I do not think that there can ever be enough books about anything and I say that knowing that some of them are going to be about Pilates.The more knowledge the better seems like a solid rule of thumb, even though I have watched enough science fiction films to accept that humanity’s unchecked pursuit of learning will end with robots taking over the world.-Sarah Vowell

Monday, July 18, 2016

Make 'Em Laugh: Short Term Memories of Longtime Friends by Debbie Reynolds and Dorian Hannaway

In 2013, Debbie Reynolds published her autobiography "Unsinkable". Over the years, however, people encouraged her to write another one because they knew that she had more stories to tell, and boy does she! Now in her eighties, she has finally decided to retire from doing her cabaret shows in Vegas and such places and last year, with her two children, Carrie and Todd, and her granddaughter, Billie Lourd (also an actress who was on the show Scream Queens and in The Force), she did her finale show and went out in style.

In a lot of ways, Debbie Reynolds is a woman who is a class act, but in lots of ways, she is the class clown, sometimes even dressing up as one. She began her career in the 1940s, but grew up in Texas, so she has a Texan's fearless/crazy way of just doing things the way they want to and damn the consequences.  She also has had no problem telling off anyone if they are doing something she disagrees with, even if they are in a position of power.  Don't get me wrong; she did get the name "America's Sweetheart" for a reason. She really is a sweetheart. She is a kind and caring woman, until you do something that isn't right, like make comments about her breasts, then she will report you to the higher ups because she won't put up with sexual harassment. She does have a huge sense of humor though and can let something go when need be.  Luckily she took gymnastics. It got her out of a lot of sticky situations.

Girl Scouts was always important to her. She will proudly tell you that she earned 47 merit badges if you ask her.  She was the scout leader of her daughter Carrie Fisher's troop. Carrie, however, was not as enamored with scouts as Debbie was.  When Debbie signed up to be a leader there was some confusion as she showed up in her nun costume that she was wearing for the movie she was filming, The Singing Nun. When she was on The Joey Bishop Show he asked her about the troop and she told them how she was teaching them the steps to follow if someone's clothes caught fire.  Joey wanted to see it and Regis offered to be the "victim".  Debbie said she "jumped out my chair, flew across the stage, and pounced on  him, tackling Regis to the floor...It took me a minute to get him pinned. Then I rolled him back and forth, to put out the imaginary fire, just like I taught my Girl Scouts to do. I was wearing a pale green beaded dress that cost several thousand dollars. It wasn't worth five cents at the end of the show."  A picture of her "putting the fire out" on Regis became front page news. Ms. Reynolds has done much more over the years to support the Girl Scouts.

She has a chapter where she covers comedians she has met and worked with. Lucile Ball opens that list, as they were friends. As everyone knows, Lucy was a brilliant comedian who owned her shows, including "I Love Lucy" and the studio, Desilu Productions, and she revolutionized the way shows were filmed on television, all while making us laugh with her.  Lucy never felt the need to be "on" all the time, either, and had a lovely deep voice. Unfortunately, Lucy's weakness was her first husband, Desi Arnaz, whose weakness was booze and women.  When he would go missing she would hit the phones trying to find him and once called Debbie hoping to find him there, even though Debbie would never dream of doing something like that. Lucy was just that hopelessly crazy to find him.  She would find a much better husband the second time around with Gary Morton, but when Desi was on his death bed, Lucy was right there by his side. 

"Uncle Milite", or Milton Berle owned Tuesday nights in the 1950s.  He was also a rather self-centered, vulgar man who couldn't stand for anyone else to be in the limelight. Ms. Reynolds has a good deal more she could say about the man, but she leaves it at calling him an SOB to his face one night when he was being particularly cruel to another comedian performing.  She encourages the readers to go to Youtube and look up the old Burns and Allen Shows because they were decades ahead of their time.  As for Jack Benny, he was "adorable, polite, cuddly. Everybody loved him."  Jack knew timing better than anyone in the business and he taught Debbie the art of waiting for the right moment to deliver the line. He also told her "don't try to be a comic. Be an entertainer. Don't just tell jokes. Tell stories. Your life is ridiculous and madcap and absolutely crazy. Tell the truth about your life."

