Debbie Reynolds, Hollywood’s keeper of history

Debbie Reynolds sits on the throne from the 1955 movie "The Virgin Queen" in 2011, before an auction of items in her collection of memorabilia from classic movies.
Debbie Reynolds sits on the throne from the 1955 movie “The Virgin Queen” in 2011, before an auction of items in her collection of memorabilia from classic movies.
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times )

“They were like her children.”

That’s how Joe Maddalena, president and chief executive of Profiles in History, the Calabasas-based auction house, described Debbie Reynolds’ vast collection of Hollywood memorabilia amassed over a lifetime in the public eye.

Her decades-long devotion to preserving the magic and golden age of Hollywood, the industry that made her a star, starting with 1952’s “Singin’ in the Rain,” wasn’t as well known as her onscreen pursuits.

Maddalena met Reynolds, a fellow avid collector of Hollywood mementos, in the 1970s. In an interview with The Times on Thursday, he called Reynolds, who died Wednesday, a kindred spirit.

“There were very few of us who collected,” Maddalena said. “We were looked at as crazy people. There couldn’t have been 20 or 30 of us.

“Debbie Reynolds was the ultimate lover of Hollywood,” Maddalena added. “I don’t know how many people in the industry had that passion she had. It lit her up. She had such joy in her eyes when she talked about these old movies and the people. It meant the world to her, and that was the thing that resonated the most to me.”


Reynolds’ collection was emblematic of some of the most iconic moments in movie history. At one point, she owned such recognizable items as Marilyn Monroe’s white halter dress from 1955’s “The Seven Year Itch” (cut to the famous scene of Monroe holding down her dress on the breezy subway grate), that black bowler hat that defined Charlie Chaplin and the lavish, flowing gold and emerald gown in 1934’s “Cleopatra.”

In nearly 40 years, Reynolds acquired some 5,000 vintage costumes, props, cameras, letters and cars.

“Debbie thought that Hollywood was a very important thing to preserve,” Maddalena said. “She on her own tried to save what was left of Hollywood.”

Reynolds essentially grew up in film studios and spent much of her time in the wardrobe departments, enamored with the costumes and props that brought movies to life. When Reynolds learned that MGM planned to sell its entire collection in 1970, she was in shock.

“She showed up to an auction and bought every costume for every personality that meant something to her,” Maddalena said. When Fox and Paramount also began auctioning costumes and set pieces around the same time, Reynolds jumped at the opportunity to expand her holdings.

In an interview with The Times at her Beverly Hills home in 2012, Reynolds recalled how her collection had helped keep her afloat financially.

“I still have a lot of my things, but I decided to become rich, and I had all of this that I’d invested my money in, millions over the years,” she said then. “My collection was 50 years old. I sold my collection, but not everything. So I decided to pull some money out so that Carrie and [her brother] Todd and I could do whatever we wanted to do.”

For decades, she tried in vain to enlist others in her preservation efforts. She even opened her own museum with her third husband, Richard Hamlett, in the 1980s. They bought the Paddlewheel Hotel in Las Vegas and transformed it into the Debbie Reynolds Hollywood Hotel and Casino. But both the hotel and museum failed, leaving Reynolds at square one.

Her last attempt to display her vast collection was in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. According to Knox News, the Pigeon Forge Hollywood Motion Picture and Television Museum — in a steamboat-shaped building in the center of Belle Island — was expected to open in 2005.

But 2008’s financial turmoil shelved those plans. The museum never opened, and Reynolds auctioned her prized possessions.

“I remember when she finally decided to sell, and I would take something off the rack, and she’d say, ‘No, not that one,’” Maddalena said. “Every costume had a story, every actor had a memory — people don’t understand this was her life.”

In a 2011 interview with The Times, Reynolds talked about the defeat she felt before one of her auctions. “I am really sick and tired of it. I feel that I must call it a day now,” the then-79-year-old said. “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?”

Maddalena worked with Reynolds to sell her pieces, which ended up all over the world, to buyers in China, Macao and Dubai, likely bringing in close to $30 million.

“I don’t want to do any more,” Reynolds said in the 2012 Times interview. “I was going to do two more, but I’m not going to do it. They’re exhausting, they’re depleting and they’re depressing for me and too hard. It goes too deep.”

But nowadays Hollywood is taking better care of its history. In 2015, the Los Angeles City Council approved the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, a $300-million museum that will celebrate the world of cinema, set to open in 2017.

“The most important thing is that she wanted people to love this stuff,” Maddalena said. “The fact that at the end of the day these items of hers are still out there and they’re being celebrated, I think it’s something she’s really proud of.”

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