s “Belly Up to the Bar.”
She was first signed by Warner Brothers, where Jack Warner changed her name from Mary Frances to Debbie, but let her keep the Reynolds, and then by MGM, at “$65 a week,” then $70, then $100, and then came “Singing in the Rain,” featuring her in her first leading role. Pointing out that her career began before most people had televisions, but had movies instead, she said, “You went to a matinee—you stayed the whole day—watched it twice.” At MGM, “I got to meet Clark Gable—he said, ‘Hello, kid”—he was so beautiful!” She also met Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Esther Williams—“I didn’t swim with her,” Fred Astaire—“He was the sweetest guy,” Greta Garbo—“I vant to be alone—and we left her alone,” Tyrone Power—whom she outed to us, Cyd Charisse, Ann Miller, and Donald O’Connor.
Instructing Joey Singer to play in “any key you want,” Reynolds sang some of “Good Morning,” from “Singing in the Rain,” and remembered, “We had to be in makeup at 6 [or] 5 in the morning—and we looked like shit!” Hedy Lamarr, she shared, was made up while she was still asleep. About one of her costars in “Singing in the Rain,” she said, “Gene Kelly had a problem with his hair—some people have a problem with their hair—you know—you’re bald!” After singing some of “You Were Meant for Me,” she went on to tell us that she was chewing gum on the set, realized she shouldn’t be, and stuck the gum on the rung of a ladder. Kelly leaned back against the ladder—and his hair stayed there. The film ended with a kiss with Kelly. “I had never heard of French kissing” before that day, she explained. “In my day, you didn’t fuck around—we didn’t do anything, really.” Suddenly, “I felt this large thing in my mouth—it wasn’t his penis,” it was his tongue!
In case we had any doubt about who Reynolds was, she identified herself as “Princess Leia’s mother,” referring to her daughter Carrie Fisher’s “Star Wars” role.
Reynolds said, of “How the West Was Won,” “It took two years to make,” in Cinemascope, and sang some of the song based on “Greensleeves” that she sang in it. She said of Milton Berle, “He was cuckoo” and talked about Berle’s best friend’s huge member, which was displayed as part of a tray of hors d’oeuvres. Turning to a contemporary star, she declared, of Johnny Depp, “I think he’s an adorable guy.” Returning to the Golden Age, she spoke of Spencer Tracy and offered her best Katharine Hepburn imitation.
Someone from the audience asked Reynolds who her best lover was. Gene Kelly? No, they never were lovers. First husband Eddy Fisher? “He was not it—he went down the Nile,” a reference to Elizabeth Taylor and “Cleopatra.” She said of Fisher, who divorced her for Taylor, “I warned him: ‘she’s going to dump you!’” She learned her lesson about marrying “a short singer,” but said that her daughter did so, too—Paul Simon—and concluded, “She always wanted to be like her mother.” Frank Sinatra? “I always wanted him to be my lover,” but he never was. “We all fade,” she said, shrugging, of Sinatra, and added that he counseled her, “Be sure never to marry a singer,” when she was engaged to Fisher, and that Sinatra responded, “Well, disengage!” She talked about her granddaughter Billie and told us, “Hopefully she won’t marry a singer,” and will avoid continuing the family tradition.
“I married three times—badly,” Reynolds declared, and offered, “I should have married Burt Reynolds—I wouldn’t have to change my name and we could share wigs.”
On getting to Fire Island, Reynolds said, “You get a ferry—I mean a boat” and “I came here through hail and sleet so I could be with people like me—a little crazy,” and continued that she’d heard that “There’s a hotel devoted to men who love men,” meaning Belvedere. She was about to begin “You Were Meant for Me” again, but during an exchange with Joey Singer, queried, “I sang that already? Was I here?”
Going back to Garland, about whom Reynolds observed, “She was really special,” and, “She was the nicest person you could ever meet,” adding, “I know you all love her as much as I did,” she sang some of “Get Happy” and “Friendly Star,” from “Summer Stock.” At MGM, Reynolds explained, “They had their own hospital—they would give you shots—they called them vitamins—we didn’t know—they were drugs.” She continued, “I never got caught in the trap, but unfortunately for Judy, she did.” Moving on to Liza Minnelli, whom she knew had sung in Cherry Grove, Reynolds offered, “She always wanted to be like her mother—she has a special talent like her mother.
Near the end of the evening, Reynolds dropped a bombshell: “This is my last performance,” she told us. Could it be true—or does she make this threat to every audience? She realized just how long ago she made “Singing in the Rain”—1952; showed a little leg, proving that she’s still got ‘it;’ and exclaimed “I’ve been doing this for 67 years!”
“When they called me to come visit you,” Reynolds figured, “I might as well see the last place to see,” and told her pianist, “Joey, I’ve been offered a gig—it’s near the water,” which she revised to, “It’s in the water.” Finding us “full of love … and joviality,” Reynolds closed by singing some of the romantic “Tammy(’s in love).” Certainly plenty of love was in the air that night!