Debbie Reynolds: Miss Burbank of 1948

(Chapter five from Debbie, my life by Debbie Reynolds; William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1988)

The chapter begins with sixteen year-old Mary Frances (as she was then called) living with her family at 1934 Evergreen Street in Burbank.


ONE MAY DAY in 1948, my friend Norma Harris and I were walking down Magnolia Boulevard when we saw a little handbill advertising the Miss Burbank contest that was being sponsored by Lock- heed Aircraft. Every girl who entered, it said, no matter what, received a blouse and a scarf. All you had to do was enter and they gave you a scarf and a blouse?! The only requirement was that the girls had to be sixteen or over. I made it by a month! We hurried right over to the Recreation Hall to sign up.

It seemed like half the girls in my class were there registering - the pretty half, that is. After all, it was a beauty contest. But that didn't matter to me. I didn't tell anybody, but I never dreamed of going through with it. I was not exactly a member of the glamour department; I didn't even wear lipstick. What did matter was getting the white silk' sports blouse and a green scarf. Plus we were all going to be taken someplace for a free lunch! A party! My mother thought we were crazy when we told her.

"Miss Burbank?!" She couldn't believe there was such a thing. The night of the contest, we were sitting at the dinner table when Mother brought it up. I thought she'd forgotten.

"What time you supposed to be down at the auditorium, Mary Frances?"

"Oh, I'm not going till about eight-thirty." "What? Isn't that starting a little late?"

"Well, it doesn't matter for me because I'm not going to be in it," I answered blithely.

"What? How come?"

"Well, because . . . I'm not going to go enter some beauty contest! I'm not that dumb."

"You were dumb enough to sign up and collect the free blouse and scarf and the lunch!" she reminded me reproachfully.

 My father said, "Sis is going to be in a beauty contest? You kiddin' around?" he asked Mother. He wasn't putting me down. He just saw it as another one of my jokes.

"I don't know, but she signed up to be in it."

"Oh, Mother, Daddy's right," I said. "It's silly for me to do that. For one thing, it's wasting their time."

"That's not the point, Mary Frances."

But then my father said, "Oh, no, you don't. You gave your word. Anytime a Reynolds gives his word, he keeps it."

"Well, I can't go. I got a hole in my bathing suit."

"Well, I'll sew up the hole in your bathing suit," Mother said, "but you're gonna go."

So that was it. Yes, sir. Yes, ma'am.

I called Jerry Odens and told him what my parents had said. He agreed.

I couldn't believe it.

I had to show some talent in the contest, but what? I could play "Pomp and Circumstance" on the French horn. But in a beauty contest? I could do a jitterbug, but not without a partner. I couldn't sing; I couldn't dance. I could do an impersonation the way I did for the Scouts. An impersonation was it. Jerry took charge of the record player and record.

Jerry said I had to wear high-heeled shoes. It's a good thing he thought of it. I never would have. I didn't have a pair. Who had high heels? Jeanette, Diane, Barbara; none of them did. We were going to be gym teachers! Finally I thought of Patsy Hockensmith. She always had beautiful clothes. I knew she must have a pair, and I was right.

I put my hair up in bobby pins. Mother darned up the hole in my jantzen, and Jerry came by with a box of chocolates for me.

We got to the auditorium as they were giving out last-minute instructions. There were going to be three categories: Talent, Beauty, and Personality. We would be interviewed, do a couple of turns in our bathing suits, and then our little routines. This was all going to be judged by a distinguished panel of three people: two men who were talent scouts from a couple of the movie studios, and a lady casting agent.

All I could think of was how was I going to pull off hiding the patched-up hole in the back of my bathing suit. Every time I turned they were going to see it. Unless I could remember to swing my left arm back behind me every time I did a turn, covering that spot.

Out in front the auditorium was filling up. Grandma and Grandpa Harman were up from Texas visiting. They came with my mother.

Daddy stayed home. My girlfriends were all there. Billy and a bunch of his friends came to stand in the back and get a good laugh out of Sis in a beauty contest.

