When I bought the catalog for the Debbie Reynolds Auction from the Profiles in History auction house, I admit it was with the thought that I just might be able to get down to L.A. for the event itself on June 18. Well, family plans closer to home made that idea a non-starter, but there was still the possibility that I might be able to bid on something by phone or on line. Then a 16mm print came up for auction on eBay that I set my cap for, and it wound up costing more than I expected, though less than I was willing to pay. (Not that you asked, but it’s a kinescope of a 1956 live TV dramatization of Jim Bishop’s The Day Lincoln Was Shot starring Raymond Massey, Lillian Gish and Jack Lemmon.)
So what with one thing and another, my hopes of getting to the auction or of taking home anything from it were not to be.
other hand, if you were daunted by the
$30,000 opening bid, or by the headdress’s
I’m not sure what Debbie’s vision for her museum was; myself, I’d have loved to see something like the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum — now known as the Autry National Center — in Griffith Park. (And by the way, if you thought a “Gene Autry Museum” would amount to little more than a collection of Gene’s old guitars and posters from his movies, think again. It’s a world-class facility honoring every facet of America’s western heritage, and belongs at the top of your must-see list if you’re ever in Los Angeles.) Whatever Debbie’s ideas were, they’ve come to naught, while she’s spent half her life (and apparently all her money) acquiring and properly storing and maintaining umpteen thousand pieces of Hollywood history — and trying to find a home for them.
Frankly, if I were Debbie Reynolds, I’d be mad enough to bite the bumper off a truck. In an interview about the auction with Idaho TV station KIDK, she said, with an air of philosophical resignation, “I’m a fan of all of these great stars and I wanted to save their moment for a museum for the future. I didn’t reach that goal, which makes me sad, but these things will be shared with people that love the stars as much as I do.” In another interview she sounded a little more like I’d probably feel (i.e., testier): “I am really sick and tired of it. I feel that I must call it a day now. Over the years, I have literally spent millions of dollars protecting it and taking care of it. If you were me, wouldn’t you give up after 35 years? There is no other road. I need a little rest from the responsibility of trying to do something it seems that nobody else wants to do. Hopefully everyone will have a good time with their piece.”
All those years haven’t completely gone to waste. The day-to-day operations of Golden Age Hollywood are as over and done as the haggling in an Etruscan marketplace. We may still have the movies — and that ain’t exactly nothin’ — but it won’t do to lose sight of the nuts and bolts that went into building them. Being able to see and study these artifacts (like this gown Debbie wore as she crooned “A Home in the Meadow” in How the West Was Won) gives them a real-world texture and solidity that the movies alone, even HTWWW in all its 7-channel Cinerama glory, could never do.
Without Debbie Reynolds, the items in her collection — Charlie Chaplin’s derby, Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes Inverness cape, Audrey Hepburn’s black-and-white Ascot dress (and Rex Harrison’s clash-matching brown suit), Barbra Streisand’s entire Funny Girl wardrobe, the kids’ drapery outfits and Julie Andrews’s guitar from The Sound of Music, Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra sedan chair, palace decorations and Yul Brynner’s whip from The King and I, Bette Davis’s throne from The Virgin Queen, Empress Josephine’s royal bed from Desiree, Clifton Webb’s Boy Scout uniform from Mr. Scoutmaster, Howard Keel’s rifle from Annie Get Your Gun (or Clark Gable’s from Mogambo), the 20-foot miniature warships from The Winds of War, the Ark of the Covenant from David and Bathsheba — all might well be long-moldering somewhere in Los Angeles County’s bulging landfills. As frustrated and disappointed as Debbie might be, she can claim victory in (and we can thank her for) having shepherded all these things past the point where they were simply junk.