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Alicia Gifford

Debbie and Me

My family moved to Evergreen Street in Burbank, California in the mid 1950’s. It was an ordinary block of neat, middle class homes except that Debbie Reynolds had grown up there; it’s where she was living when she won the Miss Burbank title in 1948, a year before I was born. Her real name was Mary Frances Reynolds or "Frannie" as her family and friends called her. She was given the name Debbie by MGM who signed her to a contract when she won the beauty contest at the age of sixteen. By the time my family—the Ruizes—moved into our fixer upper home she was already big stuff, a major star with movies like Two Weeks With where she scored big time with her hit Abba Dabba Honeymoon, Singin’ in the Rain with Gene Kelly, and The Tender Trap with Frank Sinatra. She no longer lived in Burbank, but her parents, Maxene and Ray Reynolds lived a mere four houses down the street from me. I learned to swim in their pool—a turquoise gem of a gift from Deb with the words "Abba Dabba Honeymoon" inscribed on the steps.

The first Debbie Reynolds movie I saw was Tammy and the Bachelor, a film I watched dreamily on the big screen at the Magnolia Theater (admission: thirty-five cents), two blocks from where the mega star had grown up. It was a huge hit for us starry-eyed, prepubescent girls: my sister, our two best friends and me. We scoured the movie for "tips" on how to act with boys and how to enhance our adorableness factor. We dissected it, aspiring to attain a smidge of Debbie’s vivacious über pluck and boy appeal. She was America’s sweetheart, the tomboy girl next-door—naïve, virginal and irresistible to suave men wowed by her endearing innocence. I wanted to be just like her—the chaste personification of perk and sass. I knew every word to the songs on her album Am I That Easy to Forget? I memorized every nuance of her phrasing. I thought Tammy was the deepest, most beautiful thing I’d ever heard.

In 1955 Debbie married O My Papa crooner Eddie Fisher and gave birth to Carrie Fisher a year later; then a son, Todd, a couple of years after that.

The scandal of the decade erupted in 1959 when Mike Todd—Elizabeth Taylor’s husband and Eddie Fisher’s best friend—died in a plane crash. Eddie went to comfort the bereaved Liz only to succumb to the sultry star’s feral charm and violet eyes. It was huge: "Eddie dumps Debbie for Liz!" The movie magazines splashed the mesmerizing photos of Debbie, adorably coiffed in her bumper bangs and braids, looking lost and vulnerable (and cute as a kitty) with the caption, "Am I that easy to forget?" in contrast with photos of the voluptuous, amazingly gorgeous Liz, and the hangdog sleaze of Eddie. I sucked in every detail, swiping Movie Screen and Photoplay magazines from the Albin’s Drugstore on the corner of Hollywood Way and Magnolia. Alliances were drawn: you were on Debbie’s side or Liz’s (no one was for Eddie). I conceded that Liz was beautiful and sensual; I drew her eyes and perfect eyebrows endlessly on all my schoolwork, but I was absolutely in Debbie’s camp.

I couldn’t get enough. No one could.

Deb hung out at Mom and Dad’s a lot those blue days, toting Carrie and Todd along with her. It was a neighborhood event when she was visiting Evergreen Street, a rally swept the kids in the ‘hood (baby boomers all) and we’d saunter past the modest home, hoping for a glimpse of the woeful star. Debbie’s brother, Bill, and his family lived up the block, and Debbie’s niece, Gail, a year or so younger than I, was a friend of my sister and me and our portal to Debbie-ness. It was Gail who invited us to swim at her Grandma Maxene’s house. We weren’t allowed into the deep end until we could swim the width of the pool twice to the satisfaction of Maxene. We learned to swim like seal pups, baking to a sleek brown those delicious summer days we got invited. Over and over I traced with my fingers the cursive letters of "Abba Dabba Honeymoon" etched into the concrete steps, and inhaled Maxene’s talk about Frannie this and Frannie that.

Gail also invited my sister and I to her TV birthday party on the Chucko the Clown Show where Debbie (Aunt Frannie) showed up in a crimson dress with a great, flaring, full skirt that showcased her impossibly teensy waist. She wore her honey-colored hair up high in a ponytail that day, and a small scarf around her long, graceful neck (oh how I yearned for a neck like that—the antithesis of my perfectly serviceable, trouble-free, stubby one) and glamorous red lipstick that, when she smiled, framed perfect, movie star teeth.

As deftly as Liz swept Eddie away from Debbie, she swept him into the dumpster when she met Richard Burton on the set of Cleopatra. She married Burton as soon as her divorce to Eddie was final—exactly like Eddie had married Liz as soon as he was divorced from Debbie. Hooray for Hollywood.

