How Debbie Reynolds Preserved Movie History: "Hollywood Owes a Huge Debt"

Debbie Reynolds Costume Exhibition_Getty - H 2016
Frazer Harrison/Getty

Debbie Reynolds Costume Exhibition_Getty - H 2016

The actress was one of Hollywood's greatest memorabilia collectors and an early advocate for the preservation of the town's history.

Debbie Reynolds once approached pal Joey Bishop for his pants.

No, this wasn't some oddball flirtation. Reynolds wanted to add the tux trousers to her memorabilia collection. Bishop, she recalled in a 2014 interview, thought she was a "nutcase," but eventually he complied, giving Reynolds a complete set of Rat Pack tuxes (from Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop). The tuxes were sold in 2014 for $120,000 in the third and final auction of Reynolds' collection of film costumes and memorabilia.

Reynolds, who died on Dec. 28, one day after the death of daughter Carrie Fisher, was one of Hollywood's greatest memorabilia collectors and an early advocate for the preservation of the town's history. "Hollywood owes Debbie Reynolds a huge debt for elevating its costumes and props to high art," says James Comisar, whose Comisar Collection is the most comprehensive collection of TV costumes and memorabilia. "She believed they were nearly religious in their cultural significance, and with Hollywood artifacts now selling along the top tier for millions of dollars a piece, we have proof of sorts that she was right about the artistic and historic merits of items worn or wielded by screen gods."

From the moment Reynolds arrived in Hollywood as a 17-year-old beauty queen (she was Ms. Burbank 1948), she was interested in collecting. "I used to spend my spare time in the wardrobe department, watching the most talented people create costumes for the actors," she recalled when she sold her collection in 2011. "I was fascinated by how they were able to translate a simple suggestion in a script, sometimes even a piece of dialogue, into a magnificent costume. I loved everything that went into the process — the sketches, the fabrics, the construction."

Reynolds' collecting kicked into high gear in 1970, when MGM sold off its props and wardrobes in a famous auction. "She was in shock," recalls Joe Maddalena, a longtime collecting friend of Reynolds and the owner of Profiles in History, which handled the sale of her collection in 2011.

"They literally threw away our history, and I just got caught up in it," Reynolds told THR in 2011. "The stupidity and the lack of foresight to save our history. Oh yes, they gave them away if you came up and said that you have something you had to offer. It was no matter about the history." Maddalena says Reynolds was ahead of the curve in seeing the importance of preserving this material, even though famed gossip columnist Hedda Hopper mocked her for spending her money at the auction.

After the auction, Reynolds said she was transformed from a "normal" collector to an obsessive one. In the process, she created what Maddalena says was "hands down for film the best collection in the world." Ticking off everything in the lot would be impossible. A short list would include a pair of Dorothy's ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, Marilyn Monroe's white "subway grate" dress from The Seven Year Itch, a headdress her friend Elizabeth Taylor wore in Cleopatra, a Charlie Chaplin bowler, a Tom Hanks costume from Big and on and on. (The auction catalogs are here, here and here.)

Comisar says Reynolds had a shrewd instinct for what to collect. "Debbie's driver was always passion, never profit, though she still had an incredible eye for market-making," he says, adding that she paid the "then unheard of" of $100,000 for Audrey Hepburn's My Fair Lady dress in the late '90s (pictured) only to turn around and sell it for $4.4 million in 2011.

Maddalena adds, "I could take a $50 costume or a $1 million one off the rack and show it to her, and her enthusiasm was equal. They all had a story. It was worn by a friend, or she knew this or that actor. She was the ultimate fangirl. She just happened to be an actress."

Reynolds dreamed of housing her collection in a museum. An ill-fated attempt in the early '90s to start one in Las Vegas tied to a Debbie Reynolds hotel and casino ended in bankruptcy in 1997. Next, her partner for a Los Angeles-based museum failed to find financing. Still another plan in the early 2000s to house it at a resort in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. (near Dollywood) also ended up in bankruptcy. As plans for a potential Academy museum began to coalesce, Reynolds hoped it would make an offer for the collection. She told THR in 2014 that she approached the Academy five times. "I said, 'Please, let's do this together.' It was refused each time."

The failed projects and the cost of maintaining the collection took a toll on Reynolds' finances. In 2011 she reluctantly began selling the collection. Three separate auctions were held between 2011 and 2014 and generated tens of millions of dollars (the first alone took in over $22 million).

Among the prices paid were $5.5 million for Monroe's "subway" dress, $510,000 for the ruby slippers, $910,000 for another of Dorothy's Wizard of Oz dresses and $140,000 for the guitar Julie Andrews played in The Sound of Music. Maddalena, whose Profiles in History conducted the auction, says the sale saw "prices that will never happen again" because of both the pedigree of Reynolds' collection and because "people came to support Debbie." He says the sale was bittersweet for Reynolds, who was giving up "her children" but took satisfaction because "the scorecard said she was right: This stuff matters."

Both Comisar and Maddalena say Reynolds helped make the Academy's film museum, now under construction on Wilshire Blvd., possible. "Likely most of the cinematic vintage pieces that are still here today are the result of her courage and connoisseurship," says Comisar. His suggestion? "Perhaps their forthcoming museum exhibit gallery should be named after the one unsinkable gal who never gave up on Hollywood's treasures."