DEBBIE REYNOLDS' REMARKABLE VEGAS YEARS SPOTLIGHTED IN NEW FREE EXHIBITION FROM THE NEON MUSEUM, LAUNCHING SEPT. 5
Debbie Reynolds promotional photo
Actress, comedienne, singer, dancer, and businesswoman Debbie Reynolds was born Mary Frances Reynolds in 1932 to a workingclass family in El Paso, Texas to Maxine and Ray Reynolds. Work opportunities in Texas during the Great Depression were limited, so her family relocated to California in 1939, where her father found steady work as a carpenter for the railroad. Less than a decade later, Debbie would be discovered competing in a beauty contest at just sixteen years old. She was offered a studio contract and went on to make history both on-screen and onstage, kick starting her lifelong film career in the 1952 film Singin’ in the Rain. In The Persona, The Person: Debbie Reynolds in Las Vegas, we join Debbie in 1962, still caught in the media spotlight following her divorce from husband Eddie Fisher and his highly-publicized love affair with actress Elizabeth Taylor in 1959. Now, married again, and wishing to spend more time with her two children, Carrie and Todd Fisher, she moves to Las Vegas to begin her million-dollar residency at the Riviera Hotel and Casino. She looks to Las Vegas to provide stability in her life, both personally and professionally, as she establishes herself not only as one of Las Vegas’ most enduring personalities, but also as a multi-talented entertainer. This leads Hollywood to consider her for different roles, casting her as ‘Molly’ in The Unsinkable Molly Brown, based on a real-life tale of resilience that Debbie felt paralleled her own rags-to-riches life. Her performance in the film earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.
This exhibition weaves together two stories: one of Debbie’s professional career, highlighting her performances, collaborations, and unique rapport with her audiences, and one of Debbie’s personal life, featuring the love she had for her family, her enduring friendships, and her “unsinkable” resilience, culminating in a legacy that is forever entwined in the history of Las Vegas.
L to R: Sidney Korshak with Debbie Reynolds signing her first million-dollar contract, ca. 1961. Courtesy: Everett Collection.
THE PERSON: A Balancing act
In September 1962, Debbie Reynolds signed a first-of-its-kind million-dollar contract for a holiday season residency at the Riviera Hotel and Casino. After decades of typecasting, personal hardship, and a highly publicized divorce from Eddie Fisher, the multi-faceted actress wanted to use these Las Vegas performances to finally prove herself to the industry that she was thrust into as a teenager. At the Riviera, she would have a consistent schedule to allow her to spend time with her young children, and she could showcase her talents as an impressionist and comedienne and receive offers that would broaden the types of character she could play in films.
THE PERSONA: Debbie's First Million-Dollar Contract
Debbie loved the stage and was quoted as saying, “With a performing schedule of two shows a night, seven nights a week, it's probably the toughest kind of show business, but in my opinion, the most rewarding. I like the feeling of being able to change stage bits and business when I want. You can't do that in motion pictures or TV.” After rave reviews and star-studded attendance, Debbie invited studio executives to the Riviera to see her perform, stunning them with her sense of humor and charm. Debbie claims she “clinched the deal” and was finally cast in a role she had longcampaigned for: Titanic-survivor and suffragist, Margaret “Molly” Brown.
Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds performing together, ca. 1970.
THE PERSON: Like Mother, Like Daughter?
As early as 1962, Debbie Reynolds and her two children, Todd and Carrie Fisher, appeared onstage together at the Riviera Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, during Debbie’s groundbreaking residency. It was not until 1971, however, that the trio performed together, this time at the Desert Inn Hotel and Casino. Debbie performed her usual variety stylings and welcomed Carrie and Todd to join her in song. Todd later took to accompanying his mother and sister on the guitar, while Carrie and Debbie now evenly shared vocal duties. Despite rave reviews, Carrie suffered from severe stage fright, possibly brought on by audience expectations of her being Debbie’s daughter.