In 1960 Debbie married Harry Karl, a millionaire magnate of cheap, plastic shoes. From my youthful perspective Harry Karl looked a hundred years old, like Debbie’s grandpa. In solidarity with her I wore Karl’s terrible, cheap shoes on my blistered, sweaty feet until they fell apart—they’d last two, maybe three weeks. Debbie showed up at her folk’s home in a pale yellow Rolls Royce after marrying Karl, and Carrie, four or five years old then, came up to my house, accompanied by Gail and Todd, smiling and shy. Carrie was a baby ham; she loved being center stage and she’d lark about, booming her deep, huge voice while we kids fawned over her, toady and brown-nosed, giving the kind of overblown attention that makes movie star’s kids wary and tight-lipped and unsure of who they are.

I sucked in This Happy Feeling, It Started With a Kiss, The Mating Game, The Gazebo, How the West Was Won, and in 1964 I slurped up The Unsinkable Molly Brown, learning the words to her songs and trying to dance like her, thinking I could woo the boy next door with my perky Debbie-antics. The wooing was successful—he was my first love and I still dream about him—but in retrospect I think Debbie’s impact was minimal. Hormones were the key to that romance.

As films like Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy, A Clockwork Orange, Eraserhead, and Carnal Knowledge came out, romantic comedies of the fifties and sixties seemed sappy and inane. I guffawed at The Graduate, Where’s Poppa? and Mash. I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey while buzzed on my own, mescaline-induced space odyssey; and gagged up a mini-vomit when Divine ate dog shit in John Water’s Pink Flamingoes. The Pill and Roe vs. Wade changed everything—sex and smut were everywhere—and it was groovy baby. Yeah.

Debbie said she stopped making movies because she didn’t want to take her clothes off. "Maybe it’s realism, but in my opinion, it’s utter filth," she said. The times, they were a-changin’.

I graduated from college with a Bachelor’s degree in Nursing, becoming a registered nurse. Debbie Reynolds crossed my path again in the mid 1970s when she was a patient on the floor I worked on at St. Joseph’s in Burbank. Her room was sweet smelling from scads of flowers and her liberal use of L’Aire du Temps; even today a whiff of that perfume reminds me of her. I went to give her a pain shot (she’d had a garden variety surgical procedure involving female organs). Maxene was at her bedside.

"Aren’t you one of the Ruiz girls?" Maxene asked as I stood before them in my crisp, white uniform brandishing a shot of Demerol.

I beamed. "Yes, I learned to swim in your pool." I was thrilled that Maxene remembered me, all grown up. Debbie was indifferent; she wanted her shot.

"You have to put it here," Debbie said, pointing to a spot mid butt cheek that was all wrong for an intramuscular injection. "You see, I’m a dancer—"

"Well, I’m a nurse, and I’ll put it here," I said as I jabbed it into the upper outer quadrant of her glute. Really. Like I’d try to tell her how to dance.

When I was twenty-nine I married a cardiologist who coincidentally became Maxene’s doctor when she started having problems with her heart, and he let her know he was married to one of the Ruiz girls. She’s passed on now but I remember her fondly, grateful to her for letting us swim in her pool. It’s a swell memory.

I’m grateful to Debbie too, and for growing up in the 1950s and all those sappy, cornball romantic comedies where girls were hard-to-get, virtuous and adorable. I’m glad I experienced innocence and naïveté and gooey dreams of a handsome Leslie Nielson or Glen Ford knocking me off my cheaply shod feet. Today, sex sells. It’s explicit, a commercial commodity, the thrilling, verboten allure of it is gone—or attenuated anyway. Little girls bump and grind provocatively, wanting to be like their idols on MTV. They know what a blowjob is. Wouldn’t they be better off in a cool, dark theater with stars in their eyes, innocent and dreamy? Hard-to-get, at least until they start their periods?

Most romantic comedies today make me want to go shrieking naked into the night. As a film genre, it’s still in a sorry state. Think: You’ve Got Mail—sheer torture; or Runaway Bride, a stimulus to the gag reflex as effective as Divine nibbling on poop. Even the very successful Sleepless in Seattle was a big yawn. A few have some freshness and spark. I loved Princess Bride, High Fidelity, Chasing Amy, The Tao of Steve. There’s hope.

After seventeen years of marriage the cardiologist and I divorced and we don’t speak. Am I that easy to forget? I don’t think so. He thinks of me every time he sits to write me my spousal and child support checks.

I admire Carrie and both of her poles. She’s brilliant in that mad scientist kind of way—today’s Dorothy Parker. I relate to her excess. Bravo Carrie. Call me.

Debbie looks a lot like Maxene with a face-lift these days. Her life started like a fairy tale but she’s gone through a lot of muck with men who left her heartbroken and bankrupt. She’s still got spunk though, an old lady kicking ass. It’s that "unsinkable" thing.

Alicia Gifford, ex-nurse, now-writer, lives in Burbank, California, with her Goth son and two wheaten terriers. She's been published extensively in The Journal of Her Own Mind. She no longer lives on the block-where-Debbie-Reynolds-grew-up, but her octogenarian mother, Olga, does.

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