Welcome to Vintage Paparazzi.

The Little Lessons—Debbie Reynolds

When I was three weeks old my father carried me to church on a pillow and, as I grew up, even before I attended Sunday School, I was hearing the stories of the Bible from my mother. Through childhood and teenhood the relationship of my parents to me was close and reflected their confidence in me, as well as their love. When I required not only their permission, but their trust in me, it was freely given. In this sort of, home faith holds up the roof, faith supplies the table, faith guards and plans and heals. I am a very lucky girl that I had and still have that kind of home.

If anyone were to ask me whether I am a regular churchgoer I would have to say no. With the sort of hours I have and all the traveling that seems to be a part of show business, I don’t suppose I’ll ever get to attend steadily. But I do go when I can and my faith is still with me when I can’t.

Faith, to me, is having the idea of God and doing all you can about it. It is also having an uplifting idea of any kind and doing all you can about it even if you are going to goof it up.

I could never get up in front of people and act the fool as I sometimes do if I didn’t have faith—all kinds of faith—in people as well as the Lord. Certainly I could not be a pessimist and do it. I couldn’t do it if I were always saying to myself, “I don’t suppose they will like me.” In my work I have to depend on people.

I began with my friends. At first my faith in them amounted to little more than a hope that they would laugh with me when I cut up, and not at me. Later, with confidence and also with a realization that they wanted to be on my side and, all things equal, would be, I dared to do more. You have to dare to develop. You must have a trust in yourself and in those whose approval you must have, before you can dare. This is faith.

For some people making friends is a job, but it’s worth it. For me the time I have spent with my friends and the thinking I have done about them is just about the best investment I have made in my life. Right from the start they were human and kind and let me gain the experience I needed (which all kids need!) of expressing myself in front of groups.

Were it not for them I could have grown up to a narrow-thinking little dope; instead, if I have a broad outlook on life at all, I got it from them. And it is not only that they were important to me; they are important to me today. I forgot this once and was reminded in a way I won’t forget.

When I first got into movie work I became a little warped about it. For about a year and a half I got away from my old life. I seldom went to church with the family (I had no thoughts of God at all), I rarely called my old friends. One night I sat down knowing that I felt downright miserable. I kept telling myself there was no reason to be in the slumps. I was going along fine at the studio, I was being invited out here and there, I could keep going at a gay gallop every second if I wanted to. Yet all I wanted to do was cry—and I did.

“I must be getting sick,” I told my mother. “I haven’t got a reason in the world to feel blue but I do.”

“What have you been doing that you really used to like to do?” she asked.

It seemed to me that I was having fun and therefore Mom wasn’t on the ball at all. But then I began to understand that she didn’t mean it the way I thought. What I used to like, what gave all of us kids our biggest kick, was creating a nice surprise for the other guy; a party, something she had always wanted, the solace she needed. I could remember how we’d get together and be so happy conspiring about some affair like this that we couldn’t talk for our giggling. It all came back to me and I realized that this was living. It had been ages since I had done anything for anyone. And everything else was pretending.

There was only one thing to do I jumped for the telephone and madly started calling all my old friends. I was in a hurry to get back into my old life and feel like my old self—a terrible hurry!

I guess I don’t have to point out that my mother would not have been able to guess what was wrong with me—when I didn’t know myself—unless, like so many mothers, she spent a little time thinking of herself and a great deal thinking of those near to her. In this way she has generated such a feeling of security in all of us that any threat to our well-being will be anticipated and overcome before it can mount to dangerous proportions.

For instance, ours is a family with no relationship to drinking. If this makes us all sound like livin’ dolls, forget it. It’s just that alcohol in any form has never been a factor in our life.

Whenever I see someone who drinks to excess I feel very sorry for them. They must be terribly bored or they wouldn’t find it necessary. I am sure that if they could find something to do that really interested them they wouldn’t need to drown their troubles.

This has worked out with a boy I know, a boy who had looks, money, and absolutely no interest in things, especially church. Somehow we got to talking one day about his lack of direction in life and I said something that made him laugh at first—that if he had any kind of little job he liked, it would change his attitude.

I couldn’t figure out why.I had said it except that a few mornings before this I had seen my father doing a little work around the house and whistling contentedly at it. Dad is a carpenter. This day he had fashioned a piece of wood and then squinted down the edge of it to make sure it was straight and true. From the look on his face you could tell that it was—and more. He was at peace with himself.

I told this to the boy. I said I knew why my father had felt good; it was because he had a sense of being useful in the world, and therefore his life had meaning.

Months passed before I met the boy again, but then I saw that he was a changed fellow. He was in the automobile business—selling cars, I mean—and he was crazy about it, he told me. If he knew someone who needed a car but couldn’t quite swing the deal, he would figure out how it could be done.

“You should see the looks on their faces when they realize they’re no longer chained to one spot but can travel as they’ve always dreamed,” he said.

You could see he was happy, all right, and before we parted he told me that he had started to go to church again.

“I don’t know why,” he said. “But it seems to be part of my new existence.”

I don’t know, either, unless it cause he was living more normally now and to be normal means to be sensitive spiritually instead of being dull and blind.

