The collection is dazzling, artifacts of some of the greatest moments in movie history.
There's Marilyn Monroe's white halter "subway" dress from 1955's "The Seven Year Itch," Claudette Colbert's gold-lame and emerald royal boudoir gown from 1934's "Cleopatra," Charlie Chaplin's signature hat, Greta Garbo's dark green velvet period dress from 1935's "Anna Karenina," Harpo Marx's vintage top hat and wig, Rudolph Valentino's "Suit of Lights" matador outfit for 1922's "Blood and Sand," even a lock of Mary Pickford's hair in a wooden display box.
But that's only a small slice of Debbie Reynolds' collection of some 5,000 vintage costumes, props, cameras, letters and even cars from the Golden Age of Hollywood. For decades she has been trying to interest investors in building a museum in Los Angeles that would house her treasure-trove -- to no avail. So now she's auctioning it off through the Profiles in History auction house. Nearly 600 items will be auctioned off Saturday, with another auction planned for Dec. 3.
The collection is on exhibition at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills, where the auction will take place. On a recent afternoon at the Paley Center, workmen and other staff were unpacking the collection and beginning to set up a display. The diminutive Reynolds was walking through the upstairs exhibit that features such items as her lush gowns from 1964's "The Unsinkable Molly Brown," the props and costumes from 1946's "Anna and the King of Siam" and 1956's "The King and I," dresses from the 1957 film "Raintree County," ones worn by Rita Hayworth in 1953's "Salome" and Ginger Rogers' gold lame dress from 1949's "The Barkleys of Broadway."
Other items that were being unpacked in a bigger room included a turquoise sofa from 1936's "Camille," starring Greta Garbo, and two red velvet sofas from 1933's "Little Women" with Katharine Hepburn.
Reynolds had opened a museum for her collection in Las Vegas in the 1980s when she and her third husband, Virginia real estate developer Richard Hamlett, bought and renovated the Paddlewheel Hotel, transforming it into the Debbie Reynolds Hollywood Hotel and Casino. But the museum and the hotel failed, and Reynolds says she's ready to move on.
"I am really sick and tired of it. I feel that I must call it a day now," said the 79-year-old Reynolds, the star of such classic films as 1952's "Singing' in the Rain." "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?"
Joseph Maddalena, owner of Profiles in History and star of the Syfy series "Hollywood Treasure," believes the initial sale could raise between $4 million and $6 million.
"We tried to make the first sale the most memorable one, a statement sale," Maddalena said. "There is no other collection like this in the world. It is truly one of a kind."
"It's a little bit of everything for sure," Reynolds said of her collection, relaxing in the radio listening room at the Paley. She started collecting the memorabilia in 1970 when cash-strapped MGM auctioned off everything, including the backlots.
"I was under contract at MGM in 1948," she said. "I never thought MGM would go away. It was not part of our thinking. In 1970, I heard they were going to sell the costumes and everything. I said, 'That's crazy.' They wouldn't even let us borrow a shoestring. They kept everything locked up."
She decided to focus her purchases on material from Oscar-winning films. "I felt I knew what a fan wanted to see," explained Reynolds. "They want to touch the costumes."
She continued to purchase material when Fox and Paramount also began to auction off items in the 1970s. Over the years, she's added to the collection, most recently purchasing Audrey Hepburn's famous white Cecil Beaton-designed ensemble she wore in the Ascot race scene in 1964's "My Fair Lady."
Whenever possible Reynolds would buy not only the costumes from classic films but also entire sets from certain scenes so "I could reconstruct and re-create the set so you would have the whole look," she said.
Reynolds is saddened that her dream of a permanent museum will never be a reality and that the collection will be sold off in pieces.
"There is no other road," she said. "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."
Debbie Reynolds: The Auction
Where: The Paley Center for Media, 465 N. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills
When: Viewing is noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday. Auction begins noon Friday
Info: For more information, go to www. profilesinhistory .com