Artistic gifts aside, Debbie Reynolds made it her mission to help preserve Hollywood history by collecting iconic costumes.
The multitasking actress died Wednesday at the age of 84 in Los Angeles.
Deborah Nadoolman Landis, director of The David C. Copley Center for Costume Design at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television, said she suffered from whiplash while reading the tags walking down the aisles of Reynolds’ San Luis Obispo storage facility. “Anyone would,” she wrote in an e-mail, singling out Cecil Beaton’s “Ascot Dress” for Audrey Hepburn in “My Fair Lady” and Irene Sharaff’s gold gown for Barbra Streisand in “Hello Dolly” as examples.
Further building her case, Landis noted designs worn by Greta Garbo in “Anna Karenina,” Norma Shearer in the 1937 film version of “Marie Antoinette,” Joan Crawford in “Mildred Pierce,” Donna Reed in “It’s A Wonderful Life,” Gene Kelly in “Singing’ in the Rain,” and Marilyn Monroe in “Bus Stop” and “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”
Landis referred to how Reynolds once sat on her sofa and cried after her dreams of a costume center had been crushed by a series of setbacks. “To her lifelong frustration and disappointment she received little respect from our industry (and Los Angeles) for this valiant effort,” Landis wrote. “If Debbie had not zealously safeguarded these remarkable clothes, they certainly would not have survived the endless recycling of the studio costume department. Costumes, like everything else on the lot, were just another asset.”
Reynolds met Landis at her house that afternoon with binders in her hand to offer to loan her vast collection for the Landis-curated “Hollywood Costume” exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Although Reynolds’ collection was sold before the show bowed in 2012, many of the iconic looks she had preserved like Marilyn Monroe’s white Travilla halter dress from “The Seven Year Itch” wound up the exhibition courtesy of their new owners.
“The patron saint of collectors, costume designers, and a legion of fans, Debbie Reynolds was determined to preserve our history and the iconic artifacts of our popular culture,” Landis wrote. “We are and always will be beneficiaries of Debbie’s generosity. She was right and they were wrong. I absolutely loved her.”
In Reynolds’ own catalogue essay for the “Hollywood Costume” exhibition, she wrote at length about her one-woman attempt to create the Holiday Motion Picture Museum.
In that, Reynolds credited MGM for igniting her love of Hollywood costumes. Signed as a contract player in 1950, she was more accustomed to her teenage wardrobe — a pair of jeans, a white blouse and a gray skirt that her mother made. A self-described “child in Wonderland,” amidst MGM’s building full of “the most beautiful clothes in the world,” she apparently kept a gimlet eye on how the many seamstresses and designers “paid attention to every stitch, seam and adornment.”
In her salad years at MGM, contracts required that actors learn other crafts — singing, dancing, makeup techniques, lighting, set design and fashion. The studio brass even allowed Reynolds’ mother to come to Los Angeles to spend a year studying pattern-making at MGM.
Reynolds singled out the influence of costume designer Helen Rose who ensured that every seam, pleat and button passed her inspection. When the actress married her first husband Eddie Fisher, Rose designed the wedding dress. The designer also did the honors for Elizabeth Taylor, Lana Turner, Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly. “We kept her busy with all our marriages,” the thrice-married Reynolds wrote.
Describing her first night out on the town in Hollywood at a party at Marion Davies’, Reynolds said she wore a Rose-designed dress with a mink stole borrowed from Jane Powell and an emerald ring loaned from her acting teacher, Lillian Burns Sideway. Another favorite costume designer was Walter Plunkett who suited up Reynolds for “Singin’ in the Rain” — years after he had created a following thanks to “Gone With the Wind” in 1939 and “Little Women” in 1949.
When word got out that MGM planned to hold an auction in 1970, Reynolds rang up then-president Jim Aubry and learned Lot 2 would be sold along with its props, sets and costumes. “MGM had always been so strict about their costumes. We were not even allowed to borrow them to wear to a party,” she wrote in the essay for the museum exhibition. “I had been around these costumes since I was a teenager and I knew the actresses who wore them to create their famous roles.”
Reynolds recalled advising MGM to turn Lot 2 into a Disneyland, and then hoe she and her second husband Harry Karl beelined it to Citibank in Beverly Hills to borrow $5 million to buy the property but the land went to someone else.
Reynolds also wrote at length about how films were burned in barrels, reams of sheet music was sold as landfill, photo stills were trashed, Reynolds described how costumes were tossed in boxes and even $23,000 designs were sold to costume houses across the country for next-to-nil. Awake at night with concern, she said she bought everything she could.
When the same scenario played out the following year at Century Fox, Reynolds managed to get first dibs on the costumes thanks to her set designer friend Jerry Wunderlich. After amassing thousands of costumes through 40 years of collecting, the actress approached “every wealthy film producer, director and businessperson” she knew to help build a permanent home for her collection, but to no avail. Ultimately the auction’s success was validation of her dream “to save our film history. Now all the glorious Hollywood history they represent can be seen in every corner of the world,” Reynolds wrote.
Prior to auctioning what had become the world’s largest collection of Hollywood costumes, Reynolds helped orchestrate an exhibition at the Paley Media Center in Beverly Hills. “Throngs of fans overflowed” the space, according to her essay.