Of course it works out with me all the time. I don’t suppose there is a living person who hasn’t some faith of a sort. But we all know that there are too many people who haven’t enough faith. Sometimes I find myself included in this bracket. I forget. I slip up on how to share my life with my neighbor. Almost always it brings me unhappiness. I know what this unhappiness is: I have been inwardly preoccupied and nothing empties a heart faster or leaves it aching so badly with that dull, hollow feeling—than self-love. That’s why it is such a blessed relief to me at such times to remember the old words and ways I grew up with and to reverse the flow of my interest so that it takes in the other fellow.

Some people seek from religion a solution to the great questions in their minds. Is the world coming to an end? When? What happens to us then? And so on, It seems to me that they are still like the frightened child, as I was, who first sees mention of the millenium in the Bible or hears his elders talk of it. But to me religion is most important when it teaches me small lessons about the people we are—I and those with whom I live.

I remember when I was still in school, visiting my friend Jeanette Johnson in Balboa and attending a small church there one Sunday. The pastor was bowed with age and I didn’t expect any unusual sermon. Yet he said something that has come into my head a thousand times since. He was talking about selfishness and greed and he described the people who sinned in this manner. “Oh, you can tell them by their turned-in eyeballs and their itchy palms!” he cried.

It was the kind of colorful phrasing you get from old-time ministers, yet I am always asking myself these days, when I think I may be too piggish, “Am I like that? Are my palms itchy?”

Sometimes the answer is “Yes!” And, boy, I change policy right away. I don’t ever want turned-in eyeballs or itchy palms. In case I haven’t explained too clearly what the phrase means I will now: turned-in eyeballs, of course, means thinking only of yourself and itchy palms means the love of money.

I remember when my luck was the cause of one of my high school friends succumbing horribly to envy . . . which is, after all, a form of greed. This had to do with my being chosen for a screen test and getting my first contract in a studio. Since I hadn’t been a standout as a dramatics student in school (other girls doing far better at acting and my activities being confined to shoving scenery around) it was quite a shock to some of them when I got into the movies. It was a shock to me, too. Let’s face it!

Most of the kids I knew took it pretty well and wished me luck. But a couple of girls thought the whole thing was silly, pointing out that I was neither pretty nor talented! They even, with all the bountiful imagination of high school vintage, got nasty little reasons into their explanations of how such a horrible mistake could have happened. One girl, very good in school plays, just blew her top altogether.

A couple of weeks after I had started at the studio I dropped into the school and saw her. “Hi!” I called. She looked at me frozen-faced, turned and walked away. I was really hurt. I asked friends about it. They gave me a quick answer. “She doesn’t like you any more. She thinks that if they were picking the best actress she would have been chosen. She is disgusted with people who select talent.”

I was angry but in time I began to realize how hurt she must have been. This didn’t excuse her, of course, but I think I prayed for her to understand and to feel better. It took time (years!), but we got over it.

Some parts of the Bible are brought to the attention of children too early, I believe, and should be withheld. Talk of dire punishments and, of course, those references to the end of the world were just plain scary when I was a kid, I remember. And some of the indirect injunctions were just confusing. “Let him who is without sin amongst you cast the first stone” really meant “don’t throw stones” when I first heard it. By the time I should have understood how it actually applied in everyday life it had lost its power for me. Not, until I had cast a few stones I shouldn’t have (and had them come bouncing back to me so I was in lots of trouble) did I re-learn these lessons.

Reading the Bible and believing its message has not only been a matter of benefiting from its content but also an education in how to pace my life. There is no hurry to the Bible. All things are considered deeply and time is taken for consideration. This is the feeling I get. And so, though I know I am considered a girl with quick notions and flighty ways, actually I am not. I now deliberate much longer over decisions than people think.

There was a period in my life when all any friend had to do was suggest we take off for somewhere and I was right back with an “Okay! Let’s go!” before I had even heard the whole idea. It’s not like that any more. Now I take time to decide if it’s really a good idea or not. In that way I keep out of a let of trouble.

Not long ago I woke up conscious of a vague feeling that a former interest in my life needed reviving, I wasn’t sure what it was and I was too busy during the forenoon to concentrate on the matter. At lunchtime I had a date with a boy I’ve known for years. While we were eating he happened to say that he wanted to reread some of the books he had known earlier in his life but hadn’t understood. The second he said that, I knew what had been bothering me.

When I was playing the French horn in Burbank High we tackled a lot of symphonic numbers which meant very little then to a would-be bopster like me. But some trace of the quality of these compositions must have gotten into my blood and stayed there until the time was ripe for me to understand better music. This was it. As I listened to the boy talk about the books he was going to look up again I knew I must go back to the study of music and particularly to the symphonies I had once played. I felt that they had influenced me somehow even though I wasn’t aware of it, and they would now mean more than ever.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ll always love popular music and that will be my forte, but I’m going to start enjoying the more serious music, too—the kind of music that is a hit for a hundred years instead of just a season. To me this is a sign that my faith is mellowing and the depth of my understanding deepening. This doesn’t hurt anyone, not even a hep cat like me. The more there is to us, the more wisdom, the finer the feeling, the better persons we will be to live with. Nothing, not even continuing to progress in my career, is as important as this—and this is part of my faith.


(Debbie Reynolds can be seen now in MGM’s 30th anniversary release, Athena.)



No Comments
Leave a Comment