Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Debbie, Donald and Gene: A True Story

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. 
I answered. 
      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.

3 comments:

  1. Hi Gerry! Just got home from a trip and read your blog here. How wonderful it all is!! And how wonderful that you managed to get them all to sign and all in such terrifically personal ways! I too have that FILMS OF GENE KELLY book on my book shelf (Hardbound copy, thank you very much), and have had it since I bought it in 1976. Kelly and O'Connor are two of my all time idols. I got to meet both of them in May 1976 at the NY premiere of THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT PART 2. The screening was held at the Ziegfeld Theatre in NY and then a black tie buffet dinner continued the party (if you chose to spend the extra money)at the Rainbow Room atop Rockefeller Center. A night I will never forget. It was also Fred Astaire's birthday, who was there and we all got to sing birthday wishes to him. Cary Grant, Bob Fosse, Bobby Van, Elizabeth Taylor, Jimmy Stewart, Johnny Weissmuller...the list goes on and on of those that were all there together that night. I first approached Mr. O'Connor in the theatre lobby before the film and told him what a big (19 year old)fan I was. He couldn't have been nicer as we talked for a few seconds. Flash forward to the buffet line at the Rainbow Room as I stood waiting to fill my plate. Someone leaned in to get a plate and I looked to see Dick Cavett apologize to me. I looked past him just as Donald O said " Hey Carl, I didn't know you were going to be here too!" (You could have elected just to attend the screening for less money, but my friends and I went all outand rented tuxes). Flash forward again to late in the evening on the dance floor with my tipsy girlfriend. Who comes dancing by but Mr. and Mrs. Donald O'Connor. He said "Carl, what are you doing out here?" I replied that I was trying to dance but I wasn't doing too well. He said he wasn't either and we all chuckled. Great to hang with the biggies! My girlfiend said,"Why don't you show him your timestep?" Donald said, "You tap?" Before I knew it, for what was probably 2 or 3 seconds, but will always in my head be everlasting we were timestepping together. If he only knew that that memory will be with me til the day I hang up my shoes forever. My other big memory that night is talking to Gene Kelly at his table alone for a minute and thanking him for a note he sent to me in response to a fan letter I'd mailed him at his home in California. He asked me my name and remembered I was doing a college production of THE TIME OF YOUR LIFE, a play he done on Broadway. To have him remember that...as you can tell, along with a few other great moment that magical night, will be with me always. Sorry to go on like I did here but your amazing success story reminded me of how much these tremendous talents mean to me to this day.

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  2. Oh Gerry what a magical story. To be gifted once...luck, to be gifted twice, a lark, but a third time, Divine Providence. You were certainly on the receiving end. Your memories are as great a treasure as the autographs. I LOVE THIS!

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    1. You just made my day, Linda. Greatly appreciate your comments. I know you understand how much those 3 mean to me. Thanks.

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