As people mourned Wednesday’s death of Debbie Reynolds, I was reminded yesterday on Facebook by Vanoush Khatchaturyan that the Lively Arts Foundation in 1997 brought Ms. Reynolds to Fresno for a concert at the Saroyan Theatre.
Khatchaturyan recalls that she got to meet Ms. Reynolds in the Saroyan’s green room:
I just remember her being so sweet, and she laughed at me when I imitated her from “Unsinkable Molly Brown.” From the time I was a child imitated all the greats and acted them out in our living room. She was bubbly and very petite. She could still tap dance well and do difficult time steps and riffs. She seemed shocked that younger people knew of her work – very humble.
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I dug up an old story that Bee arts writer David Hale wrote about Ms. Reynolds, who was 65 at the time. It includes a poignant closing quotation. Here it is, dated Nov. 23, 1997:
REYNOLDS HARDLY THE RETIRING TYPE
By David Hale
You gotta love Debbie Reynolds. You’ve heard they’re referring to her these days as the queen of comebacks – mainly because she’s once again a highly marketable entertainer, 30 years past the heyday of the movie musicals and the great headliner nights of Las Vegas with which she is identified.
You know, of course, that just months ago she was in the running for an Academy Award for her title role in last year’s “Mother,” and that she’s currently winning critical praise as Kevin Kline’s mother in “In & Out.” She’s also winning a new generation of fans as a nightclub personality and concert artist.
Nostalgia, her own as well as that of others, is a key element of her enduring popularity as a “live” entertainer and a staple of the show she presents in concerts such as the one she will offer tonight in Saroyan Theatre for the benefit of the Lively Arts Foundation.
Her show, she said, is essentially a labor of love, a variety show she presents in the style of the classic solo acts of another time:
“I’m a combination of Sophie Tucker and Jimmy Durante,” she said. “I loved what George Burns said: “If you get paid for what you do, you’re very blessed.”
Some things have changed since the 1960-1980s, when Reynolds typically spent as much as 40 weeks a year on the road.
“Years ago, we had nine dancers and three singers, and all of us had huge orchestras,” she said. “But times have changed. It’s too expensive and too difficult.” She also employed several writers.
Reynolds is the consummate professional, one of the most artful and dependable entertainers around.
Today, Reynolds mainly depends on her own comedic instincts. Instead of hiring an orchestra, she relies on recorded accompaniment, augmented by what she calls “a Tony Bennett trio.”
But the basic appeal of her show has not diminished: Reynolds is the consummate professional, one of the most artful and dependable entertainers around.
She’s likely to open with some original lyrics acknowledging the well-known nature of her roller-coaster life: “Good times and bad times, I’ve seen them all. I’m still here.” She’s apt to acknowledge the passing of time by introducing herself to younger audience members as “Princess Leia’s mother.”
Anecdotes about her experiences will be interspersed with singing, usually to clips from her movie hits. The selections range from the vintage “Three Little Words, “ one of her early movies from 1950 in which she sang (at age 16) “I Want to be Loved by You”; to “Two Weeks With Love, “ memorable for her duet with Carlton Carpenter of “Abba Dabba Honeymoon”; to “The Unsinkable Mollie Brown, “ showing her singing “I’ll Never Say No”; to, of course, “Singin’ in the Rain, “ in which she sang and danced with Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor.
Reynolds credits her well-known talent as an impressionist to her “perfect ear.” She showcases her skill at observation with takes on Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis and Barbra Streisand. Perhaps surprising, she also injects country music with bits on Willie Nelson and Crystal Gayle, reflecting her appearances in the Midwest’s country-music capital, Branson, Mo.
In Las Vegas, Reynolds performs five nights a week in her own namesake hotel-casino. Taking to the road on weekends to do concerts and charitable events is her notion of taking a break.
She loves working the 400-seat club at home, a room so intimate and close to the audience that “it’s like having them right in my own den.”
What keeps her touring to municipal auditoriums and clubs elsewhere (besides, candidly, the money), she said, is loyalty to her fans.
“I’ve always found live performing more rewarding than film,” she said. “People are so good to me. They enjoy me, they’re right there and their response is immediate.”
At 65, Reynolds’ life, personal as well as professional, is on a roll – again.
She’s an independent woman, free for the first time in many years of marital entanglements to run her own life and her multi-faceted business career.
She juggles her search for additional movie roles (as the “interesting woman of dimension” like “Mother” and her latest in “Zack and Reba, “due out in a few months) with the challenges of keeping up the hotel-casino.
The passion closest to her heart involves another recent achievement – her life’s dream, a museum of movie history that opened two years ago on her Las Vegas property. Named (what else?) the Hollywood Movie Museum, it is a not-for-profit shrine to the movies of the 1940s-1960s - the only institution of its kind in the country. It is filled with costumes, props, furniture and other movie memorabilia valued at more than $10 million. Reynolds began collecting the horde in the 1960s.
“I always wanted to save the history of motion pictures,” she said. “I started collecting in the 1960s when MGM started disposing of all the old costumes and props. They were just throwing it away. That was just heartbreaking. I bought a lot of it and just kept collecting whenever I could afford it.”
It’s a very large collection (much of it kept in warehouse-scale storage). But though Hollywood memorabilia is in greater demand for restaurants and other public watering-holes, none of it will go on the market.
“It’s not for sale, it’s for the people,” she said.
Asked to assess her life, Reynolds became absolutely poetic: “I’ve walked along many paths and enjoyed them all,” she said. But it’s no surprise that she doesn’t plan to spend the rest of it strolling memory lane.
“When I was 18, I thought I’d work until my 30s, “ she said. “When I was 50, I thought it would be 55. Now, I figure one day I’ll just drop dead on stage and be stuffed, like Trigger.”