A collector’s role model & hero: Debbie Reynolds

I guess I had to get to a certain age (and a certain stage as a collector) to really get to admire Debbie Reynolds as an actress, as a collector / preservationist of Hollywood history and as a person. She has done much to entertain, to archive and to inspire the rest of the world. Especially as a collector, the corporate heads of one of the best studios in the world would have trashed culturally valuable objects were it not for Ms. Reynolds.

Here is something of the history of her movie memorabilia collection (which is now in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee):

“In 1970, MGM had their auction.  That was a major auction of all their props and costumes and cars, everything; and I went to that auction every day and I purchased groups of costumes from each famous film that won an Academy Award, or was the most popular film at MGM from the silent screen era on.

Debbie went on to form the Hollywood Motion Picture Museum in 1972, a non-profit corporation.  A few years later, Fox held a similar auction, and Debbie bought more.  It may seem unbelievable, but the studios simply didn’t want the inventory any more.  Debbie explains: “Well, they just weren’t interested.  These are real estate developers, and they’re not interested in motion pictures or the ‘history of.’ They’re not preservationists. They’re not people who are interested in preserving. They’re interested in liquidation, and people that are interested in liquidation are interested in money, and not interested in museums or in saving costumes. To them it’s a lot of junk and a lot of nothing to bother with, so they didn’t bother with it, and many people that cared purchased it.” 

Just a few years ago, the gargantuan collection was housed at the Debbie Reynolds Hollywood Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.  A cozy little complex that oozed glittering movie memories, it opened in 1993 as a hotel, casino, museum and nightclub.  The building itself was originally Vegas’ old Paddlewheel Hotel, and the interior included 193 hotel rooms, a casino, 500-seat showroom and six acres of land situated just half a block off the Las Vegas Strip.  The giant paddlewheel out front was conveniently transformed into a giant reel of film that stretched around the facade – each frame featuring a huge color image of cinema greats.  Debbie played a very active role in designing and furnishing the entertainment complex – even picking out the drapes, carpeting and other furnishings.  She was also the hotel’s featured performer.  

“I have a lot of Judy’s material, and Eleanor Powell, wonderful beaded costumes from Ann Miller and Vera Ellen, Ginger and Fred. Big ball gowns from Norma Shearer’s Marie Antoinette and Romeo and Juliet. And of course there’s stuff from Singin’ in the Rain.” 

Besides hundreds of pieces from a wide variety of classics, the high-tech museum also featured an exhibit devoted to Singin’ in the Rain. Visitors got a close-up look at costumes worn by Debbie in the picture, as well as Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Jean Hagen.  More costumes from some of Debbie’s other movies such as The Unsinkable Molly Brown and How the West Was Won were also displayed. 

The hotel and casino, however popular with film fans, didn’t fare so well financially.  It went through several corporate restructurings, and millions were spent on renovations, but it continued to lose money.  In 1997, the resort was forced to file for bankruptcy and the property was sadly turned over to the World Wrestling Federation, which won the hotel at auction for the shockingly low purchase price of $10 million – it was less than what was desperately needed to pay claims.  Before the sale, Debbie had even been performing there for free. “They got a hell of a deal,” Todd Fisher [Debbie’s son] said afterwards. The doors closed and Debbie had to put the costumes and props into storage where they’ve been sitting since. 

In 2000, both Warner Bros. and Debbie filed lawsuits, charging that a collector took as many as 250 celebrated film costumes and props worth a total of $3 million from their private collections and was offering them for auction on the Internet.  Some of the pieces in question: Julie Andrews’ jumper and famous guitar used in The Sound of Music, a Betty Grable bathing suit, Marilyn Monroe’s subway dress and Judy Garland’s “Dorothy” dress from The Wizard of Oz

Then a fantastic opportunity appeared, and Debbie’s Motion Picture Collection entered into a lease for 20,000 square feet of the top floor inside the developing Hollywood & Highland complex, a $615-million entertainment/retail complex sitting on two city blocks in the heart of Hollywood. Some of the highlights of the complex include the Kodak Academy Award Theater, where the 2002 Oscars were held; a Multiplex Theater, a 640 room hotel and the Metro Rail portal. The entire complex surrounds the historic Chinese Theater.  

In the summer of 2001, Honorary Mayor of Hollywood Johnny Grant presented a happily tearful Debbie with a check for $50,000 for her new museum, titled the Hollywood Motion Picture Museum.  She insisted it be called by this name, and not the Debbie Reynolds Motion Picture Museum.  In June, the groundbreaking ceremony was held, attended by Debbie and her children, brother Bill and other celebrities. 

The new Hollywood Motion Picture Museum was reportedly penciled in to open sometime in 2004 due to financial setbacks, however, it was announced in March, 2004 that the Hollywood location has been abandoned in favor of a location in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, near Dolly Parton’s famed “Dollywood” hot spot.  The new project will potentially include a theme park but will center around the museum. 

Once opened to the public, the museum will showcase costumes from The Wizard of Oz, some of Marilyn Monroe’s wardrobe, including the subway dress from The Seven Year Itch, Elizabeth Taylor’s jeweled head dress from Cleopatra, just to name a few, plus some 3,000 costumes and over 36,000 feet of props and furniture.” 

She doesn’t mention this but when Planet Hollywood got into serious financial difficulties and auctioned off many legendary costumes it owned, Debbie bought many of them for her collection

Anyway here’s just one reason why I collect: to preserve items that have some cultural significance for future fans of VDO.

Debbie Reynolds’s Hollywood Motion Picture Museum can be previewed online at:

http://www.belleislandvillage.com/new/hmpm.htm

 Also if you’re in the USA be sure to catch a tour of her collection on an episode of Antiques Roadshow FYI (it’s episode #125)

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