One of Our Own: The Great Debbie Reynolds

by Susie Hodgson

She was cute, she was bubbly and she had a good singing voice. But, like all teenage girls, what she didn’t have were enough clothes - if you asked her. So,16-year-old Mary Frances Reynolds entered a beauty contest in her town because all contestants were promised a new blouse and scarf. To her great surprise, she won and became Miss Burbank. And that was the start of the decades-long career of our own Debbie Reynolds!

The Reynolds family arrived in Burbank when little “Franny” was still in grade school. She grew up on Evergreen Street and attended John Burroughs back when it was a junior high school and then Burbank High. But after she won Miss Burbank in 1948, her life changed. In fact, studios vied to sign her up. Warner Brothers won and the great (and dictatorial) Jack Warner took it upon himself to rename Franny, Debbie. It had a younger, more vibrant sound.

But it was MGM who borrowed Debbie and put her in her first BIG movie. Singin’ in the Rain is often called the greatest musical ever made. Co-directed, choreographed and starring Gene Kelly, it is said that the taskmaster Kelly did not want her; after all, she didn’t know anything! So for three grueling months, Debbie danced while Kelly yelled at her, “Smile, kid!” until her feet bled. But it paid off. It is hard to imagine the “Good Morning” number without Debbie in it!

From there, Debbie Reynolds starred in hit after hit movie. In Tammy and the Bachelor she also sang the theme song. Both movie and song were hits. There was also Bundle of Joy, The Rat Race, How the West Was Won, The Singing Nun - and who could forget The Unsinkable Molly Brown? Written by Meredith Wilson, who also penned The Music Man, it was the story of a survivor of the Titanic who would never give up. It was typecasting at its finest (even if no one knew it yet) and Debbie Reynolds – who herself never gave up -- was nominated for an Oscar. (See below for more information on our exhibit on this film.)

But it was Debbie’s private life that really made the headlines in the 1950’s. She met a singer who was a sensation at the time, Eddie Fisher, and together they made beautiful music. Debbie (America’s Sweetheart) married Fisher, and two children quickly joined the family: Carrie in 1956 and Todd in 1958.

Todd was named for Eddie’s best friend, director Mike Todd, best known for the epic film Around the World in 80 Days. Mike Todd was married to the very sultry Elizabeth Taylor, and Eddie & Debbie and Mike & Liz palled around together all the time. The four were very close until tragedy struck and 48-year-old Mike Todd was killed in a plane crash. Debbie told Eddie to console his widow (yes, the sultry one) and each cried on the other’s shoulder until the inevitable happened. As Carrie Fisher later said, “Eddie ran to Liz’s side, and eventually made his way to her front…”

To say this was an enormous scandal is not to give it the drama and punch it had. Forget Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt -- this was even bigger. Eddie Fisher’s singing career was doomed -- he was hated! But Liz did just fine, dumping Eddie Fisher a few years later for Richard Burton.

Debbie Reynolds, with the public’s full support, moved right along, making movies, supporting the children and eventually remarrying.

In fact, Debbie remarried twice more, each time to another type of awful man. Both men took her for all her money, bankrupting her and then some. Just like Molly Brown, Debbie vowed not just to survive, but thrive. And she did.

Debbie worked right up to her 80’s. Singing, dancing, starring in movies and television roles and playing Vegas, she was indeed a trouper. She also collected famous Hollywood costumes including Dorothy’s gingham jumper from The Wizard of Oz and the white dress that flew up Marilyn Monroe in The 7 Year Itch.

Debbie died at the age of 84 at her home, no longer in Burbank, but in Beverly Hills. She passed away just one day after her beloved (and very talented) daughter Carrie succumbed to a heart attack. Many say Debbie died of a broken heart. For once, Debbie couldn’t push on.

We at the Gordon R. Howard Museum/Burbank Historical Society are proud to feature an exhibit dedicated to Debbie Reynolds. Among other things, we have her spectacular red feather gown featured in "The Unsinkable Molly Brown” as well as the blue bathing suit she wore in the Miss Burbank of 1948 pageant. Come see!

There is a Debbie Reynolds photo album on Burbankia.

The Burbank Historical Society/Gordon R. Howard Museum
Located in George Izay Park, right next to the Creative Arts Center
Phone: (818) 841-6333
Web site:

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