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WHEN DEBBIE DID WATERGATE


I sat down to talk with Debbie Reynolds for The New York Times one late night in the winter of 1973. The setting for our chat was The Watergate, the Washington hotel famed for playing unwitting host to Nixonian thugs, thieves, spies and conspirators. It was clear from the start that Debbie was not quite her usual perky self. --GUY FLATLEY

“Somebody told me there’s an informer in the company,” sighs Debbie Reynolds, like a Girl Scout whose cookies have crumbled. “But I don’t even want to think about that."

It’s midnight at the Watergate hotel, and Debbie is so drained and droopy and downright sleepy from a fiendishly hard day’s night with “Irene” that even if her room is bugged and a spy hiding under the bed, no one is likely to get much inside dope from her.

Yet, somewhere along the line, if not everywhere along the line, there have been embarrassing leaks to the press. In fact, ever since the night of November 29, rumors have been running riot. That was the fateful night in Toronto which marked the beginning of the tortuous tryout tour of “Irene” – the 1919 musical comedy that will finally bring Debbie to Broadway on March 13, for the first time in her 24 peppy years in showbiz. From the start of the tour, there were cries and whispers of onstage blunders and backstage bitchery. And the tales of devious doings – and un-doings – grew more and more intense as “Irene” puffed its way to Philadelphia, postponed its New York opening, and spun dizzily about in a whirlwind of revisions in Washington.

Debbie Reynolds, former Girl Scout, former “boop-boop-a-doop” girl, former “Tammy” girl, former loyal-little-wife-jilted-by-Eddie Fisher-for-Liz Taylor girl, one-time Life magazine cover girl – is now an intrepid 40-year-old trouper, out to prove that her brand of wholesome bounce can knock ‘em dead on the wicked White Way. The out-of-town turmoil has been more than she bargained for, however, and late at night in her hotel room, the strain shows. She’s down to a frazzled 98 pounds, there are deep fatigue circles beneath her pretty blue eyes, and she has barely enough energy to lift a cigarette to her lips or pour a glass of wine. And she doesn’t exactly perk up at the mention of the coverage “Irene” has received in the press.

“I guess the show is hot copy, but I haven’t read any of those articles about the troubles we’re supposed to be having,” she says, massaging her tired toes. It’s been a killer of a day – beginning in the morning with backbreaking rehearsals and rushing furiously forward through a matinee and an evening performance, replete with chunks of revised dialogue and a tricky new production number requiring Debbie to dance atop a row of player pianos and spring joyously into the outstretched arms of the nervous chorus. “I did start to read one article, but it was so full of lies that I stopped in the middle. When you’re working this hard, it tends to break you down to read untruths. You don’t need outside sources who are striving to be cruel.”

Forgetting for a moment the more far-fetched of the rumors – such as the one about Debbie complaining bitterly that a minor player was dancing too well, and the one about the show getting ready to post its closing notice in Washington, despite having raked in over $1-million on the road – one must still face certain painful facts. For example, Billy De Wolfe – tailor-made for the part of prissy couturier Madame Lucy – withdrew from the cast, alleging poor health. And there was the undeniable upset of seeing the out-of-town critics fail to confirm the producers’ fervent belief that they had another “No, No, Nanette” on their hands.

Then there was that traumatic, precedent-shattering evening in Toronto when Debbie decided the show must go on, even though she had laryngitis and could barely croak her songs, and the director, Sir John Gielgud, was obliged to stand on stage reading her lines to an aghast audience. Later, in the midst of the Philadelphia panic, Harry Rigby, the most impassioned of “Irene’s” three producers, chewed out Sir John for being disobedient and restoring cuts which Rigby had made. Then Joseph Stein, responding to a frantic SOS for a play doctor, began scissoring and stitching Hugh Wheeler’s adaptation of the creaky book. And finally – to the apparent astonishment of Sir John – it was announced that a television commitment in London necessitated his being replaced by Gower Champion.

“I refuse to become part of this gossip,” says Debbie in answer to a question about columnist Joyce Haber’s claim that the vivacious star had been throwing super-vivacious tantrums to signify her displeasure with Sir John’s interpretation of “Irene.” “I was aware of problems with the production, and I thought we might need somebody to oversee things. What neither Sir John nor I realized at the beginning was that for a musical you must have a musical director. But I adore Sir John! We never fought and I never thought he would be leaving the show.

“I did call Gower Champion in Malibu, where he was sitting peacefully in the sun, to ask him if he could come to Philadelphia, look at the show and give me some advice. I never dreamed he could stay with the show, because he was supposed to start directing the movie version of ‘The Fantasticks.’ But since ‘Irene’ is a show about an Irish girl, I think there must be a saint watching over us, because Gower’s movie was delayed and he did stay. And the morale of the show picked up right away.

“There are constant changes. We’re doing a new opening, a new finale, adding songs, dropping songs. I’m on my toes so much I feel like a ballerina. You have to try new things until you find what works best. ‘That’s why you’re on the road, Debbie,’ they keep telling me. Then, when we get to New York, we’ll be opening a brand-new theater – the Minskoff – and we don’t know what problems we’ll run into there. That’s why we’ll be previewing for two weeks instead of one.”

Another New York problem may be getting jaded critics to buy a musical antique about a poor but spunky colleen from Ninth Avenue who succeeds in melting the icy heart of a Long Island business tycoon. “This show is going to be difficult to review. It’s not a rock show, it’s not a sock-bam type of musical. It was written in 1919, which was a very soft era – just after the first World War, when everyone was so happy to have the boys back home. The show has its noisy moments, but it also has a love story that is sweet and simple.

