Debbie Reynolds. Photo courtesy of Noreen Heron & Associates
Debbie Reynolds truly does seem unsinkable. That oft-used adjective refers to her greatest film triumph, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, which brought her an Oscar nomination and great acclaim came over 40 years ago. But since then she's had at least nine more lives. There have been professional and personal triumphs and reverses—a movie memorabilia-stuffed Las Vegas casino that nearly did sink her; a resurgence in popularity due to notable movie and TV appearances; and speculation about the authenticity of the troubled mother-daughter relationship in daughter Carrie Fisher's book and film, Postcards from the Edge. But at the ripe young age of 75, Reynolds' energy and enthusiasm for 'the business' hasn't dimmed. Reynolds returns by popular demand to the Chicagoland area for a series of shows at one of her favorite venues, Oak Brook's Drury Lane Theatre on Aug. 2-5.
Windy City Times: From 'Miss Burbank' to Living Legend—here you are some 50 years later still performing. What keeps you going?
Debbie Reynolds: Well, good places and fun places to be [ help ] . I've played the Drury Lane for as long as it's been there—50 years now? I'm sad this time because we won't have Tony Desantis there. He owned and built the Drury Lane and he just passed away last week. It's just a sumptuous theater and I hope nothing happens to make it go away.
WCT: Can you tell me about your show?
DR: My show has Stephen Sondheim music and Gershwin music; I do a film-clip section of four different films that the audience loves. So that's one little section and I also do impressions. I've done those through the years. I used to do Dietrich and Mae West and Phyllis Diller and Pearl Bailey, but the audiences have changed a bit.
WCT: You've always done the best Zsa Zsa Gabor.
DR: I do Zsa Zsa still, only this time I've added that Zsa Zsa was married to Conrad Hilton and she's the great-aunt of Paris Hilton. So I have Zsa Zsa advising Paris how to slap a cop.
WCT: [ Laughs ] That sounds like fun.
DR: That's great fun. She's advising Paris on how to behave. I thought it would be funny to update Zsa Zsa. I also do a tribute to Judy Garland because I loved her and I do a medley of songs from her films. I also do an outtake section of film clips from past movies with Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant and all these great stars. Just clips of mistakes. The audience likes that a lot. They like to laugh; they like to know when I'm reminiscing about stars they know.
WCT: What's some great insider dish that you can share?
DR: [ Laughs ] You mean that's happening now?
WCT: Oh, no, back then—who cares about now. [ Laughs ] I mean I'm a classic movie guy.
DR: A movie buff; me, too. I guess the thing is that they were all my friends, you know, and we kind of all hung out together and went to different parties together. In the old days we used to always have a pianist and everybody sang and everyone got up and did a number. It was just sort of expected of you. Belafonte, Lena Horne, Judy, Mickey Rooney, Van Johnson [ and ] Ethel Merman would get up and sing.
We'd all do a number and it wasn't like we felt we had too. It was like, 'You remember this song? Hey, how about this one?' Instead of going to the backroom and finding a lot of pot, we just entertained and sang and did shows together. We had a lot of fun.
WCT: Someone just told me that a young James Dean came to parties at your house.
DR: He was really quiet and if he came you hardly knew he was there. He'd come on his motorcycle in his blue jeans and you'd just see him puffing his cigarette in the corner having a good time. He was very quiet. He didn't like parties—he only liked them if you didn't notice him and if he could just enjoy himself very surreptitiously just hanging around. He didn't naturally join in the entertaining. And he liked the girls, believe it or not. There are a lot of rumors about Jimmy but he had a real crush on Pier Angeli, who was one of my best girlfriends.
WCT: Some of the male stars of that early 1950s period, like Dean and Farley Granger, were bisexual and liked men and women.
DR: Well, Jimmy did. Farley did. [ Laughs ]
WCT: Which leads me to ask a question for my gay and lesbian audience. You were so terrific in In & Out, playing the mother of a gay son. How do you think you'd have reacted if either of your children—Todd or Carrie—had come to you and said, 'I want you to know I'm gay?'
DR: I love my children and life is what it is. I would just be worried that their lives would be too difficult; there is still some prejudice and some people still think that 'gay' or 'lesbian' is not a good word, so they have difficulty with that. Me, I think that is destiny. It's not as if you go out of your way to be ... you are what you are born. I would love my children the same because to be adored is to be adored—gay or lesbian or straight or heterosexual or homosexual. If everybody would love everybody else we'd be okay in this world. If there wasn't a lot of prejudice and hate going on in the world, we'd be alright.
WCT: I know you've been asked this many times but how close is Postcards from the Edge to the real relationship between yourself and Carrie—speaking to her troubled years.
DR: We're very close. Carrie was a typical teenager. That begins about 13—13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20! And it goes on for quite some years and there are many difficult years just trying to edge them on. Like leading the horse to water but you can't make them drink. They weren't as extreme as in the picture, of course, but she wrote about problems that happened between a mother and a daughter. We had our problems but they weren't terrible—they just were the usual teenage problems.
WCT: Did you ever have that competitive thing when she started becoming so famous due to Star Wars?
DR: No. Show business never entered into it. It was always mother-daughter. It was never actressy. I loved the business and she's very gifted and very funny and a really great writer. All these were gifts from God. She's very fortunate to be so talented and I'm very honored that she has all that wonderful talent and that she can make people happy and be a wonderful writer.
WCT: What's going on with your memorabilia museum that I keep reading about?
DR: We're working on it. It was supposed to have been settled last week with all the permits and we were supposed to start building this week and I'm anxiously on the phone trying to reach people that are very difficult to reach called real estate promoters. The people that are in charge of it are having their problems with the city over permits—parking permits and all kinds of things like that. So detail work is holding it up but it's supposed to be going in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.—near Dolly [ Parton's ] place. It's really going to be terrific if I can ever get it done in my lifetime. I hope I make it.
WCT: I hope so, too. I know this has been your passion for over 30 years.
DR: Yes, a long time.
WCT: Which reminds me—It's been almost 20 years since your first autobiography and so much has happened since then. Are you going to do a second one?
DR: I'm going in to New York to meet with a couple of publishers about rewriting mine and extending it to bring it up to date. I was hoping we'd have the museum on its way so we could have that be the fruition and the tag—you know—that my dream finally came true but I don't have that accomplished yet.
WCT: That's exciting news. I spoke with Patricia Neal recently when she was in town and she told me that she wants her epithet to read, 'I'm still here.' Do you have an idea of what you'd like or a philosophy when you look back over your amazing life?
DR: I go to Forest Lawn and everywhere I travel I go to visit cemeteries because I love them. I love the headstones and my favorite [ belonged to ] a woman and it said, 'I told you I was sick.'
Tickets to Reynolds' show are $38 each. See www.drurylaneoakbrook.com or www.ticketmaster.com/venue/57367/.