Debbie Does New York
Debbie Reynolds makes a long-awaited return to the Big Apple with a new cabaret act at the Café Carlyle.
"I've worked hard to make this act quite different and a lot more sophisticated. I mean, darling, it's the Café Carlyle!" she says. "I've never done a show in a room this intimate, and I'm a little bit worried about it. I'm used to doing theaters with 2,000 seats. When I was last in town, I popped in the Carlyle and I was in shock. It was only 80 seats. I went in and was back outside before I knew it. I'm gonna be really up close and personal."
While she made her name in Hollywood movies like Singin' in the Rain, Tammy and the Bachelor, and The Singing Nun, Reynolds first took the Big Apple by storm in 1973 when she starred in the musical Irene, for which she received a Tony Award nomination as Best Leading Actress. "It was a wonderful experience," she recalls. "I loved my cast, my crew. We became like family. Everyone called me mother!"
She came back to the Great White Way briefly in 1976 in Debbie and then in the early 1980s in Woman of the Year, but sadly, she hasn't been back on the Main Stem since then. "I turned down three great opportunities, but the producers always insisted on me doing eight shows a week, so I had to say no. This performer needs another day to rest!" Still she's thrilled to be back here after such a long absence, since "New York is always so welcoming," she says. (And New York will welcome her in many ways, including inducting her into the Friars' Club on June 15.)
These days, Reynolds isn't in any one place very long -- she is on the road 42 weeks a year. "Touring helps keep me in shape. It's not easy. I have to stay on top of it," she says. "Some of my good fortune comes from family genes. We were very athletic. My brother was a pro ball player. I was always on athletic fields and very fit. In school in Los Angeles, I played on various teams and did bar -- not a drinking bar! -- and baton twirling and trapeze work; I loved gymnastics. I studied hard, hoping to get a scholarship to UCLA. My goal was to be a physical education teacher. Had my parents been able to afford the type of training I needed, I would have trained to become an Olympic gymnast. My goal was never to be in movies. There were no Hollywood dreams."
In fact, her film career came about solely by accident. "On a fluke, I entered the Miss Burbank pageant when I was just 16. I was far from the most glamorous girl. In fact, I wore a swimsuit with a hole in it. And I won! My talent was lip-syncing to a Betty Hutton record. It was one of those things that come along in your life that blow you on a whole new path. It changed everything." A talent scout spotted her and arranged a screen test at Warner Brothers, where she was signed by Jack Warner (who suggested she change her name from Mary Frances Reynolds to Debbie Reynolds).
Working in the studio system was definitely an education, says Reynolds. "I was never consulted about how I might like to do something. You were under contract, told what film you'd do, and directed," she notes. "I was under the tutelage of very talented people, and I was a kid with a lot to learn, which I did. When I wasn't working, I'd come to the studio for dance classes and hang around to learn how to do hair and dress wigs. And every night, Mr. Mayer would get me a projection room and I'd run any movie I wanted."
Her favorite film role -- and the one that earned her an Oscar nomination -- was the title part in the 1964 musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown; in fact, she loved it so much, she later did a touring stage version of the show for two years. "I was in my 60s, and it was then or never. Soon I wouldn't be able to do that kind of difficult dancing," she says. "It took three months to get in shape. We worked on the book at that time, adding a great many wonderful things." (A revised version of the show is now being workshopped for a possible Broadway run.)
Of course, Reynolds is known for more than just her films and stage work, such as her role as Debra Messing's mother in Will and Grace, which earned her an Emmy Award nomination; her famed collection of Hollywood memorabilia, which will soon have a permanent home in a 40,000-square-foot museum in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee (near Dollywood); and her somewhat infamous marriage to the actor Eddie Fisher, which produced her son Todd (who is designing the Tennessee museum), and her daughter, the actress and writer Carrie Fisher (whose show Wishful Drinking is coming to Broadway this fall).
But through good and bad, Reynolds has always been the ultimate trouper. "Life is hard, and laughter helps get you through it," she says. "Thank God, so far, I'm unsinkable. When the times get tough, you just have to get tougher."