“A lot of people are tired of shows with messages, and – like me – they enjoy seeing a warm show about a warm relationship. My approach to entertainment has always been to make people forget their troubles and enjoy the evening. Perhaps I’m a bit provincial in my thinking, but isn’t that what entertainers are supposed to do? If the critics judge the show on that basis, they’ll enjoy it, but if they ask more of it…well, we’ll soon know. One thing that might work against me on Broadway is the fact that I come from Hollywood. I hope that I’ll be judged by my talent, not by my environment.”
Actually, Debbie’s own rags-to-riches story, which puts “Irene’s” to shame, did not begin in Hollywood. It began in El Paso, Texas, during the Depression, and there were 11 members in the Reynolds family: Debbie, her brother, her parents, her grandparents and her mother’s much younger brothers and sisters. They lived in a one-bedroom house and when there was meat on the table, it was more than likely to be rabbit-and-bean stew. Luckily, Debbie’s father, a carpenter, moved his family to California when Debbie was 8, and by the time she was a baton-twirling 16, she had won the Miss Pasadena contest. Part of her prize was a screen test at Warner Brothers.

“Jack Warner put me into ‘The Daughter of Rosie O’Grady,’ starring June Haver, and he changed my name from Mary Frances to Debbie, a name which I have always found difficult to grow with. Debbie is such an ingenue name, but I can hardly change it now, can I?”

By coincidence, Debbie’s 16-year-old daughter, Carrie Fisher – the sweetness-and-light image of her mother in “The Daughter of Rosie O’Grady” – will be making her Broadway debut in the chorus of “Irene.” (That's mom and daughter in an old photo, at left.) “I’m not a stage mother – I didn’t give Carrie dancing lessons at the age of 2. But I think it’s wonderful she wants to be in show business. I consider my years in the business to be an enrichment, and I’m delighted to still be a part of it.”

In the early days at Warners, however, Debbie was not so sure she wanted to go on with the show. “I was very confused and unhappy. I wanted to be in school, to go to basketball games and dances. I wanted to be a gym teacher. But there was no one to advise me. My family didn’t know anything about show business – they were railroad people and farmers and hard workers.”

If it made her so sad, why did she stick to being a starlet? “Because they paid me $65 a week -- $27 clear. To my family, that was a fortune. My father was getting $225 a month, and many things were needed.”

Jack Warner soon dropped Debbie, but Louis B. Mayer picked her up and put her in “Three Little Words,” a 1950 MGM musical in which she played the small but flashy part of Helen Kane. “I had to get up at 4 in the morning and take 3 buses to be at Culver City by 7 for make-up. But I felt at home at MGM. I felt like the baby in the family, because that’s the way they treated me.

“Mr. Mayer used to give a speech to the cast and crew every morning. ‘We’re just one big family here,’ he’d say, ‘all working together.’ He always ate in the commissary with the people, and there was laughter and gaiety. I suppose it was like the gayness that comes before a depression, but the atmosphere in those days was happy and warm and friendly.

“Mr. Mayer may have had his other side – you know, the monster, the tyrant – but if he did, I never saw it. He was the one who wanted me in ‘Singin’ in the Rain’; nobody else did. He was a great chief, and he knew how to build stars. But they got rid of him and Dore Schary took over. Dore only wanted to make message pictures, but he never got my message.”

One message Debbie had difficulty deciphering was the message that her husband Eddie Fisher – with whom she shared one of the most fabled romances of the fifties – was madly in love with Liz Taylor, another dazzling product of the MGM factory. “That’s an old story,” Debbie says abruptly. “I’m sure you don’t want to talk about that now.”

Well, it would be interesting to know if Fisher, down on his luck of late, will make it to the opening of “Irene” – if not to see Debbie, then to see his daughter Carrie. “I don’t think so. He’s seen her in my act in Vegas, where she has more to do. Carrie has a wonderful voice; that’s Eddie’s gift to her.”

But doesn’t Debbie have a pretty wonderful voice, too?

“Let’s face it, I will not go down in history as one of the great singers in show business. I have an adequate voice, but I don’t have a sound. When you listen to Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett or Eddie Fisher, you’re hearing a sound. Eddie has a fine talent, and I’m sure things will get better for him.”

If Debbie is bitter about the break-up of her first marriage, she doesn’t show it. “There never was any bitterness. Any divorced couple that doesn’t have a friendly relationship – when there are children involved – is crazy.”

For the past 13 years, Debbie has been the wife of Harry Karl, who made his millions in the shoe business and who is described by Debbie as “a great humanitarian and philanthropist. He is marvelous with the children, a very giving person. And since he has his own career, there are no conflicts. Which is as deep as I get on the subject of my marriage.”

How wild is Harry about Debbie’s devotion to her career?

“He married me, didn’t he?”

To prove he doesn’t mind mixing show business and shoe business, Harry will leave his Beverly Hills mansion behind and make Manhattan his home for the year that Debbie is committed to “Irene.” In fact, Debbie has already rented a town house and will soon be shopping around for schools for Carrie and for Todd, her 15-year-old son by Fisher.

Once Debbie has said her final goodnight to “Irene,” will she go on to say good morning to movies? “I’d be thrilled if a good movie came up, but there just don’t seem to be any parts for my kind of actress today. When you’ve worked as hard as I have to develop your craft, you don’t feel that you should suddenly have to qualify as a hooker or a stripper. None of the great sex-symbol stars ever posed in the nude, except Marilyn – when she was starving.”

Does that mean Debbie won’t dig “Last Tango in Paris?”

“I’m a great fan – and friend – of Brando’s, but from what I’ve read, I won’t like the subject matter of ‘Last Tango in Paris,’ ” Debbie says, almost apologetically. “But I’m sure my daughter will see it, and she can tell me all about it.”

 

TO READ GUY FLATLEY'S 1977 INTERVIEW WITH CARRIE FISHER, CLICK HERE.