Two years ago, Debbie Reynolds was 40 and Hollywood’s oldest ingenue. She could not find a suitable movie role, had flunked a TV series and seemed to be stuck for the rest of her performing days in the lucrative but limited Las Vegas club circuit. With the glory days of Tammy long past and the scandal of losing husband Eddie Fisher to Elizabeth Taylor reduced to a Hollywood footnote, Debbie faced the slow fade-out of her 22-year career. To make matters worse, her 12-year marriage to Harry Karl, the shoe magnate, was on the rocks. The 1970s were going to be cruel for Debbie Reynolds.
Today at 42, she is the biggest legitimate theater draw in America and a whole new career has opened up for her. When nostalgia nabob Harry Rigby, producer of No, No, Nanette, came to Debbie with the idea of reviving the 1919 musical Irene, she was understandably skeptical. She had never played Broadway and was still too young for the kind of middle-aged comeback triumph that Rigby’s other leading ladies—Ruby Keeler and later Alice Faye in Good News—have scored. Debbie also had her children, Carrie and Todd Fisher, to consider before uprooting them and moving to New York. She took a year to make a decision—the best of her performing life, as it turned out.
After a bumpy break-in tour during which original Irene director John Gielgud was dropped, the show opened in New York in March, 1973 with only one real commercial rave. That was from Richard Nixon, who saw the show in Washington and said, “People are tired of that way-out stuff—this is a lot of fun.” The critics were less kind. “Debbie is a model of cool, scrubbed-up efficiency, rather reminiscent of the Old Dutch cleanser ads,” one complained. Only the public loved the show. Debbie recited a pat curtain speech every night and patiently signed autographs, sometimes for an hour.
Once on Broadway, Debbie’s Irene grossed more per week than any musical in history (averaging $146,000), topping even Katharine Hepburn’s Coco. When Debbie took a six-month leave to play Vegas and the London Palladium this year, Irene with Debbie’s old MGM co-star Jane Powell continued to thrive, largely on the momentum of its original leading lady. In September Debbie returned to Irene for a cross-country tour which shattered box-office figures in Chicago, Dallas and points west. “She wiped out Carol Channing’s Hello, Dolly record,” says one of Irene’s associates of the tour, “and everyone knows Carol always runs off to be the local TV weather girl whenever she’s in town to help promote her show. Debbie just played it straight.”
Debbie has now settled down for a triumphant two-month run in her adopted home town of Los Angeles (she was born in El Paso but moved to Burbank when she was 8). Producer Rigby explains her appeal this way: “She is really the older daughter of middle America. They see her as their own. They watched her grow up.” Not known for modesty, Debbie is also generous in her praise of her coworkers. “It is true what one critic said about Irene—the book wouldn’t tax the mind of an Airedale puppy, but we hold it all together with energy and Gower Champion’s staging. The audiences love the old songs, the great dances and seeing pros like Patsy Kelly.”
If Irene indeed is perfect escapism, it has certainly eased Debbie through a difficult period in her life. “Of course, I have problems, serious problems,” she says. “I mean nobody is dying of cancer, but I have a lot to handle. Todd, Carrie, my stepdaughter Tina. They are growing up fast. I’ve been on the road two years with no permanent home—it’s tough.” Being back in Los Angeles has been helpful. “Todd is 16 and his friends are here and he can finish high school with them.”
Stories of a rift between mother and daughter, Carrie, now turned a beautiful 18, are not true, says Debbie. “It all started with that movie she made with Warren Beatty (Shampoo). She had to use one dirty word; yes, the big one. I would have preferred something else. I mean for me ‘damn’ is a big word, but for the kids today language doesn’t mean much.”
Carrie made her professional debut in Debbie’s nightclub act when she was 14 and last summer in London nearly stole the Palladium show from her mother. She is now enrolled in a London drama school because, as Debbie says, “I wanted her to have the technical training I never had.”
Debbie also continues to be mother to Harry Karl’s daughter, Tina, age 18, who had her own personal problems. Last April, when Debbie’s closest friend, Agnes Moorehead, died at age 67, rumors circulated about the two women’s relationship. Debbie dismisses them as know-nothing gossip. “In our industry, you can’t be normal. You have to be something odd, or they start making things up. But you can’t fight it either.”
Once the children are grown Debbie will concentrate anew on her professional life. “I’ll probably never marry again,” she says. “I’m not cynical, but I’m careful. Most of all I want to work, whether in theater, movies, TV, clubs or charities. In five or six years I’ll be old enough for character roles. Financially, I have to work in Vegas; there’s still big money there. And it would be nice to film Irene. But I’ll tell you when I can no longer shake a leg; I’ll be the first to know.”