Debbie Reynolds keeps the show going with one-woman performance


Twenty minutes.

That was all the time allotted to talk to Debbie Reynolds about her upcoming one-woman show today through Sunday at the newly renovated Strand Theater in Zelienople.

Oh, but how to comply, when it's an interview with one of the perkiest movie sweethearts of the 1950s, whose first starring role, at 17, was in what might be the greatest musical of Hollywood's golden age; who then starred in real life as the wronged wife when her husband ran off with the most beautiful woman in the world; whose own daughter, even, played Princess Leia in one of the most successful movies of all time.

"One guy was on the phone with her for an hour and twenty minutes," said her assistant, Jenny Aiavolasiti. "She was too nice to tell him to shut it down. She's very old school that way."

A few days later, at the agreed upon time, Reynolds is on the phone.

And she is sounding very old school.

"It's WONDERFUL," Reynolds says, somewhat grandly, when asked why she is coming to Zelienople, "that a theater" (pronounced theahtuh) "is opening and not closing. These are not wonderful times now so we're thrilled to be part of the opening of a theater, we're thrilled and looking forward to it."

'An Evening of Music and Comedy Starring Debbie Reynolds'
  • Where: The Strand Theater, 119 North Main St., Zelienople
  • When: Today through Sat. 8 p.m.; Sun. 2 p.m.
  • Tickets: $75; 724-742-0400 or

She's not the only one. A group of Zelienople business people and residents has been working for eight years to revive the 95-year-old Strand, which will be used for live performances, film presentations and lectures. So far, $1.5 million has been spent on the renovation, with two more phases planned, spokesman Ron Carter said.

Reynolds will launch the venerable old theater in style, Mr. Carter added, noting that she has just come off a four-week stint at the ultra-luxe Cafe Carlyle in New York. While some of the reviews noted her voice was a bit wobbly, the 77-year-old actress did get props from the New York media for her candor and acerbity -- qualities also frequently ascribed to her writer/actress daughter, Carrie Fisher -- as she surveyed the wreckage of her marriages and some of her more ludicrous film performances ("Aba daba honeymoon," anyone?) with amusement and some disgust.

During this interview, though, she plays it relatively straight, noting that she sings along with film clips "which is great fun for the audience."

"I do impressions, which are Bette Davis, Mae West, Katharine Hepburn and Barbra Streisand and I do Zsa Zsa Gabor teaching Paris Hilton how to slap a cop and stay out of jail. Paris Hilton is her grand-niece, you know."

Debbie Reynolds impersonating Barbra Streisand? The mind reels.

No matter: Let's cut to the chase here. What was it really like working with the great Gene Kelly in "Singin' in the Rain?"

Apparently, not so great: She was foisted on Kelly by the legendary Louis B. Mayer, and when Kelly asked about her dance experience, she told him, "I don't dance."

She had three months to learn, with the best teachers in the world: Gwen Verdon and Carol Haney, among others, but Kelly was a tough taskmaster. "Gene could come in and see each day, he would approve or disapprove or tell me if I was doing well or if I wasn't. Mostly, he'd say 'not good enough,' so I'd practice harder. I was frightened to death of him."

In those pre-freeway days, the drive from her home in Burbank to Culver City was two and a half hours, and "I had bought an old car at that time for $15 and my daddy redid it so altogether it cost $50 and had a stick shift and a clutch ... I had to get up every day at 3:30 or 4 a.m. to be in makeup by 6 and start shooting by 8:15. Gene Kelly always wanted the first shot 'in the can,' as he called it, by 8:30 or 9 a.m. And we worked until 11 at night. They had a little dressing room for me and I would just sleep on the floor with a pillow and a blanket so I would be there in the morning a little more easily than driving two hours each way. But it was a little scary. It was a big lot, and I was only 17."

Only 17 -- and completely innocent, which was why, when they were shooting the last scene, she ran off to her dressing room in tears after the 40-year-old Kelly gave her a big French kiss.

"He gave me a very mature kiss," she said demurely. "I was a young girl, and I was shocked and stopped the scene and pulled away and wouldn't go on, you know, and finally he had to kiss me square on the lips or I wouldn't do it," she added, laughing -- no, guffawing at the memory. "He was a little upset with that, but I was a very inexperienced young girl."

OK, she couldn't dance and she couldn't kiss, but, the movie made her a star, and today, Reynolds is an unabashed movie buff who has been trying since 1970 to transform her vast Hollywood memorabilia into a museum, a project that has been plagued with lawsuits and various other delays but is now on track to open soon in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. Her knowledge about film trivia apparently prompted Michael Jackson -- a friend of her daughter, who she'd never met -- to call her once.

"One time he called my house phone and there was this message when I came home, and he said, 'This is Michael Jackson and I'm watching this movie and it's with Carole Lombard, and I want to know, was she a wonderful person?' He loved old movies. But he didn't leave a number and I couldn't call him back. But there was that soft sweet little voice. He couldn't sleep really well and I guess he called me -- I guess Carrie told him how much I loved the movies and how much I knew about the movies. So I asked for his number but nobody gives out Michael's number and I told them, well, he called me and he wanted to know about Carole Lombard and ..." her voice trails off. "I never really did get to talk to him about it."

Whoops. The 20 minutes are up. Reynolds sounds almost relieved and grateful when reminded of it, but ever the show biz veteran, puts in one last plug for her show for charity (The Thalians, which has raised $36 million for mental health programs for children), her museum and her daughter, whose dog she is baby-sitting while Carrie Fisher tours her new show, "Wishful Drinking," prior to its Broadway opening.

"I think it's really important to not stop what you love to do, and I love to perform and as long as I can, I want to do that, because there will come a day when I'm no longer able to. I don't have any desire to retire, I never was a golfer, so when I stop I just want it to happen naturally."

Mackenzie Carpenter can be reached at or 412-263-1949. First Published July 23, 2009 4:00 AM


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