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Big Birthdays

Looking south along Fifth Avenue from the corner of 53rd Street. 2:20 PM. Photo: JH.
Friday. April 1, 2011. A Spring chill, grey and damp with light rain throughout the day and evening.

Happy April Fools. Wouldn’t it be nice if all the news of the past few weeks were a joke instead of the joke being on us?

Today is the birthday of Debbie Reynolds, the last kid in the MGM Schoolhouse along with Elizabeth Taylor, who was older by just five weeks.

The musical number in Two Weeks With Love that produced a gold record and launched a career for Debbie. Two years later, the star was born in Singin' In the Rain.
Debbie was a favorite of mine (and millions of others) when I was a kid and with Carleton Carpenter she sang “Abba Dabba Honeymoon” in a movie starring Jane Powell (who is having a birthday today also). The song sold a million records and you’d be surprised at the people today who can sing all those lyrics because they can’t get them out of their heads.

That song, probably more than anything, was the linchpin to stardom for the kid from Burbank who at age 15 was discovered in a high school beauty contest by a talent scout from Warner Brothers named Solly Biano.

Actually there were two talent scouts in the high school auditorium that night when the kid named Mary Frances Reynolds came out from behind the curtain and lip-synced Betty Hutton’s hit record (1948) of  “My Rocking Chair Ran Away.”

The other guy was from MGM. Both men agreed that this kid had “personality” big time and both wanted to “test” her. So they flipped a coin, Biano won, and she signed with Warners. The first thing they did was to change her name. They wanted to called her Debbie Morgan but the kid balked; she wasn’t giving up her father’s name to some movie mogul. So they compromised.

She found it hard to believe she was there in the first place. Frannie Reynolds was an active kid who liked being the class clown. She was a serious student whose ambition was to be a phys ed teacher when she grew up. The idea of being a movie star was inconceivable; Elizabeth Taylor was the movie star. But the talent scouts could see she was a natural, and what’s more, she liked it. She was born to entertain.
Mary Frances Reynolds, Miss Burbank 1948. Two years later, now Debbie with Carleton Carpenter performing "Abba Dabba."
Besides her great natural talent she was a worker bee. The movies gave her a lot to do. In those days, contract players didn’t sit home and wait for a call. They went to the Studio everyday the same way she went to school. There were classes and tutors and teachers. In 1950, she had a small part in a June Haver picture at Warners called “The Daughter Rosie O’Grady” where she played the younger sister. Then MGM borrowed her to play a popular singer of the 1920s named Helen Kane (the “Boop boop a doop” girl) in a Fred Astaire-Red Skelton picture, “Three Little Words.”
This was followed by “Two Weeks ....” And from there she was cast to play opposite Gene Kelly in “Singin’ In the Rain.” Kelly, who was a big star by then, didn’t want the kid if for no other reason than she couldn’t dance.

“Whattaya mean she can’t dance? She danced with Carpenter!” was Mr. Mayer’s reaction. “The kid’s in the picture.”
The "Good Morning" number from "Singin' In the Rain" with Donald O'Connor, left, DR, and Gene Kelly. Harve Presnell and Debbie in "The Unsinkable Molly Brown."
And so it was. She was taught. Grueling, long hours, days, nights, weeks, rehearsals and then the musical numbers. After all, she was going to have to hold her own with two of the great hoofers in the movies – Kelly and Donald O’Connor. The result on screen is a pro. The kid came out a star.

I can still remember the day I went to see the picture at a local theater in my little New England home town. Those were the days of the last great movie musicals and “Singin’ In the Rain” made Debbie Reynolds a star as well as America’s Sweetheart.

Debbie as Elizabeth's maid of honor at her wedding to Michael Todd.
The denouement: Elizabeth, Eddie and Debbie in Las Vegas four months after the untimely death of Mike Todd.
Then she married America’s singing heartthrob, Eddie Fisher, the singer and life really began with all the drama and headlines, fame and fortune that accompanies the classic life of a Hollywood star.

Debbie also played a crucial role in my professional life, giving me my first big chance, as it were, when she hired me to write her autobiography for her.

We met in 1986, introduced by Lillian Burns Sidney, the longtime acting coach at MGM who was Debbie’s mentor and as she herself said, her “second mother.”

It was Lillian’s idea that Debbie do her autobiography. She was in her mid-50s and she had had been a working actress for almost forty years.

