Tab Hunter: “Why Debbie’s My Ideal!”
News travels fast in Hollywood. One morning recently the ring of the telephone nearly blasted my ear off. At the other end of the line was a columnist. “Understand you were out with Debbie Reynolds again last night,” said the lady.
That’s right,” I replied.
‘Well . . . is it a romance? Tell me, how do you feel about her?”
“I’ll be glad to tell you,” I said. ‘Set aside a couple of days to listen.”
Well, about an hour later we finished our conversation. Or perhaps I should say, I finished my monologue. For somehow when I begin to talk about Debbie, I can’t call a halt after only a few sentences.
This strikes me as pretty funny, considering that when I first met her, she left me slightly speechless. It was one of those lavish opening nights at the IceCapades and we’d have had to toss a coin to decide which were the most blinding—the Klieg lights anchored to the sidewalks or the collections of diamonds that went floating into the auditorium.
My girl and I were double-dating with a buddy of mine, and his date was a little actress for whom everybody was predicting stardom. I don’t know what I expected of an up-and-coming starlet.
The four of us stepped out of the car and just stood there for a minute, watching mink stoles go by. Taking it all in, our starlet, Debbie, glanced down at her cloth coat in mock contempt. Then she gave her date a monstrous poke in the ribs with her elbow. “Why didn’t you tell me this was a dressy affair?” she teased. “I could have worn furs. My cat’s got to die sometime!”
Did I say I was speechless? Shock, I suppose. There was our starlet reminding me of my best friend’s kid sister.
That was four years ago and a lot has happened since those days. Debbie Reynolds did become a star. And now I have to pinch myself to be sure I’m not dreaming when I take her out. But not because she’s famous. Because she’s Debbie.
However even a near stranger—when he finds his voice—can tell you that she’s something special in the Hollywood world. Take my brother, Walt, for instance. He’s rarely at a loss for words. I remember the time he’d just come home from the Navy. I’d been racking my brain for days trying to figure how to show him a good time. “Let’s go at it from this angle,” he said finally. “What would you like to do?”
“Well, unpack your swimming trunks,” I told him. And a few minutes later, we were in the car heading for Burbank.
After a half-hour battle with afternoon traffic, we turned into my favorite street. I stopped the car in front of one of the unpretentious little houses that stand there in such a neat row. Walt looked bewildered. “The pool’s in the backyard,” I said.
As usual, half the neighborhood was also in the backyard. Hamburgers were being distributed over by the barbecue—and when we finally worked our way through the crowd, I introduced Walt to Mrs. Reynolds. Then I nodded toward her daughter who was clowning on the diving board. “That’s Debbie,” I said.
“Huh?” said my brother eloquently.
It was quite an afternoon. We swam for awhile, and ate and talked beside the pool. And when it grew cool, we adjourned to the living room. Someone sat down at the piano and the Reynolds gang proceeded to sing their lungs out. We could have been a million miles from the Hollywood glamour that Walt had pictured a necessity for a movie star. “I certainly didn’t expect Debbie Reynolds to be like that,” he told me later.
After our Ice Capades introduction, you’d think I’d have learned never to jump to conclusions as far as Debbie is concerned. But I did it again—some time later, when I called her for a date. Having checked my bank balance, I reached the conclusion that I might as well live recklessly. Living recklessly means a dinner date which, more often than not, means that you silently say goodbye to a dollar every time the waiter comes in with another dish. It’s worth it, if you’re solvent—and it’s what a great many girls expect.
And Debbie? She happened to know I wasn’t working. And so? She’d love to have dinner, she told me. But wouldn’t it be more fun to cook it ourselves? She’d be very happy to bake a cake.
How thoughtful can a girl be? If I’d ever wondered, now I knew. But then I promptly drew another mental picture—one of the domestic Miss Reynolds, girl-chef extraordinary. I was fooled again. She’d volunteered that cake so casually that I was certain it wouldn’t involve any more effort for her than stepping into the kitchen to say, “Presto!” I learned later that she’d slaved for hours. It was a beautiful cake from a distance. Close up, I noticed that one side sagged slightly. And en route to the fried chicken at my place, we ate most of the frosting. It kept dripping down the sides and we’d scoop it off the plate so that it wouldn’t go running all over Debbie’s dress. “I can cook,” the undaunted Miss Reynolds assured me. “It just wasn’t my day for desserts.”
Frankly, I have my doubts. Because I’ve attended some of the Reynolds’ afternoon candy sessions. Debbie walks up to the pots and pans with all the assurance in the world. She sets out the ingredients with an air of authority, and then in a small voice calls out, “Mother, how much sugar do you use in the fudge?”
Because she’s such a happy-go-lucky, smiling character, you rarely see her serious side. But actually she has great feeling—she really cares for other people. I was never more aware of it than the night we went to the Jane Powell opening at the Grove. Janie sang her heart out and, when she was bombarded with flowers while taking her bows, she began to cry. It was a touching, personal triumph. I happened to glance over at Debbie. She was applauding with a great big smile, but there were tears running down her cheeks, too.
