Debbie Reynolds turns 80 in 10 weeks. “Singing In the Rain,” her break-out film, will celebrate its 60th anniversary later this year. The film is so quaint that when Gene Kelly, Reynolds and Donald O’Connor need a drink, they have milk. Think about that when the 1950s star–who last had a big movie role when Richard Nixon was president, before Watergate–walks on stage this evening at the Flagler Auditorium. Put another way: the auditorium, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this season, has been around for just a third of Reynolds’s professional life, which started when she won a beauty contest at 16 and briefly signed with Warner Bros. She’s been around so long that she only half-jokingly said what she did in the 1996 movie “Mother,” for the sake of late 20th century relevance (forget the 21st): “I’m Carrie Fisher’s mother.”
Or this one-liner of more recent vintage, fired off a few weeks ago in a CNN interview with Joy Behar: “Debbie? Debbie? Let’s go catch Debbie before she dies. Everyone’s — kicking off fast nowadays, you know.” She will sing “I’m Still here” at one point or another, the Stephen Sondheim song: it’s her personal anthem to endurance. For someone who prided herself for being on the road 42 weeks a year until recently, she’s entitled, especially as she’s about to enter their ninth decade (although compared to Betty White, who turned 90 two days ago, Reynolds is still a late-summer chicken).
Reynolds’s act defies more than age: she’ll play off her cheeriness to the point of sarcasm. She’s had the great hits during Hollywood’s golden age–“Singin’ in the Rain” was part of a 1952 crop that included “High Noon,” “The African Queen,” “The Greatest Show on Erath” and “The Quiet Man” (the flick starring John Wayne as an improbable Irishman-boxer)–but she’s also had her share of clunkers, professionally and not-so privately: she’s been married three unhappy times and has such hits as “Aba Daba Honeymoon” to her credit, which she’s called “stupid.” No milk tales anymore, either: she might talk about her friendship with Judy Garland, who also doubled up as a drinking buddy.
And she’ll sing, her voice no longer what it once was but still cheery through bits of “Singin’ in the Rain,” “The Tender Trap,” “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” “You Made Me Love You,” “I Love a Piano,” “The Man That Got Away” and of course “Over the Rainbow.” She does celebrity impressions, too–Katharine Hepburn, Mae West, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Barbra Streisand. “What a relief it must have been at some point for Ms. Reynolds to forsake caution, give up trying to protect an image that was phony to begin with and mouth off,” wrote Stephen Holden, a Times critic reviewing one of her performances a few years ago.
She still has a rich life beyond the stage of course, with auctions that catch the media’s attention (she’s been a life-long collector and is now a late-life auctioneer). Her official biography also notes: “Debbie spends a great deal of time and energy raising funds for the Thalians, a charitable organization that provides mental health services for pediatrics to geriatrics at the Thalians community health center at Cedar-Sinai in Los Angeles. Since the building of the mental health center over a million patients have received the world’s best care for mental health problems from teens to adults to seniors. The center provides services for adult chemical dependency detoxification, eating disorders, psychological trauma, pre-school and infant parenting, electro-convulsive therapy, psychiatric home care and much more. Each year the Thalians honor Hollywood’s greatest celebrities. The Thalians is the world’s first celebrity charity created in 1955 by Hugh O’brian, Jack Haley, jr. and others. Headed by champions Debbie and Ruta Lee, their hard work has raised millions to help others. Named after the muse of comedy, ‘Thalia,’ the Thalians honors Debbie for over 50 years of loving dedication and timeless effort.”
And so she goes on.
“I think it’s true about — you can’t quit, you just go on,” she said on CNN. “It doesn’t matter what, doesn’t matter how sick you are because maybe that will even work for you. And you’re doing it for them. The audience, they got there, they paid there. So you can get out there if you feel bad. That’s too bad. Your calling card is your talent. Your talent is to get out for the audience and entertain them to the best of your ability no heart mow sick you may be. In the end, you do feel better. You work it out, don’t you?”
The Debbie Reynolds performance Thursday, Jan. 19, at the Flagler Auditorium is at 7:30 p.m. Tickets: adults, $42, youth, $32. Call the auditorium box office at 386/437-7547 for tickets.