. . . I Never Knew Debbie Reynolds!
When I left home for the Army I still considered Frannie (she may be Debbie Reynolds to you, but I’ve always called her Frannie—I can’t get used to calling her “Debbie”) just a kid sister. The fact that I was wrong, and had been for some time, was made clear to me when I came home on leave six months later.
First thing I remember was opening the door to the backyard and—no backyard! Just a big hole in the ground. Said Frannie, “That’s the swimming pool!” It turned out that not only had Frannie grown up—so had her career!
Frannie did more for me: when I — was in the service than I can impart to you. She elevated my name from “Potato Peeler Reynolds” to “Mister Potato Peeler Reynolds.” That all came about shortly after my arrival at Camp Roberts.
I was the lowliest of the lows—a buck private. I’m sure that no one there was familiar with the name of buck private Bill Reynolds, excepting maybe those millions of potatoes I peeled.
Certainly the guys on the base didn’t know me from Adam. I could’a died and the only person who’d have missed me would’a been the K.P. Sergeant.
Then one day Frannie came up to the camp to entertain. She knocked off a terrific routine with Keenan Wynn and some other great Hollywood personalities. Natch, I was one of the first to see her and talk to her after the show. We talked about home and stuff—I told her how great I thought the show was and how much we appreciated everything she and her gang were doing. The whole camp was packed around us, echoing the same sentiments.
’Course when the gang saw Debbie Reynolds talking to buck private Bill Reynolds they put two and two ‘together and got twenty-two. I could have been a major after that for all the Misters I got tacked onto my monicker. Yes, sir, from the whole gang after that it was Mister Buck Private Bill Reynolds. My stock really soared!
As for the potatoes, they didn’t get a chance to see Debbie’s show so it didn’t make any difference to them at all. The tons of spuds were still waiting for me when I got back.
But that camp show set me to thinking. I’d been running off all these years about how useless kid sisters were. Then suddenly here was my kid sister doing me so much good! I’ll admit, I felt kind of sheepish. ’Specially when I realized Frannie had been going all out for the Service guys for so long. Yes, sir, it really straightened out my thinking re kid sisters, Frannie wasn’t the only one in the family who’d changed. So had I!
What guy at some time or another hasn’t wished he could trade his kid sister for something useful?
Like a bike, when he’s still a kid himself; or maybe a souped-up jalopy when he’s growing up; and later maybe a good set of golf clubs.
In my case, my younger sister Frannie was as good as a brother in many respects. She could run as fast as I could; pitch a ball like Bob Feller; and how she could ride a bike!
No matter how good she was at sports, however, you could look at her, and without any imagination tell that she was a kid sister, not a kid brother! And everybody knows that kid sisters are completely useless! At least there was a time when I thought so.
When we were still in our teens, for example, we didn’t see eye to eye at all. ’Specially on the subject of boys and girls. Since I was older than Frannie, I got interested in girls before she got interested in boys. Man, I thought girls were great! Fact is, still do! (Though now I’m devoted to only two: my beautiful wife, Joyce, and our baby daughter, Gail.)
However, when I started getting interested in girls, Frannie was still wrapped up in playing baseball and football with the guys on the block. No doubt about it, if she’d been a boy she would have made a great running-back at USC. She was interested in boys, all right, but only so far as their athletic prowess was concerned. She liked it fine when they made passes—so long as they were of the football variety.
I used to make myself real obnoxious by teasing her about the guys we played ball with. It was a sure way of getting her goat. Our conversations went something like this:
“Say, Tubby-next-door thinks you’re pretty keen,” I’d begin. (Truth was that Tubby-next-door always complained about Frannie. Said he didn’t want to play with anybody’s pug-nosed kid sister. I really think he was afraid of her ’cause she used to throw the roughest blocks.) Even so I’d say, “Tubby-next-door thinks you’re keen.”
Frannie, thinking I was going to pass along a compliment on her football ability would light up like Fourth of July and pop back with, “Really?”
“That’s right. I think he’s got a crush on you.” That always came as an out-and-out insult to Frannie. You’d think I was accusing her of having two heads.
“Oh! Boys . . . !” she’d explode. “You ruin everything!”
“Nothing wrong with boys,” I’d brag. “They just like girls. I think girls are pretty swell myself . . .”
“You know what I think,” Fran would blaze. “I think you’re a square. And that goes for all boys, too!”
Since that time there’s been a small-type change in Frannie’s attitude toward the opposite sex. Nowadays, when she comes home from the studio (the kid comes in so tired I don’t think she works down there—I really think she plays football), there’s usually a date waiting for her in the living room. It happens nearly every day, so I guess you could call it the waiting room, but some guys spend so much time in there they should call it a living room.
At any rate, since I’m elected to entertain the date till Frannie is ready, I’ve had a chance to meet up with some real fine guys. Now when I ask her if she remembers the time she thought boys were squares, she just laughs and says, “Oh, Bill. I never said that! Did I?”
