That was Debbie Reynolds' dream for the vast collection of costumes and other Hollywood memorabilia she's amassed over the last 40 years. Instead, her debts mounted while plan after plan for a museum to house her collection fell through. So, instead of building a haven for her collection, she's selling it off piecemeal in a series of auctions, with the first taking place on June 18 followed by another in December.
All this week at the Paley Center, highlights from Reynolds' collection have been on display, including such iconic items as Marilyn Monroe's billowing white dress from the subway-grate scene in 'The Seven-Year Itch,' ruby slippers Judy Garland wore during production of 'The Wizard of Oz,' and Audrey Hepburn's black-and-white gown from the Ascot sequence of 'My Fair Lady.' They're among the nearly 600 items that Hollywood legend Reynolds is putting on the block this weekend -- not just outfits from classic films, but also famous movie props, sketches by movie costume designers, vintage cameras and lights, rare posters (including several from daughter Carrie Fisher's breakthrough film, 'Star Wars'), and other memorabilia. Items range in estimated value from hundreds of dollars to a million or two for the Monroe subway dress.
Read on for Reynolds' thoughts about having to sell off her collection, her long history of acquiring and preserving artifacts from Hollywood history, and a gallery of photos of highlights from the collection, gathered together for the last time.
Reynolds began collecting classic costumes in 1970, when MGM changed owners and the studio, looking to ease its debts, put more than 300,000 old outfits and props up for sale. The performer, who had dreamed of turning the MGM backlot into a tourist attraction years before Universal did the same with its studio tour, had offered MGM $5 million for the entire collection, but the studio sold the items to an auctioneer instead. "I went everyday for weeks and focused on purchasing the costumes and props of Academy Award winning films," Reynolds said in an auction press release. "It soon turned into an obsession." She ended up spending $400,000 acquiring carefully selected items. She went on a similar shopping spree in 1975 when 20th Century Fox had a fire sale of its own, which is how she landed Monroe's iconic white pleated dress.
How could the studios let such treasures go? "It's not so much that I had vision," she recently told the Wall Street Journal, "it's that they had none."
Over the years, Reynolds continued to buy classic costumes, dating from the dawn of Hollywood (Charlie Chaplin's century-old bowler hat is one of the June auction items) to the recent past (colorful clothes from 1999's 'Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me'). Famous friends added to her collection; even frenemy Elizabeth Taylor (who notoriously stole Reynolds' husband Eddie Fisher before moving on to Richard Burton) donated some of her ornate headpieces from 'Cleopatra.' All told, she amassed some 3,500 costumes, 20,000 photographs, and thousands of posters, along with many props, vintages cameras and costume designers' original sketches. She has outfits worn by virtually every Hollywood immortal, including Katharine Hepburn, Charlton Heston, Marlon Brando, Grace Kelly, Barbra Streisand, Rita Hayworth, Frank Sinatra, Natalie Wood, Joan Crawford, John Wayne, Gregory Peck, Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, Sean Connery, Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson, Sally Field and Tom Hanks.
The star's repeated efforts to find or build a museum to house her collection have all been in vain. There were failed attempts to partner with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. A building near Dolly Parton's Dollywood in Tennessee stands empty because another partner went bankrupt. Reynolds often had to foot the bill for architects and consultants, leaving her in debt today.
At 79, Reynolds still tours the country 42 weeks a year with her one-woman cabaret show, but the energy needed to maintain her collection and find it a home is flagging. "I need a vacation from preservation," the singer/actress quipped to ABC News at a reception this week at the Paley Center. "I'm just getting a little saddened and weary by it and all,," she told the New York Post earlier this month. "So I just thought it was time to make a change. That happens in life, I guess. Sometimes you have disappointments, and you either consider it a disappointment or consider it just meant to be."
Reynolds hopes to raise $7 million from the June auction, which will go toward paying her debts. Now and in December, she plans to sell off her entire collection, save for a couple of costumes she wore herself, in beloved movie musicals 'Singin' in the Rain' and 'The Unsinkable Molly Brown,' as legacies for her children.
Reynolds has enlisted Profiles in History, an auction house specializing in Hollywood memorabilia, autographs and other historical artifacts, to sell her collection. The first live auction takes place on June 18 at the Paley Center, though Profiles in History is also accepting online bids.
If, like most of us, you can't attend or bid, it's still worth downloading the June auction catalog (PDF), with 300 pages of photos of costumes and props that conjure up unforgettable scenes from much-loved movies. It's the only place, since Reynolds has abandoned her museum dream, that you'll ever see all these artifacts of Hollywood history in one place.
Follow Gary Susman on Twitter: @garysusman.