In her "kiss and tell" chapter many names get tossed about including Eddie Fisher, Shirley MacLaine, Hedy Lamarr, Jean Simmons, Richard Burton, Stewart Granger, George Peppard, Buddy Hackett, Jack Lemmon, Glenn Campbell, and Jim Nabors.  There is also the story of the cruise she took with her high school friend and her husband that she went on with Donna Reid's third husband, a retired military man who ended up falling overboard, drunk after she refused to sleep with him.  Of course, there was also the much younger man whom her friends disapproved of her dating as it could be fatal. Her response? "What the hell. If he dies, he dies."   

On her chapter about friends, she mentions the Gabor sisters with whom she was so close she was considered a fourth sister by their mother.  That doesn't mean that she doesn't make fun of them herself, though.  While she was closest to Eva, there is plenty of material here on all of them to keep you laughing for a long while.  She was also close to Jonathan and Eileen Winters.  Jonathan could keep you laughing as long as he was around.  He was also a very good friend to have.  There was also Madame, a puppet controlled by Wayland Flowers. She loved to wear "hats and turbans--with feathers, the bigger and showier the better. Her tiara was always nearby. She was only three feet tall, but her voice could shatter glass. As often as not, she used it to shock people as well as make them laugh." Wayland was turned down by Henson and went on to create Madame who would appear on Hollywood Squares, Solid Gold, and the top places in Vegas.  Wayland would die from AIDS.

Don Rickles, she writes, was the only one allowed to talk fast and still be funny. She also writes about her friendships with Ava Gardner and yes, Elizabeth Taylor.  She offers some insight behind those violet eyes from a woman who betrayed her and who later patched up a broken friendship.  There's also a cool story about meeting Bette Davis and a hilarious one about a night for Lana Turner where she was to appear at a fundraiser for the Thalians (A group she has been long passionate about since the 1960s that raise money to help the mentally ill.).  At another fundraiser, she has a horrid experience with the mean spirited Shelly Winters.   She also had a very interesting and kind encounter with, of all people, Eddie Murphy, whose comedy she loves.

I cannot recommend this book enough. I am a huge fan of Debbie Reynolds and "old Hollywood" so it was a delight to read such delicious tidbits and kind words about people I've heard of and stories about people I've never heard of, but were important to her, and for a good reason.  Debbie Reynolds really is a clown and "America's Sweetheart" because even when she says something mean about someone you know she could say much worse, but her upbringing and goodness won't allow her to lower herself to their level.  But she will give them a good poke because they do deserve it!  For the most part, this is a hilarious book with only a few sad moments when you think of those who have passed on--some too soon.


The handlers led me over to her [Shamu], and asked me to put my head inside her mouth…Shamu didn’t chomp me. But on the way home from Sea World I still couldn’t shake the fresh orca smell. I had noticed that many of the restaurants at the park had a seafood theme. Was this the final fate of the fish who misbehaved?
-Debbie Reynolds and Dorian Hannaway (Make ‘Em Laugh: Short Term Memories of Longtime Friends p 56)

I decided to commission the artist Ralph Wolfe Cowan, to paint my portrait as a surprise gift for him[Eddie Fisher]. Unfortunately Eddie left me before the paint was dry. He heard that Elizabeth’s portrait had never been claimed, bought it as a gift for her, and left me for the real thing…When my painting was finished, I called Ralph to tell him I didn’t want it, even though I’d already paid for it. Ralph sent it to me sometime later anyway…So, ladies, if you’re reading this remember: when you’re thinking of a birthday gift for your husband, buy something that you can return—in case he doesn’t.
-Debbie Reynolds and Dorian Hannaway (Make ‘Em Laugh: Short Term Memories of Longtime Friends p 213)
Link to Amazon:  https://www.amazon.com/Make-Em-Laugh-Short-Term-Memories/dp/0062416634/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1468850671&sr=1-1&keywords=make+em+laugh

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