THE PERSONA: Family Takes the Stage
In the subsequent years, Carrie struggled to maintain her own identity apart from her mother’s larger-than-life career and legacy. The two spent about a decade estranged from one another, eventually reconciling in the 1990s. They supported each another in their respective endeavors, including Carrie writing 1990’s Postcards from the Edge and 2001’s These Old Broads, which starred Debbie and once-rivals Shirley MacLaine and Elizabeth Taylor. The duo were once again joined by Todd, as well as Carrie’s daughter, actress Billie Lourd, onstage for Debbie Reynolds’ farewell performances at the South Point Hotel, Casino & Spa in 2014.
Debbie Reynolds production still from The Unsinkable Molly Brown, ca. 1963. Courtesy: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
THE PERSON: Unsinkable...
Debbie Reynolds’ relationship with suffragist and Titanic survivor, Margaret “Molly” Brown, began with the Tony Award-winning 1960 Broadway production based on Molly’s real-life rags-to-riches story, The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Debbie found herself taken with Molly’s story of resilience in the face of hardship and petitioned the studio she was contracted at, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, to cast her in a feature film adaptation of the stage musical. Due to Debbie's typecasting as an “ingénue,” her proposition was not taken seriously, and she was denied the chance to even audition for the role. In an effort to prove her versatility to both audiences and studio executives, she turned to Las Vegas and took to the stage at the Riviera Hotel & Casino. Her variety-style show proved successful, both with audiences and with the studio executives she was attempting to convince, as they finally cast her as Molly Brown. As production on the film was set to begin, unfortunately, Debbie suffered a second miscarriage with husband Harry Karl.
THE PERSONA: Debbie's Dream Role
Determined to persevere through this immense personal hardship, Debbie immersed herself in her work and propelled Molly Brown to financial and critical success, earning various awards, including her sole Oscar nomination in the process. In her aptly titled 2013 memoir, Unsinkable, Debbie commends Molly’s strength and refers to the character as her “favorite of all the roles [she’s] played.”
Debbie Reynolds impersonating Mae West onstage.
THE PERSON: How Humor Helps
While performing onstage in Las Vegas and across the country, Debbie Reynolds hoped to defy the expectations of both audiences and show business executives who, in the second decade of her film career, began to typecast her as “an ingénue” in supporting roles. Onstage at properties such as the Riviera Hotel and Casino and at the Desert Inn Hotel and Casino, Debbie treated audiences to a variety show that highlighted the quality she most wanted to be known for: her sense of humor. Debbie performed humorous and self-effacing monologues about her personal life, she playfully interacted with the audience during musical performances, and she wowed them with expertly crafted celebrity impersonations.
THE PERSONA: The Many Faces of Debbie
Her roster of impersonations ranged from industry contemporaries and friends such as Clark Gable, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Mae West, to larger-than-life artists she was a fan of, such as Barbra Streisand. When performing as Streisand, Debbie quickly left the stage for a costume change, donning a wig and prosthetic nose. Her performance as Streisand was developed over months, and included a full orchestral accompaniment to accentuate the nuances in Streisand’s vocal range that Debbie was emulating.
Debbie Reynolds in her Girl Scouts uniform ca. late 1940s. Courtesy: Everett Collection
THE PERSON: Girl Scout Skills in Action
Debbie Reynolds’ time in the Girl Scouts instilled in her a sense of civic responsibility and discipline, as well as provided her with some of the fundamental physical preparation she would utilize throughout her career, especially in 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain. When she was cast in the film, she had only three months of rehearsal time to prepare to perform alongside seasoned performers Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor. Despite the rigorous preparation and behind-the-scenes friction with Gene, Reynolds’ performance in the film was a breakthrough and is considered one of her signature roles.