Debbie’s friendliness and thoughtfulness aren’t limited to close friends. Many’s the time we’ve been spotted by fans when driving down the street. No regal nods from Miss Reynolds. She looks over, gives the kids a large type grin and waves until they’re out of sight. And we’ve caused more than one traffic jam while Debbie and her fans carry on a car-to-car conversation.
Then, too, I remember the time we were sitting in a Westwood sandwich shop after a preview. The place was crowded with students from UCLA, and we noted that some of the fellows at one of the other tables were glancing her way. Eventually one of them got up and came over. “I was wondering if you might remember me,” he said. “We went to high school together.”
“Of course,” said Debbie. “How are you?” She knew what was afoot. As the other guys kept looking to see if their friend actually knew her, she made a special point of insisting that he sit down. And they rehashed school days while the boy’s friends stared in amazement.
You can count on Debbie not to let anyone down. Now I’m recalling the night I watched her perform at a benefit. She wasn’t supposed to be performing. We were guests of one of the scheduled entertainers and as we were on our way out of the auditorium, the spotlight fell upon Debbie. She did a doubletake when the emcee introduced her to the audience. “How about a song?” he asked.
Debbie hadn’t rehearsed with the orchestra. As a matter of fact, she’d never even seen that orchestra before. What’s more, she’d had a long day and was pretty tired. But she didn’t beg off with any of her good excuses. “I’ll be glad to sing a song,” she said simply. Then she headed for the stage and went into “Singin’ in the Rain.”
Her impromptu performances are terrific. But if she has advance notice, she can really floor you. When the Crown Prince of Japan was feted at M-G-M, each of the stars was called up to make a short speech. Debbie made a speech, all right. It was like no other speech on the entire program. Debbie spoke in Japanese!
When she isn’t on official business, which keeps her busy, she manages to stay twice as busy—doing things for other people. You’ve probably heard about her trip to Korea. But you may not have heard of her visit to a girl friend’s brother who was in the hospital in Japan. When Debbie stopped there en route home, she made it a point to find him and visit with him.
And what about Debbie as a date? Well, sir, when she’s on your arm, you know you’re with the cream of the crop. She’s always well-groomed and has wonderful taste in clothes. Her mother makes most of her dresses and Debbie wears them like a dream. And that figure! Perfect!
She’s athletic—a real little tomboy at heart—yet she’s very feminine. And when she’s with you she gives you her undivided attention, making you feel as though she’s never had a better time in her whole life. She doesn’t expect to go on to Ciro’s or Mocambo after a movie. She’s just as happy munching a hotdog at a drive-in. And all the while, her eyes are sparkling.
She’s never moody. Never sarcastic. When she hears someone tossing sarcasm around she takes the attitude, “I feel sorry for this type because he doesn’t know any better.” She tries to learn something every day and to use the knowledge to become a better person.
And that brings me to her folks. What a family! Because my mother and brother and I have been separated a great deal, I’ve never had much homelife. And the minute I walk into the Reynolds’ house I can see what I’ve missed as far as real family life is concerned. The front door’s always open. There’s always music—either from the record player or Miss Reynolds herself. There’s a friendly clatter of dishes in the kitchen. And there’s Debbie shouting, “Mother, get the telephone, will you?” Or Mother shouting, “Franny, telephone.” At home, she’s Franny and the fact that she’s a star makes no difference.
When you join Debbie’s crowd, you automatically become one of the family. I remember the date of the Photoplay “Choose Your Stars” award party. I’d been up north visiting my brother and found that I was going to be late getting back to Hollywood. On the way, I phoned to tell Debbie. “What are you going to do for dinner?” she wanted to know. “After driving all day, you’ll need more than a sandwich . . . why don’t you come straight to Burbank and eat with us.”
Mrs. Reynolds had the meal on the table when I walked in. We ate—then I got cleaned up and away we went. Now that was a fine party. And you could tell how the guests felt about Debbie—and vice versa—when she went up to accept the award for Bobby Van. She stood at the mike for a minute, grinning at the crowd. I glanced around and saw a room full of people grinning back at her.
I might say that Debbie is completely unaffected. But I’ll never say it to her. I tried once . . . making the comment as we were leaving a party. She promptly tossed her coat over her shoulder with a magnificent gesture. “Oh, rreeeaaally, Tab, deah? You reeaally don’t think I’m affected?” and swept regally out the door.
In closing, I think I should mention that Debbie has a mind of her own. Just the other day, I called to check on our dinner date at the Jeff Hunters’. Everyone’s going to bring a special dish. “I’ll bake a cake,” Debbie announced.
“Please don’t,” said I.
“Well . . . I’ll have Mother bake a cake.”
“Don’t. I’ll buy one.”
“Mother will bake it,” said Debbie firmly. “Or on the other hand, maybe I will.”
“I’ll buy one,” I repeated, just as firmly.
I have a hunch we’ll have homemade cake. I don’t know who’ll bake it. But I’m certain of one thing. I’m delighted to be the lucky guy who’s going to help eat it.
(Debbie is in “Give a Girl a Break” and Tab is in “Steel Lady.”)
It is a quote. PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE FEBRUARY 1954