This is the story of a book. Not just any book, but a special volume signed by three special people. Right now it sits on my shelf in the hallway, where it's been for the past several years. I hadn't looked at the book for quite some time, but recent events caused me to take the book off the shelf, blow the dust off, sit on my couch and revisit those three signatures.
The story begins over forty years ago, in 1974. Gene Kelly was in St. Louis to open the new season at the Muny Opera in "Take Me Along." Kelly had been - and still is - one of my favorite entertainers - actor, dancer, singer. Gene and movie musicals were the gold standard of entertainment, for me and for most of the nation. One night during that week he was here, I went to see the show. I brought with me a book I had bought the previous year, “The Films of Gene Kelly.” I belonged to a movie book club and bought most of what they offered. I had a steady income in those days.
When I was in high school, I worked at the Muny as an usher, so I knew the manager, Ed Steinhauer. He was a friend of my dad. Ed was not an outwardly friendly man. He seldom smiled, seemed distant, yet made sure I always got good seats. During intermission on this particular night, I found Ed standing at his usual post on the ramp where the customers enter the seating area. I asked him if he would have Gene sign my book. He said he would try, and I could get the book after the show.
After the finale, and a standing ovation for Gene and the cast, I hurried to Ed’s station. He was there. No book in his hand. Before I could say anything, he said “Come on back.” He led me backstage, to the dressing room, and introduced me to Gene Kelly, who was in the process of changing clothes, wiping off makeup, and sweat from his performance and the St. Louis humidity. We shook hands, I mumbled something like “You’re terrific” or “This is a real honor” or something equally inane. To this day I have no idea of what I said. It didn’t matter. He took out a pen - with green ink - signed my book, and said something like “Thanks, kid” and handed it back to me.
I don’t remember anything else about that night except holding the book very tightly until I got to my car. That, I thought, was that.
Jump forward now about twenty years. Sometime during the mid-’90’s, while working at D’Arcy Advertising, I got involved with the Variety Club of St. Louis telethons and wrote the outlines and scripts for a few of them. Mike Roarty, head marketing guru at Anheuser-Busch, was a key member of Variety and responsible for bringing in many big-name stars. Mike loved show biz as much as he loved the beer biz. This one particular year he brought in Donald O’Connor.
On the day before the Telethon, we had a run-through at the Chase Hotel Khorassan Room. Donald was very relaxed and approachable. I had brought the Gene Kelly book with me. During a break in the rehearsal, I sat at a round dinner table next to Don (I’ve gone from Donald to Don, you’ll notice), we talked about his house in Sedona, Arizona - which he had just moved into - and how he felt about being so far removed from Hollywood and the film community.
While listening to him, I had this strong feeling that I never wanted the conversation to end. I just wanted to sit next to him, for as long as possible, and listen to this remarkably talented man. During a lull in the conversation, I slipped the Kelly book out of the envelope, slid it over to him, and told him I got Gene to sign it. He said, “Where’s your Films of Donald O’Connor book?" and laughed. I was trying to come up with a humorous response when he added, “Don’t worry. There isn’t one.” Then he picked up a pen, opened the book, and said “Where do you want me to sign?” I told him page 134. The “Singin’ in the Rain” page. He signed it. He also signed a 5x7 black and white photo of himself, stuck it in the book, and slid it back to me.
Two out of three!
Now came the third and final step: Getting Debbie Reynolds signature. This part of the story begins in Las Vegas. In December of 2000, my wife and I were in Vegas for 3 or 4 days, staying at the MGM Grand. I saw an ad in a tour guide for the Debbie Reynolds show at the Orleans Hotel. Of course I hadn't brought the book with me, never thinking that she might be in Vegas. We didn't go see her show, I'm sorry to say. At the time there were other shows we were more interested in and time was short. But I had to get her to sign the book. So I wrote her a letter, on MGM Grand stationery, explaining the situation, where I was staying, when I was leaving, and included my home address and phone number. I went by the Orleans and left it at the desk for her. Two days later I returned to St. Louis, having heard nothing from Debbie. Weeks went by. Nothing.
A couple of months later, I was sitting at my desk at home, working on my iMac. D'Arcy was a thing of the past. I was gone and so was the agency, in that order. Free-lance writing now took up much of my days. The possibility of getting a response from Debbie was very distant. I was looking at the gray February day outside my window when the phone rang.
A woman said, "Gerry? Is this Gerry Mandel?"
"That's right," I said, figuring it was some fund raiser or cruise line.
She said, "This is Debbie Reynolds." Sure, I thought. Obviously a gag from a friend.
"Debbie Reynolds," I said. "Okay. Seriously, who is this?"
She laughed, the delicate sound of music in her voice. "Is this the Gerry Mandel who wrote a letter about signing a book?"
I don’t remember the rest of our conversation, but it was something along the lines of her saying, "I've been very busy but want you to know I'll be happy to sign your book. You can send it to me.” She gave me her home address, in North Hollywood, and asked me to include a return envelope. I had the book in the mail the next day. Double-wrapped, insured, tracking number, signed receipt, etc etc.
Then I waited. And waited. A month went by. Another month. Oh, great, I thought. She wants to keep the book. Or somebody else took it. Or she spilled a cup of coffee on it and is embarrassed to return it. I mailed her a note, politely inquiring if she got the book. A week later the phone rang. No, not Debbie. Some man. Her assistant or helper or pool boy. He told me “Miss Reynolds has indeed received the book, has been very busy, but will get to it immediately.” He wasn’t lying. A few days later I received the envelope with my handwriting on it. Inside was the Gene Kelly book, signed by Debbie. Also included was her autobiography, which she signed, as well as an ad for her show at the Orleans, which she also signed. And a lovely note.
In January of 2017, two weeks after Debbie and Carrie left us, TCM released “Singin’ in the Rain” in theaters across America, to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the original release. I saw it twice, the first time with a group of friends who made the night even more special. The movie was better than I ever remembered.
There was a time, a few years back, when I had considered selling that book. On eBay or AbeBooks or a Hollywood auction site. I figured it might get a few hundred dollars, maybe more. But I didn’t do it. And I won’t. Unless the offering price is so outrageous it could put Mary Lee and me in a condo in the Bahamas and maybe a Bentley. Yes, everybody has their price. But until that offer comes in, the book stays on my shelf. Protected by a vicious golden retriever and a hi-tech security system that plays "Good Mornin'" very loudly.