How’s Your Sense Of Humor?—Debbie Reynolds
All told, it was a pretty terrible morning. In the living room of the little house where Debbie Reynolds’ parents live, the phone shrilled at the unlikely hour of seven a.m.
“Must be Eddie.” she thought, stirring sleepily in bed. He had gone to Las Vegas on a business trip for the week end, and was to have returned at two that morning. A gruesome hour for homecoming, but the only way he could squeeze in all his appointments. She had wanted to stay at home, to be there when he arrived, but he had insisted that she go to her mother’s house. “You’ll be better off with the folks,” he had said. After all, she was expecting the baby, and he didn’t like the thought of her staying alone.
Debbie had looked at him impishly. “All right, I’ll mind you. This time.”
He was probably calling now to say hello, but what a time to do it! She swung her feet out of bed and groped her way to the phone, reaching it a second later than her mother.
“Mrs. Fisher?” It was a strange voice. “This is the fire department. I’m sorry to tell you your house is on fire.” Debbie heard her mother say, “Yes?” It was all she could think of to say.
The voice went on. “We have it pretty well under control, except for the master bedroom. That’s the only room that’s flaming badly.”
Eddie! Debbie suddenly remembered. If he’d arrived home on schedule he’d be in that bedroom now. “Is my husband there?” The question was hardly more than a whisper.
“I don’t know, ma’am. We haven’t been able to get in there.”
“I’ll be right over,” said Debbie. She turned to her mother. “Come on—we had better get right over! The house is on fire! And—and—Eddie—maybe—”
They were halfway out the door, coats slung over their shoulders. when Debbie remembered Jim Mahoney. He’d gone on the trip with Eddie, was to come back with him. If Jim was at his home, that meant Eddie was home for sure! But maybe—She tore back to the phone, and dialed the number.
“Hello?” Jim’s voice cracked with sleep.
Her heart bounced to the soles of her feet like a rubber ball. “Jim—is Eddie home?”
“Uh-uh,” yawned Jim. “He missed his plane, got tied up with business. Missed two, in fact, by the time I left. Why?”
“Nothing. Nothing at all. Everything’s wonderful. I’ll call you later.” She hung up and turned to her mother, relief quite evident in her face and voice. “He isn’t home—everything’s all right.”
“Thank God,” said Mrs. Reynolds, and Debbie did just that. The two women raced through the California morning, Mrs. Reynolds at the wheel, to the Beverly Hills house. They could see the smoke from blocks away. The place was a mess. Flames were spurting out of the upstairs window, and scattered over the lawn were charred remnants of what had been their furniture—twisted bed springs, charred radio parts. Debbie thought of the den with the black leather chair she had given Eddie on their anniversary, and the hifi—and the scrapbooks, with all those pictures she had taken through the years.
“What about the den downstairs?” she asked a passing fireman.
“Okay, ma’am. Everything’s covered with tarps,” he said.
Her mother looked at her, carefully. The baby was due within a few weeks, and this experience wasn’t the kind of thing prescribed by doctors. “How do you feel?”
“Grateful,” said Debbie. “I have a feeling we were watched over, because we weren’t here. As for the fire,” she shrugged, “what is to be will be.”
It wasn’t twenty-four hours before Debbie’s sense of humor took over. With Eddie back at her side safe and sound, who cared? When a friend asked what she’d lost in the fire, she grinned.
“My girl scout uniforms and badges.”
The friend chuckled, “Honestly, Debbie, don’t you ever throw anything away?”
Her reaction was typical. Debbie’s never been one to pout or mourn over misfortune. She may be sad or angry at the moment, but later, in the telling, the story is always for laughs.
Life has been for laughs, as far as Debbie’s concerned. When she was a kid in school she was the comedy relief for her classmates. “I cut a pretty comical figure,” she says. “Anybody who’s not quite five feet tall and weighs not quite ninety pounds, who will march down a field playing a twenty-four pound tuba—well, they’re a born clown.
“I never minded it when people laughed at me; as a matter of fact, I liked it. I think laughter is an awfully important part of life.”
Always a good story
So in love with laughter is Debbie that she unconsciously chooses friends for their sense of humor. She feels that people without humor must lead a dull existence, and to her it is necessary to surround herself with people who have what she calls “the light touch.”
Lita Calhoun, for instance.
Debbie never phones the Calhoun home that Lita doesn’t have a funny story to tell—and most of the time it’s a joke on herself. Debbie appreciates the fact; there is nothing more dampening to the spirit than to listen to the gloomy troubles of others, and nothing that gives more of a lift than a laugh.
She is the same way herself. The house can burn down, the washing machine can leak all over the laundry, and while it may be maddening at the moment, it always provides a good story. Take the time she was attacked by over-zealous fans. They ripped her dress, grabbed her scarf, and one even managed to get her shoes. At the time she was shopping in Beverly Hills. So back to her car she walked—not only bedraggled, but barefooted. But that evening at home her dinner guests roared at her imitation of herself limping back to the car . . . while the well-groomed onlookers stared at her. “So maybe it was worth it all,” Debbie laughs, “it made a good story!”