THE PERSONA: Vaudeville in Vegas
Reynolds continued dancing throughout her life, incorporating elaborate choreography into her engagements across the country, including in Las Vegas, sometimes even sharing the stage with former co-star Donald. Debbie’s show was in the vaudeville tradition, a popular form of entertainment from the late 1800s, which mixed musical performance with comedy and dance. This rigorous touring resulted in Debbie needing a professional and discrete space to rehearse. In 1979, she opened the Debbie Reynolds Dance Studio out of a former post office in North Hollywood. For years, she shared her love of dance by offering inexpensive and accessible classes to professionals and newcomers alike.
Debbie Reynolds at the Hollywood Motion Picture Museum, ca. 1995.
THE PERSON: Trouble in Paradise, Nevada
At a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio auction in 1970, Debbie Reynolds discovered her passion for film memorabilia acquisition and preservation, spending an estimated $600,000 of her own money on screen-used props, costumes, and artifacts. As Debbie’s collection grew, she began her search for a venue in Los Angeles to open a film museum, but was met with general disinterest over preserving the history of the medium. Finally, in 1992, the opportunity arose for Debbie and her husband, real-estate developer Richard Hamlett, to acquire the Paddlewheel Hotel in Las Vegas and convert it into the Debbie Reynolds Hotel and Casino.
THE PERSONA: A Place to Call Her Own
Own Already being an established performer in the city, Debbie imagined this new acquisition as a permanent, steady venue to perform in, as well as the potential location for her long-awaited film museum. The hotel and casino opened in 1993, with the Hollywood Motion Picture Museum opening shortly after in 1995. The museum, and its accompanying presentation, guided visitors through the history of film and showcased many of the marvelous pieces Debbie had collected over the years from films like The Maltese Falcon and The Seven Year Itch. The couple split in 1996 and the casino closed shortly afterwards due to Hamlett’s financial mismanagement of the property.
Debbie Reynolds performing at the South Point Hotel, Casino & Spa, ca. 2014. Courtesy: Las Vegas Review-Journal.
THE PERSON: Thank you, Debbie
Debbie Reynolds’ November 2014 engagement at the South Point Hotel & Casino arrived after a period of health problems, including a mini-stroke that forced Reynolds to take an extended break from touring, her first “vacation ever in 66 years.” Debbie intended to have her family there for emotional and physical support, sharing the spotlight with them as she did in the early days of her stage career in Las Vegas. Just as they did in 1963 at the Riviera Hotel & Casino, daughter Carrie Fisher and son Todd Fisher, along with granddaughter Billie Lourd, accompanied Debbie and treated the packed houses to music, comedic banter, and a recollection of show business stories and memories.
THE PERSONA: Debbie's Golden Goodbye
While refusing to label it a “farewell,” this engagement proved to be the final time Debbie graced a Las Vegas stage, 52 years since she first performed here when she headlined the Riviera in 1962. Her final Las Vegas performances were chronicled in the award-winning documentary film Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, which premiered shortly after her passing in 2016.
Debbie Reynolds performing on stage
The world mourned for Debbie when she passed away in December 2016. Reactions and tributes poured in from fans, the film industry, and from philanthropic organizations she had been involved with over the course of her life, including from her beloved Girl Scouts of America. In a 2013 interview with USA Today, Debbie even remarked that she “[wanted] to die as the world’s oldest living Girl Scout,” having proudly earned 47 merit badges over her 70 years as a member.
A public memorial was held on March 25, 2017, attended by 1200 people and live-streamed around the world, featuring performances from the dancers and teachers of the Debbie Reynolds Dance Studios as well as from the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles. On August 20, 2021, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures opened to the public, featuring the Debbie Reynolds Costume Conservation Studio which aims to further Debbie’s lifelong passion for maintaining and preserving film history.
Debbie’s influence on Las Vegas can still be felt on our screens and stages. Professionally, she bridged the gap between Hollywood and Las Vegas. Personally, her fortitude and kindness will never be forgotten.
Thank you, Debbie.