At 77, Debbie Reynolds is a rare member of a unique sorority of unsinkable stage performers that decades after receiving their AARP cards are still getting their act together and taking it on the road.
On April 29, following engagements in Coral Springs, Oklahoma City, Seattle, and the new South Point Casino in Las Vegas, Reynolds will bring her latest nightclub revue, “Debbie Reynolds: An Evening of Music and Comedy,” to the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood for nine performances through May 10. (After the El Portal, Debbie will spend a month at the prestigious Carlyle Hotel in New York City entertaining at the Cafe Carlyle.)
“Coming to the El Portal is like coming home,” Reynolds said with obvious fondness, speaking from her hilltop home on Mulholland Drive. “When I was a little girl we lived 12 blocks from the theatre. I rode my bicycle there. It cost a dime to get in and I’d stay there all weekend. It was like a second home to me.”
That was in the early 1940’s. In those days she was still Mary Frances Reynolds, the daughter of a Southern Pacific railroad worker who brought his family out from El Paso, TX and settled them in the wilds of the San Fernando Valley— a landscape dominated by cattle ranches and orange groves. They lived in a small house her father helped build at 1054 N. Evergreen Ave. in Burbank, which, Reynolds said, is miraculously still there.
World War II had been over for two years when 16-year old Mary Frances was crowned “Miss Burbank.” Winning the crown also landed her the screen test that launched her film career.
But it was in 1952 that Reynolds first appeared as a star in the Hollywood firmament. Renamed Debbie (by studio mogul, Jack Warner) she sparkled alongside Gene Kelly and Donald O’Conner in “Singin’ in the Rain.” Three years later she married teen heartthrob Eddie Fisher, only to be jilted by him in 1959 when Fisher scandalously cast her aside for Elizabeth Taylor. In those days there were no tabloids or TMZ –but the world all knew about Debbie, Eddie and Elizabeth.
The next year she made her all-singing, all-dancing nightclub debut on “The Strip” in Las Vegas. But the real goal of her show, Reynolds said, was to score the lead in the film version of “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.”
“I wanted to prove that I could easily play a boisterous wild lady,” she said. “So I decided to put a show together with Bob Sidney who had put acts together for Mitzi Gaynor, Cyd Charisse and Ginger Rogers. This was during the era when performers like Jack Benny, Judy Garland and Danny Kaye were all on stage in Las Vegas. And, of course there was ‘The Rat Pack’ gang. I performed for many years at the Riviera and (Howard Hughes’) Desert Inn.
“Unlike today,” Reynolds explained, “every hotel had a house band of between 24-27 players. MGM musicals were the models for the shows. We would recreate the big famous numbers we liked and put them all together. We had elaborate sets with grand staircases. The hotels used to give us $90,000 to put the acts together. There’s none of that anymore,” she said wistfully. “It’s long gone. I miss those days. I wish we could have it all back.
“Now we work in a much smaller fashion for smaller theaters. But they’re still great shows,” she said enthusiastically, “with lots of great music people recognize, can tap their feet to, and sing along with.”
The show she’s bringing to the El Portal, she said, is meant to be decidedly casual. “I expect my neighbors to come and my girl scouts to come. It’s meant to be a get together. That’s how I think of it. We’ll talk and chat and sing and dance. And I’ll do impressions. I’ll do Barbra Streisand, and Jimmy Stewart, Mae West and Peter Lorre, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Katharine Hepburn.”
And what about a few words of wisdom? And some juicy stuff? “I’ve learned a lot over the years, and I talk a lot about that,” Reynolds said. “But it will all be for fun. I’ve learned to give audiences what they want— the music and songs they know. People want to laugh and get out of their troubles and have a good time. They don’t want to be preached at. They want to be entertained. That’s why the theme of the evening is, “Let Me Entertain You.”
And does she have any advice for aging with style? “You have to stay in condition. And that requires real discipline. You need to exercise and eat properly and stay in control of yourself. You’re not allowed to become totally crazy. But if you’re in show business, you’re crazy already,” she exclaimed with a boisterous Molly Brown laugh.