“I think,” says Debbie, “that people can talk themselves into troubles. I’ve known lots of people who are chronic worriers, and they aren’t really happy unless they have something to complain about. They’re all over gloom and doom, and first thing you know they’re in bed with an ulcer or a stroke. It seems to me that if you try to see the funny side of things, you’ll live a lot better and a lot longer. I think laughter is the best therapy in the world. When something awful happens to you, you can drive it into the ground if you want to, but if you can laugh at it, it somehow no longer seems to be so terrible.
“Some people have to train themselves to look for the amusing side—others are born to it, and I think I’m one of these lucky ones.”
If it’s funny—enjoy it
More important, she talks herself out of things. Even the wild ride from Palm Springs to the maternity ward in Los Angeles had, for Debbie, its lighter side. Not expecting the baby for another two weeks, she was totally unprepared for the premature event, and suddenly found herself in the back seat of a car, tearing along the desert highways at ninety miles an hour. She had read about it happening to other people, but took it for granted that something like that would never happen to her. Tilting around curves, she was frightened at first, and then began to giggle. “This is really a kick,” she thought to herself. “Here I am speeding through the night with my husband and our doctor, running all the traffic lights and Eddie looking at his watch every time he goes by a street light.”
The point is, Debbie figures, if something is funny you might as well enjoy it. If it isn’t funny, you’ll learn something.
Like when she first brought Carrie Frances home. Little Carrie contracted her first case of hiccups, and watching the small frame racked by what seemed agonizing spasms, Debbie was horrified. “She’s going to die!” she informed the nurse hysterically.
“You don’t say,” said the cool figure in white. “For your information, your daughter enjoys hiccups. The rhythm puts her to sleep.”
“Oh,” said Debbie.
The real friends
You have to learn to accept things as they come. Debbie was sixteen when she went into show business. The word had no sooner gone the rounds of the high school than some of the girls began shaking their heads over the new Debbie. “Haven’t you noticed how she’s changed?” they said. ‘“She’s really getting stuck-up.” Meeting them in the halls Debbie would say hello and be cut to the quick when they turned their backs on her. It seems to her now that she cried for a month straight. She’d gone happily along without a care in the world and taken it for granted that everyone liked her, and now girls she had considered her friends were refusing to speak to her.
Mrs. Reynolds offered some sound advice, “You’re lucky it’s happened,” she told Debbie. “Now you’ll find out who your real friends are. The others you’ll have to learn to take for what they are.”
It was no sooner said than done. The three girls who defended Debbie and even got embroiled in heated arguments over her rumored conceit, are today Debbie’s closest friends.
“When I had to learn lessons like that, they couldn’t possibly be funny, but they were worthwhile. My mother helped me see clearly in many things such as that, but I think the most important thing she did for me was give me a happy home. If you’re raised in a happy family you don’t take yourself so seriously. Nobody in my family ever looked for unhappiness.”
A girl with savoir faire
Because she doesn’t take herself seriously, Debbie has sailed through the most embarrassing moments with a savoir faire that would do credit to a statesman. When she was still in her teens she was in Mexico, and about to be presented to that country’s president. The line was long and the wait was tiresome, and Debbie, in company with the president’s son, breathed a sigh of relief when the line had shortened to the point that there were only two couples ahead of them. An instant later she had the sinking sensation that something was slipping. Something was indeed; she had shortened two full petticoats under her lace skirt by the old-fashioned expedient of a large safety pin. And now the pin had come undone and both petticoats were slowly sinking to the ground. One more couple and it would be her turn to greet the president. She clutched at her left side and leaned over to whisper to her escort, “I’m losing my petticoat. Hang on.”
With an aplomb far beyond his years, the young man grabbed at Debbie’s right side and held up the truant petticoats, which left Debbie one free hand with which to shake that of the president.
Many a girl Debbie’s age would have considered it the worst experience of her life, but Debbie’s presence of mind saved the day. And even while it was happening she was struck by the humor of the situation. Later she stood in back of the boy, using him as a shield while she re-pinned the petticoats. And she was still giggling over it!
She has been pulled apart in mobs, her sweaters ripped, her hair yanked until it really hurt. But afterwards, always, Debbie turns the incident into a comedy and convulses people with the story of how it happened.
Some things, of course, have no humor. You cannot laugh at illness or bereavement or death. But trust Debbie to know a funny story even about a funeral; a true story, for to Debbie truth is funnier than fiction. The deceased had been, in his younger days, a soldier, and therefore a seven gun salute was planned at the burial service. When the first gun boomed over the cemetery the shock caused an elderly lady to faint, whereupon her young grandson yelled, “Good heavens! They shot grandma!” This convulsed the minister, who laughed so hard he backed into the grave and promptly broke his leg. This may sound farfetched, but it really happened!
Debbie has always remembered Red Skelton’s explanation of why he became a comedian. Says Red, “I love to see people laugh. Whether they are laughing at me or at something else, there’s nothing as heartwarming as the sound and the look of laughter.”
Debbie not only agrees with him, she goes one step farther. “It’s good for others, but it’s good for you, too. It’s life’s eraser of unhappiness.”
—BY JANE WILKIE
Debbie can currently be seen in RKO’s Bundle Of Joy. Watch for her in MGM’s The Reluctant Debutante, U-I’s Tammy.
It is a quote. MODERN SCREEN MAGAZINE APRIL 1957