First came the Beauty Parade. I went through my turns backstage, rehearsing how I was going to hide the bathing-suit hole. But the real problem was the shoes. Patsy Hockensmith's heels were a size four with what seemed like four-inch heels. I'm a size two. It was the first time in my life I'd ever had a pair on. My heel came up only to her arch. I stuffed Kleenex in the toes and discovered that if I lifted the shoe just enough, I could slide my feet most of the way.

Then I heard them announce me. "Miss Mary Frances Reynolds."

I took three steps out onto the stage. The sliding worked but the shoes made a loud cloppety sound as the heels slid on and off my feet. All that was on my mind was not tripping or losing my balance. Forget the patch on my bathing suit. My legs were so wobbly, they must have looked as if they were going to come loose. Then, after each girl had paraded around, the emcee asked us one by one why we wanted to be "Miss Burbank."

"I don't want to be," I answered. That got quite a few laughs, especially from some of the boys up in the back of the auditorium. The emcee looked at me, confused.

"I'm here because I know I won't win," I said, almost blase. There was more twittering from the seats. "I'm just here because I live in Burbank." I shrugged.

Everyone thought that was hysterical. Well, it was true, wasn't it? Then came the talent. There were girls with beautiful voices; one girl played the harp. Another did a tap dance. Another acted out a scene from Little Women. I stood back in the wings watching. Each girl was better than the last.

I came out lugging my record player, balancing precariously on Patsy Hockensmith's high heels. I almost fell over with my backside to the audience as I placed the record player on the floor. There was a big laugh out front. I realized they thought I had planned it. So I turned around and said, "I'm wearing heels for the first time in my life and they're killing me. May I take them off?"

They loved it! They started clapping and shouting, yelling "Yes!" at me. It was just like the Girl Scouts for this natural-born ham. I went, into my Betty Hutton routine in comfort, performing "I'm a Square in the Social Circle."

When I finished they hooted and stomped. I packed up my things and left the stage, barefooted, high heels balanced on top of the record player.

I was walking out the stage door with my things when the man from the Chamber of Commerce stopped me.

"Where you going, Mary Frances?"

"Home," I answered.

"Oh, you gotta stay till it's over," he said. "Those are the rules."

After the girls were finished, we all waited in the back.

The man from the Chamber of Commerce repeated the categories. Beauty, Talent, and Personality. The winner of the Beauty was . . . Juanita Castelo, a beautiful Spanish girl. A big round of applause. Then the winner of the talent was ... the girl who played the harp. More applause. Then I heard him shout: "MARY FRANCES REYNOLDS!" and a big war whoop went up from the audience.

What? I thought. What?!

Then someone pushed me out onstage. Jerry Odens was going wild, shouting his excitement. My girlfriends were cheering and crying. My brother was shocked.

In the pictures that were taken that night, my mouth is hanging open and I've got a dazed stare on my face. The winner? Of a beauty contest?

Which was what my father thought when we got home and told him.

"Well, wasn't there anybody else in the contest?" he asked.

We all thought that was very funny. Daddy was as shocked as I was when he realized it was true.

I was to reign as Queen of Burbank for two weeks. There would be parades and festivities for me to take part in. I'd won a robe-and-pajama set, a string of pearls, and a trip for two to New York, all expenses paid. 


The rest, as they say, was history. After winning the Miss Burbank contest Debbie got a seven-year contract from Warner Brothers, for whom she worked while attending high school at John Burroughs Senior High School. While at Warner's she also worked for a time in the women's clothing section of the downtown Burbank J.C. Penney's. With her earnings from Warner Brothers she bought her parents a swimming pool for the house on Evergreen St. After Debbie moved out, however, her father had it filled in with dirt - a situation that was only fixed when the house was sold in the early Seventies. (Her father felt that he alone should be responsible for improvements to the home.)

Los Angeles Times articles about Debbie Reynolds:

Below: From 9 July 1948.

Below: From 1 December 1949

Below: 29 December 1949