Reynolds' Unsinkable Museum : Memorabilia: Debbie Reynolds' Hollywood museum opens in Las Vegas tonight, 25 years after the plucky performer salvaged MGM's discards.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gripping the seats in the small, darkened theater, the audience is engrossed in the action on the screen. The room is vibrating, and eyes as wide as gramophones are fixed on the high-definition video.

Disneyland's Star Tours?

Not quite. . . .

Debbie Reynolds' Hollywood Movie Museum.

It's a little high-tech for a museum, but this is a Hollywood museum, and it is in Las Vegas.

The star-studded opening is tonight--on Reynolds' 63rd birthday. Friends from Esther Williams to David Geffen will celebrate Hollywood style, and the public gets its turn starting Sunday.

Todd Fisher, Reynolds' 36-year-old son, devised the high-tech, computer-generated theater in which part of his mother's extensive movie memorabilia collection is presented.

"There are so many things going on," says the boyish Fisher, waving his hands to point out its state-of-the-art features. "The sets are revealed (from behind curtains) at various times. When the chariots in 'Ben-Hur' run, the whole room vibrates. It feels like they're coming at you."

Beyond the high-tech theater, the museum is stocked with such treasures as Gene Kelly's dance shoes, the white dress Marilyn Monroe wore in "The Seven-Year Itch," ruby slippers from "The Wizard of Oz," Norma Shearer's gowns and Sonja Henie's skates; it's hard to imagine a finer--or bigger--collection.

"There are a lot of nice collections out there," says producer Jack Haley Jr., an avid collector and longtime friend of Reynolds', "but put them all together and they don't match the quantity and quality of hers."

Seated in the middle of the theater in the weeks before the opening, Reynolds is slumped in one of the cushy theater seats with stockinged feet propped up in front of her. It's been a long haul for this Hollywood veteran to make her Tinseltown tribute a reality. Her speech is hoarse and slow, but like a gambler who's on a winning streak, she keeps on rolling.

For more than 20 years Reynolds hoped to get her collection into the still-in-progress Hollywood Entertainment Museum, to preserve and honor Hollywood and its stars--which she loved as both a participant and as a fan-- in Hollywood.

"The Pan Pacific (Auditorium) would've been perfect, but it fell through with the city," she says of one Los Angeles location she'd hoped to get. "There were a lot of politics and I don't play well. I guess I'm too much of a straight-shooter."

So in 1992, Reynolds decided to give Las Vegas a shot. Gambling on the closed-down Paddlewheel hotel-casino just off the Strip, she renovated the hotel and built a showroom. Both opened in 1993, but the museum construction was delayed because, she says, there just wasn't enough cash. She went public with her company in 1994, getting a financial boost to finish the facility. There is about $3 million in the museum so far--and that's not counting the costumes. Randy Hendrickson, the museum curator, estimates the collection is worth about $30 million.

Reynolds began collecting in 1970 when MGM decided to liquidate its storage rooms of costumes, props and furniture. Reynolds, a star of such MGM musicals as "Singin' in the Rain," saw them as gold, and rushed to the studio with a check for $5 million for the lot. The studio declined, put everything on the auction block and for the next five weeks, Debbie Reynolds sat in the audience singlemindedly flipping a bidding paddle.

"It was very sad. They just threw away original music," Reynolds says with a downward glare. "There were still photographs thrown away . . . they burned outtakes of film--just burned the film. I tried to save what I could, and that's what is here."

Many of Reynolds' Hollywood pals have been eager to contribute. Jack Haley, who was instrumental in acquiring video and archival photos for the museum, donated Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra shoes from his own collection; Ann Miller, June Allyson, Ginger Rogers and Cyd Charisse sent along signed pairs of their shoes.

"We all have a passion for film," says Haley, who says he doubts that anyone other than Reynolds could have pulled this off. "But Debbie is even more passionate than I am. She loves this stuff."

Reynolds' enthusiasm also enticed friends and family to pitch in with manual labor. Hollywood set decorator Jerry Wunderlich designed many of the exhibits and also contributed to the hotel's decor; Hendrickson, a former dancer with Reynolds' show who studied costuming in college, is restoring and authenticating the costume collection; brother William Reynolds, a retired movie makeup artist, restored the elaborate 1938 "Marie Antoinette" Baccarat chandelier that hangs in the lobby, and artist Christy Rivers, Todd Fisher's fiancee, painted backdrops in the museum theater.

Visitors enter the museum at the theater, where Reynolds gives an introduction on-screen. As curtains rise all around, costumes from a dozen or so films, including "How the West Was Won" and "Cleopatra" (both the 1963 version with Elizabeth Taylor and 1934 with Claudette Colbert), are revealed on turntables. Film clips show the actors performing in the costumes.

Only a fraction of the collection will be on view at a time because of space and the fragility of the costumes--although if she had her way, Reynolds would show everything at once. Currently, visitors will see Marlon Brando's elaborate coronation cape from "Desiree," some macho stuff (including uniforms worn by Alec Guinness and William Holden) from "Bridge on the River Kwai" and a Betty Grable dress slit up to here.

The rest of the costumes are kept in the locked, climate-controlled "vault." Fisher created a computer system to keep track of them all; about 3,000 costumes and their films are listed in the database.

Many of the pieces in Reynolds' collection hung for years at the studios, where some were damaged by dust, leaky roofs or worse. Curator Hendrickson remembers being able to rent costumes from MGM in the mid-'70s, a real thrill for a renter, he says, but ruinous for the costumes. One costume in Reynolds' collection that came from MGM was a Judy Garland dress. "It was hanging," says Hendrickson, "and all that was left was the bodice part of the dress. At the bottom of the plastic bag was a big pile of dust."

The Monroe dress has signs of mishandling as well. "It wouldn't surprise me if it had just been hanging on a wire hanger," he says. "The hemline of the dress is discolored because it sat in a puddle of water." (Reynolds says she paid "a few hundred" for the dress; she estimates now it would bring $50,000 at auction.)

In a workroom, costumes are laundered, repaired and sometimes embellished. Hendrickson made a replica of the headdress to Barbra Streisand's "Hello, Dolly!" costume, not to "fake anyone out," he says, but to supply the missing pieces "so the public can get the whole picture."

Admission to the museum is $7.95, but the entire hotel facility is a nod to Hollywood. An interactive display outside the museum offers brief Reynolds interviews with such stars as Jane Russell and Howard Keel. There is a restaurant and Hollywood-themed casino, with famous faces enshrined all around. Reynolds performs in the showroom six nights a week.

The only bad card Reynolds seems to have been dealt is the location--the facility is on Convention Center Way, a couple hundred yards from the Strip. But what the Debbie Reynolds Hotel-Casino and Hollywood Movie Museum lacks in location, it will presumably make up for in the vision of its unsinkable proprietor.

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