Debbie Reynolds

“I had a normal life; we didn’t meet movie stars. We lived in Texas, where you had rollerskates–and if you got a bicycle, that was a very big gift.” –Debbie Reynolds

Debbie Reynolds was an American actress, singer, and businesswoman, with a career that lasted nearly 70 years. Best known for her portrayal of Kathy Selden in Singin’ in the Rain (1952), she would go on to deliver many more notable stage and screen performances.

Mary Frances Reynolds was born in El Paso, Texas, on April 1, 1932. Her parents were Maxene “Minnie” Harman and Souther Pacific Railroad carpenter Raymond Francis “Ray” Reynolds. Maxene took in laundry for additional income. Reynolds was raised in the Nazarene church, along with her older brother, William.

As a tomboyish child, Reynolds was a Girl Scout, a member of the International Order of Job’s Daughters, and enjoyed playing the French horn. Her family moved to Burbank, California, in 1939, where Reynolds attended Burbank High School. While there, she won the Miss Burbank beauty contest, where was spotted by Warner Bros. and MGM talent scouts. Both studios wanted to offer her a contract but Warner Bros. won that fateful coin toss and she was subsequently offered a contract with the studio. Additionally, she was given the stage name of “Debbie” by the studio’s head, Jack Warner.

Once Warner Bros. stopped producing musicals, Reynolds made the move to MGM, where she regularly appeared in musicals throughout the 1950s, in addition to releasing several recordings. Her rendition of “Aba Daba Honeymoon” with Carleton Carpenter from Two Weeks with Love (1950) was the first soundtrack recording to become a gold record chart-topper. She would soon follow this appearance with one of her strongest performances in Singin’ in the Rain (1952) alongside Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor.

In 1955, Reynolds married singer Eddie Fisher, with whom she would have two children: Carrie and Todd Fisher. They divorced in 1959, when Fisher had an affair with actress Elizabeth Taylor.

Some of Reynolds’s additional successes were in Bundle of Joy (1956), with then-husband Eddie Fisher, Tammy and the Bachelor (1957), How the West Was Won (1962), The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964), and The Singing Nun (1966). Her performance in The Unsinkable Molly Brown led to an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress.

Reynolds later married businessman Harry Karl in 1960. During this period, she reduced her time at the studio to attend Girl Scout meetings, since she led the troop to which Carrie and her stepdaughter, Tina Karl, belonged. Soon, Reynolds was in financial trouble due to Karl’s gambling issues and poor investments. They divorcred in 1973. Reynolds would marry for the last time to real estate developer Richard Hamlett, with th emarriage lasting from 1984 to 1996.

In the years to follow, Reynolds focused on her music career and cabaret shows. She performed songs and celebrity impersonations–harkening back to when she won Miss Burbank by impersonating Betty Hutton–and continued to record albums. She also made stage appearances in a revival of Irene, a touring company of Annie Get Your Gun, Woman of the Year, and a stage version of The Unsinkable Molly Brown, among many other stage performances. Reynolds would also open her own dance studio in North Hollywood. In 2010, she performed in her own West End show, Debbie Reynolds: Alive and Fabulous.

As the years went on, Reynolds appeared on television in person as well as through voiceover work. She provided the voice of Charlotte the spider in the animated film Charlotte’s Web (1973) as well as the voice of the grandmother in Rugrats. She would also appear as Bobbi Adler in Will & Grace, Aggie Cromwell in the Disney Channel’s Halloweentown films, and in the Carrie Fisher-written television film These Old Broads (2001). Reynolds’s final film role was as Liberace’s mother in Behind the Candelabra (2013).

Reynolds was especially close to her children, Todd and Carrie. She appeared with her daughter in the documentary Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds (2016).

Throughout her career, Reynolds acquired a large collection of film memorabilia, especially during the 1970 MGM auction. She displayed them in a museum at her Las Vegas hotel in the 1990s and, later, in another museum in Los Angeles. Reynolds’s dream was to open a large museum to house her collection in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Unfortunately, the developer declared bankruptcy. Struggling financially and receiving no interest in her collection from other institutions, Reynolds sold what she believed was her most valuable asset: her collection. Her series of Profiles in History auctions included posters, costume sketches, props, and more. Among her items were Charlie Chaplin’s hat, Marilyn Monroe’s white subway dress, and numerous other iconic film-related artifacts.

