Todd Fisher on how the Debbie Reynolds-Carrie Fisher public memorial became a musical revue
The Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles sings during the memorial for Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher near their grave at Forest Lawn Memorial Park-Hollywood Hills.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
R2-D2 says goodbye under a giant photograph of Carrie Fisher during the memorial for Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher at the Forest Lawn Memorial-Park in the Hollywood Hills.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Actress Ruta Lee speaks during memorial for Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Students from the Debbie Reynolds Dance Studio perform during the memorial for Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
The Gay Men’s Chorus Los Angeles sings during the memorial Under one of the many images that was flashed on a screen in the background.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Dan Aykroyd speaks during the memorial for Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Todd Fisher hugs R2D2 at a memorial for Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds at Forest Lawn Memorial Park-Hollywood Hills.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
After the memorial, friend Shari Wilson of Los Angeles touches the Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher grave site at Forest Lawn Memorial Park-Hollywood.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Katie Walker, 35, Of Joshua Tree, has a Princess Leia tattoo on her shoulder. After a memorial for Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher, fans visited the grave site at Forest Lawn Memorial Park-Hollywood Hills.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
When he saw the hummingbirds, Todd Fisher knew this was the place. Sure, there were plenty of legends resting at Forest Lawn Memorial Park: Bette Davis, Liberace, Lucille Ball. But it was the hummingbirds that convinced him that his mother, Debbie Reynolds, and sister, Carrie Fisher, should be buried together here.
“They both loved hummingbirds,” Fisher said, recalling his first tour of the grounds with a cemetery director. “I thought, ‘Damn, this guy is a genius salesman.’ I haven’t seen [the birds] since, but that’s my point. I think he rented them.”
In the months following the death of “his girls” — Reynolds, 84, died just a day after her 60-year-old daughter in December — Fisher has devoted most of his time to organizing a public memorial for the Hollywood icons. A private ceremony, held in January, was attended by dozens of celebrities, including Meryl Streep, Gwyneth Paltrow, George Lucas and Jamie Lee Curtis.
The memorial on Saturday was decidedly less star-studded, and those who came largely bypassed camera crews. Hiding behind sunglasses, Rene Russo and Fisher Stevens rushed past a makeshift press line as they made their way into the Hall of Liberty. Almost the only ones who spoke to the media were Fisher, as the memorial’s organizer, and his wife, actress Catherine Hickland.
“This certainly is our send-off,” Fisher told a clutch of reporters. “There’s no words that are unspoken between any of us. We had a very strong love. There are no goodbyes. We shall all meet again.”
I love that Todd has been so open. ... That makes us feel like it’s appropriate for us to grieve.
— Hillary Thorn, 30
Inside, Fisher emceed the show — he avoided calling it a memorial because he said Reynolds hated them. A constant presence stage right with a headset and walkie-talkie, Fisher told the crowd of roughly 1,200 he was hopeful the event would have an intimate feel, as if the audience were sitting in the family’s living room, leafing through old photos and watching home videos. Reynolds’ dog, Dwight, was even seated in the front row on a towel. Gary, Fisher’s oft-recognized French bulldog, was not in attendance.
Reynolds, in particular, always had immense respect for her fans. When he and his sister were young, Fisher said, their mother took them shopping at a toy store in Beverly Hills. But they got held up when a gaggle of fans asked to talk to the “Singin’ in the Rain” star.
“Carrie and I were like, ‘Come on, man. We want to get some stuff at the toy store.’ We were kind of annoyed by this whole thing,” Fisher told the room. “And my mother grabbed us both and said, ‘Oh, no. These are my people just like you are my people.’ She took the time her whole life to do that with everybody. Not one fan I ever saw her turn away.”
It was a level of devotion that touched many of the hundreds of fans stretched out across the park’s grounds early Saturday.
Sisters Hillary and Kyleigh Thorn traveled from Wisconsin for the weekend to pay homage to Reynolds. They were outfitted in colorful vintage dresses, which they felt were “more Debbie” than traditional black funeral wear.
As millennials, they said, many of their friends often were perplexed by the siblings’ affinity for the Old Hollywood star.
“We had to bring up ‘Halloweentown’ because they knew that,” said Kyleigh, 26, referring to the 1998 Disney Channel movie in which Reynolds had a role. “And they’d say, ‘Why would you like the grandma?’ We were like, ‘She’s awesome!’ ”
“Maybe this will give us a little closure,” said Hillary, 30, who works at a nursing home. “I love that Todd has been so open in talking about it. That makes us feel like it’s appropriate for us to grieve.”
I once saved her life applying the Heimlich to dislodge a Brussels sprout. And if I’d been with our beloved showboat, I might have been able to save her again.
— Dan Aykroyd
Emotion flowed openly once the memorial got underway, particularly when the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles rose from seats in the audience and began singing Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” en masse. Troupes of dancers from the Debbie Reynolds Dance Studio — she founded the North Hollywood venue in 1979 — performed with umbrellas and yellow raincoats to honor the star. And a new song from James Blunt — who composed his hit “You’re Beautiful” in Fisher’s bathroom — was played for the crowd.
“You broke more than my heart when you left without saying goodbye,” the lyrics went. “I’m here to let you know, I’m here to let you go.”
Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz spoke of Reynolds’ passion for Old Hollywood, saying how she understood that classic films represented a “meaningful, deeply held connection to our past, to our parents, to our grandparents.”
Actor Griffin Dunne, who roomed with Carrie Fisher in New York City, recalled how she called him from the set of “Star Wars” to complain about the “stupid” movie she was working on.
Dan Aykroyd, who co-starred with Fisher in “The Blues Brothers” and briefly was engaged to her, acknowledged that he felt partially responsible for her death “because, you see, I once saved her life applying the Heimlich to dislodge a Brussels sprout. And if I’d been with our beloved showboat, I might have been able to save her again.”
But it was Gavin de Becker — whose security firm has protected the Hollywood elite for decades — who gave the most wrenching speech of the afternoon. He and Fisher went to high school together, where he got her class schedule just so he could greet her after math or English.
“Carrie, I feel I am still now waiting for you outside a classroom, and the door opens and I see you now among the other kids, with your steely eyes and your radioactive intellect,” he said, his voice trembling. “Standing outside this classroom I feel the same anticipation that I felt the first time I saw you. Everything is ahead of you now, Carrie. Things are coming that we would never imagine, just like the first time. You are still radiating that sense that you’ll take us all along with you on this ride. Seeing you there reminds me that by knowing you, we all hit the jackpot.”
De Becker, of course, got to spend decades with the real Princess Leia. But she had a lasting impact on those she met only a few times too, including Grace Farenbaugh. The Burbank loan officer arrived at Forest Lawn at 5:30 a.m. Saturday to make sure she was first in line for the memorial, her neck wrapped in a starry infinity scarf given to her by Fisher. She befriended the actress at an event years ago and the two stayed in touch, with Fisher offering the novice writer advice on her first memoir.
“She told me, ‘Grace, you have diarrhea of the commas,’ ” recalled Farenbaugh, who said Fisher encouraged her to call the book “Almost Drowning Can Be OK” instead of the original “boring” title, “Chapter.” “She thought I could do something with it, and I’m just sorry she’s not here to see it finished. It would mean a lot for her to be able to say, ‘Grace, you wrote a great book.’ ”
Follow me on Twitter @AmyKinLA
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