She’d been a big star, made and lost fortunes (thanks to one particular husband) and was still working 44 weeks a year on stage in theaters, auditoriums, arenas and state fairs across America from Las Vegas to London. She had a story to tell.

By the time we met, I was in my mid-forties eager to make some money as a writer and get a good credit. When I passed muster after Debbie met me, I had no idea how I was going to write this book.

As big a fan of hers as I was when I was a kid, by this time I had no special interest in her. I knew the basics because the entire country knew: the stardom, the marriages, the divorces, the Unsinkable Molly Brown.
Debbie, circa 1950 in the office of Lillian Burns Sidney on the MGM lot. DPC and the great Lillian, 1988, in Los Angeles at the first book signing of Debbie's autobiography.
Her adored daughter Carrie Fisher had by then eclipsed her mother in the Hollywood firmament, so she’d even experienced that part of the Hollywood story. (Result: she was proud of her.) Furthermore I could see on meeting that as friendly and gracious (and outgoing) as she can be, like others of her experience, she’d long ago learned how to protect herself.  As best she could. Debbie’s natural instinct is to entertain.

Lillian, our beloved Lillian, the taskmaster, insisted that her Debbie be serious and tell the story.

Debbie, taken about the time we were introduced.
Mother and daughter.
And so it was. The process took a little more than a year in gathering material. I interviewed her a total of more than a hundred hours (which I taped and transcribed). I met many of the players in her life from her childhood including childhood friends who were still her friends. I met Solly Biano, then age 90 at his house in Bel Air, who told me about the night he saw her. (Solly was also the talent scout who “found” Lana Turner – then Judy – working in a lingerie shop in Hollywood; took her to Warners and signed her. Solly had a daughter named Yolanda but called Lonnie. When Jack Warner wanted to drop the Judy for something sexier, Lonnie came up as a suggestioin. Lana, herself, altered it to fit.)

I met the producer Bill Orr who “named” Debbie. I met many people in the industry who’d worked with Debbie, groomed her, photographed her, tutored and guided her. When she signed with MGM in 1950, the Studio was a university for young performers. MGM was the Harvard/Radcliffe of the studios. Their stars were taught everything by the best talent in the business: how to stand, sit, how to smile, how to walk, dance, act, sing. how to Make up, how to light oneself; they learned it all.

They were corporate assets; some even became divisions in terms of box office. Debbie became one at 23. She took the bus every early morning from Burbank where she was still living with her parents in their little bungalow on Evergreen Avenue, rode over the hill and out to Culver City, worked all day and took the bus back home that night, until she had her own car.

That’s the Debbie I soon got to know. Many years later but still that member of the family. Her mother lived across the street in a lovely house she bought her. Her brother lived nearby.

It was a strict upbringing in Ray and Maxine Reynolds’ house. You towed the line and lived by the Good Book. They tolerated their daughter’s energy but made no special allowances for it. Her father, who made his living as a carpenter on the railroad, although he was proud of his daughter’s success, never saw her in a picture until “Unsinkable Molly Brown” in 1963. When asked why, he shrugged, “I don’t need to, I see her in the kitchen.”

That work has taken her all over the world and given her a fantastic life. It’s also been her loyal companion, not to mention bread and butter. She’s made more than 60 films, scores of television shows, played across America, from Broadway, Vegas, Reno, Houston, Dallas, St. Louis, Chicago, and back again, dozens of times. Last year for the first time in 30 years, she played New York, at the Café Carlyle and sold out the month.

This year is her 63rd in Show Business. It’s been an actor’s life for the kid who entered a high school beauty contest on a dare. The education at MGM enhanced her respect for her fellow performers, as well as her awe for many of the greats, many of whom she’s known well and/or worked with over the years. But she remains the working girl, still, keeping the wolves from the door.

The story I discovered, which I had the good fortune to transfer to the pages of “Debbie, My Life,” is a great one, and she lived every inch and every minute of it. And then some. That’s Show Business. Of all those girls plucked by talent scouts from the obscurity of middle America, then graduating out of that brilliant studio system known as Hollywood, little Mary Frances, Ray and Maxine’s daughter, is the only one still entertaining the clamoring crowds. When she sings these lines of Stephen Sondheim’s, you can bet she’s not making it up:

Good times, bum times,
I’ve  seen them all,
And my dear,
I’m Still Here


Happy Birthday Debbie, and Congratulations on your life.
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