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Issue: Summer 2014

The Debbie Reynolds Auction Finale


Billed as the Debbie Reynolds Auction Finale, the last of the actress' unprecedented collection of Hollywood memorabilia went under the gavel.  Although a few spectacular items were the last to go, the scene at Reynolds dance studio in North Hollywood seemed anticlimactic especially after the decades long struggle the actress had endured to secure a museum for her treasures.

When MGM closed its lot in 1970, Reynolds seemed to be the only one interested in saving the remnants of Hollywood's past.  One of the last products of the famed "studio system," she had spent her late teen years making movies after being discovered at Burbank High School. It was the end of an era, television was eroding box office profits and studios were relying on epochs and, for a time, musicals.

At the right place at the right time, Reynolds was no dancer but was soon rehearsing hours a day under the watchful eye of her co-star Gene Kelly for Singin' in the Rain.  It's hard to believe that the young actress could hold her own so well with the likes of Kelly and Donald O'Connor.  Yet she did and today is the only one left to tell the tale.

She recognized what was happening, emptied her bank account of $600,000 and bought as much as she could. (Her purchases included a pair of ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz that sold at the first auction in 2011 for $690,000.)  She went on collecting, acquiring pieces from everyone from Cary Grant to Fred Astaire to Shirley MacLaine.

In a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, she remarked "They literally threw away our history and I just got caught up in it. I couldn't believe the stupidity and lack of foresight to save our history."

Growing up in the San Fernando Valley during the bucolic 1950's, a little of the valley girl remains.  Her family was her strength and her innocence must have been an enduring quality.  It was her family and her strong values and work ethic that helped her weather the storm and certainly must have influenced the many storms that followed.

Her recent second memoir "Unsinkable" recaps the trials and tribulations of her life and unfortunate choice of the men she married.  Caught in the sensational betrayal following the tragic death of Elizabeth Taylor's producer husband Mike Todd, today she can joke about it and be thankful for her two children Carrie and Todd Fisher.  What had started out as a fairytale romance turned into a soap opera.

Likewise, her other two marriages were costly leaving her facing the loss of her savings and ultimately having to declare bankruptcy. 

But it was her love of the industry that had given her more than it had taken away where she found redemption.  Taking her life savings at the time, she began her collection and then couldn't stop as the Hollywood studios became more important as real estate than star factories.  It was costly to store and maintain the sets, costumes and props and it seems only Reynolds recognized that such a loss would never be recovered. As her collection grew, she also learned the cost of storage and maintenance of historic artifacts.

Gradually, her dream began to unfold-the collection needed a museum and she worked tirelessly toward that goal.

While she had the collection the means to the end would prove illusive.  False starts, promises, she came close in Hollywood when it seemed that the museum would be part of the Hollywood & Highland Complex being built at the end of the Millennium-but it feel through.  Las Vegas beckoned and once again hopes were high but resources weren't what they should be and husband #3's questionable deals didn't pan out and by the time she saw the light, in spite of once again giving her all, heartbreak followed. 

Even as the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences was making noise about a new museum, she and her collection were turned down not once but five times. 

Last May, the last of Debbie Reynolds' fabled collection of Hollywood memorabilia was sold off at her dance studio by Profiles in History who had handled the previous two auctions.  The previous two sales had raised more than $26 million. Other important items up for sale include a number of cameras collected by her son Todd Fisher, including the ones used to film Dracula, To Catch a Thief and the special effects on Star Wars. Among the trove of posters is the only surviving three-sheet for Singin' in the Rain. Other memorabilia includes a Charlie Chaplin bowler, a Harpo Marx wig and one of Scarlett O'Hara's dresses from Gone With the Wind.

There is no doubt that her collection should have been preserved in a museum but she's reached a point in her life where she's found acceptance knowing that the history of the industry intrinsic to each item will be cherished by collectors worldwide.   

The time has come to rename Debbie Reynolds:  She's not "heartbroken," nor even "unsinkable," graced with a never give up and positive attitude, not only is she one of the last of an exceptional and iconic Hollywood era, today the only word that suits her is triumphant.