Carrie suffered a medical emergency on December 23, 2016, and died at age 60 on December 27, 2016, at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. The next day, Reynolds was taken to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles after suffering a stroke. She passed away that afternoon on December 28, 2016, at age 84. According to Todd, she “just left to be with Carrie.”

Reynolds was entombed at Forest Lawn Memorial Park–Hollywood Hills. Part of Carrie’s ashes were also laid to rest next to Reynolds’s crypt during a joint memorial service for Reynolds and Carrie.

Today, Reynolds is remembered in many different ways. Reynolds’s birthplace, El Paso Masonic Hospital, no longer stands. It was closed in 1946 and razed to make way for a Sears store.

She then came home to 3117 N. Piedras St., El Paso, Texas, which no longer stands. Reynolds and her family would move throughout the El Paso area, even staying with her maternal grandparents at 815 N. San Marcial in El Paso. The home remains today.

The family then lived at 2208 Erie in El Paso and, later, 705 Magnolia St in El Paso–both of which are long gone.

In 1940, she lived at 1120 Pleasant View Ave., Los Angeles, California, which no longer stands.

Her alma mater, Burbank High School, stands at 902 N 3rd St, Burbank, California.

By 1953, she resided at 1034 N. Evergreen St., Burbank, California, which stands today.

The home she shared with Eddie Fisher stands at 324 Conway Ave., Los Angeles, California.

Her Palm Springs home at 757 E. Racquet, Palm Springs, California, also remains today.

Her cottage-style home at 11595 La Maida St., North Hollywood, California, also exists today.

Reynolds is honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 7021 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, California, and with the Golden Palm Star in Palm Springs, California.

Her handprints and footprints can be visited in the TCL Chinese Theatre forecourt.

The Debbie Reynolds Dance Studio was demolished in 2019.

While Reynolds could get no support from Hollywood elites and organizations, suddenly the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Museum has expressed an interest in her collection–years after her passing. They have since been in touch with Todd, who has loaned them one piece: Gregg Toland’s Bausch and Lomb Baltar lenses. Feeling that his mother would not want to hold a grudge, Todd intends to loan more of her pieces for display, so long as the Debbie Reynolds Conservation Studio remains at the museum.

While this is an interesting development in the Reynolds legacy, her fans also argue that it is too little too late. At this point, her collection has been dispersed all over the world to private collectors and other institutions. I happen to have one piece that came from her collection: Joe E. Brown‘s suit from Shut My Big Mouth (1942).

Forest Lawn Memorial Park–Hollywood Hills is located at 6300 Forest Lawn Dr, Los Angeles, California.

Reynolds deserves to be celebrated for her many on-screen achievements, bet even more so for her foresight in working to preserve film history when almost no one saw value in it. We partly have her to thank for securing and preserving so many notable pieces from classic cinema, museum or not.

About Annette Bochenek

Dr. Annette Bochenek of Chicago, Illinois, is an avid scholar of Hollywood’s Golden Age. She manages the Hometowns to Hollywood blog, in which she writes about her trips exploring the legacies and hometowns of Golden Age stars. Annette also hosts the “Hometowns to Hollywood” film series throughout the Chicago area. She has been featured on Turner Classic Movies and is the president of TCM Backlot’s Chicago chapter. In addition to writing for TCM Backlot, she also writes for Classic Movie Hub, Silent Film Quarterly, Nostalgia Digest, and Chicago Art Deco Society Magazine.
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2 Responses to Debbie Reynolds

  1. Vienna says:

    Superb tribute. thank you. Such a shame Debbie’s unique MGM collection could not survive intact.

  2. Jess Ilse says:

    Loved this article on Debbie Reynolds. Her movies have meant so much to me, it’s nice to see the places she called home.

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