Yep, things have changed.
As a kid sister I guess you could say Frannie was usually trying to be of some use. There was the time, right after I’d gotten married, that I told her my wife was expecting a baby.
The only reason that Fran was the first one I told was because she was the closest. I had just picked up this information myself in a casual conversation with my wife. The fact that I was in a state of shock may have accounted for my slurred speaking voice as I ran through the house shouting, “Father! Father! I’m going to be a father!”
I remember the news gave me a combined feeling of both surprise and pride. I felt as if I’d swallowed a quart of my favorite fudge-ripple ice cream (but I wasn’t prepared for the shock the chills gave me). At any rate, I was just busting out to tell someone. And as I wildly ran through the house, it was Frannie I first bumped into.
In all fairness to Frannie, I’ll have to take the blame for what happened. After all, I was the excited one, but when she heard the news she practically got on the air with it. No kidding—broadcast it from one end of town to the other! The problem was that the way she said it you’d think the baby was due any minute!
Well, Joyce’s parents hadn’t heard the news before. When they got it third-hand from the neighbors that their Joyce was expecting a baby any minute, you’d think they were having a convention at our house. The dog was barking, the phone was jingling, the door bell was ringing, cars were pulling up in front, and to top it off, Mom got home from the Red Cross and Pop came in from work. We had to explain to them that nothing had really happened while still answering the phone and running to the door to let Joyce’s friends in. Naturally when they heard the news they had all rushed over.
Talk about excitement, we had an earthquake until everyone finally got the idea straight. We were going to have a baby, all right—but it was still some months away!
Of course, Fran’s career was pretty well under way before I was drafted, though at the time she looked upon it as a lark. And then I came home from the Army to find her taking her career very seriously. Obviously it paid off, for the famed Aba Daba pool (which grew from the hole in the backyard) was one of the first results.
“I thought I was just a flash in the pan,” she explained the change to me, “and maybe the studio was only kidding with that movie stuff. But when I actually saw myself on the screen—I knew it was for real. Boy, I started to work then!”
And she did! She took dancing lessons, singing lessons, acting lessons; she had more kinds of lessons than Mrs. Carter has pills. If you mentioned career to her then (or now for that matter) you’ve had it! She’s really hipped on doing her best. As she says, “I’ve been lucky to get this break; now I’m going to work as hard as I can to justify people’s faith in me.”
She even began to take our criticisms earnestly, and I think this was a sign of the seriousness to come. Being big brother, I had to keep her in line. For instance, there was her attitude toward her own performances. “Oh, Bill,” she’d say morning after one of her previews had been shown “did you see the picture last night?”
“Picture?” I’d repeat, like she wanted to know if I’d had the measles lately.
“Yes, you know, the preview. ‘The Affairs of Dobie Gillis.’ ”
“Oh, that! Sure, I saw it.”
“Well, did you like me?”
“Oh, were you in it?” I’d say, ducking in the nick of time to miss the sofa pillow winging across the room. Like I said, Frannie always had a good pitching arm.
Since I’ve always thought she was great and never told her so, I don’t intend starting now.
I also learned on my first trip home that Frannie was just as hard-working at home as she was at the studio. She started doing some camp entertaining and hospital touring, spreading a little sunshine wherever she went.
I can remember coming in as late as 2:00 A.M. to find the light on under Frannie’s door. She was answering the letters from the guys in the hospital. After working all day, I call this pretty great. But she was serious about this part of her new life; and a new life it was. Frannie had changed—but I hadn’t realized how much until I went away from home.
Besides taking her work seriously, she began to take an adult view of the world around her. Some of those trips to the hospitals hit her pretty hard. (Especially the recent trip to Korea.) Frannie was and still is anxious to do everything in her power to make the guys in the Services happy. The letter writing is an example. Another is the record buying she does in answer to requests from GI’s in overseas hospitals.
She even drives guys back to camp. Me, that is. When my leave was up once she drove me back to the base (about 400 miles). Funny thing about it was that Mom and Pop came along, too. Since I didn’t have any place to bunk them (Joyce and I lived in a one-room apartment off base), the three of them bedded down in the back of the family car. Talk about comedy. When I got up in the morning I looked out of the window to see how they were faring. Only fair, I’d say.
Heads, arms, legs, feet, all stuck out the car windows; their red eyes half-closed in a desperate struggle for a minute’s sleep. Those cars just weren’t built for more than two sleepers—especially with athletes like my kid sister along. She sleeps going in three directions at once.
But she got me back to camp—in fact, my kid sister has a way of doing what she sets out to do. Maybe that’s what has changed my mind about her. Why, now I couldn’t trade Frannie for anything! Not a bike, not a jalopy, not even a good set of golf clubs!
—BY BILL REYNOLDS
It is a quote. PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE AUGUST 1953