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Debbie Reynolds’ Costume Collection: A Glimpse Before It Goes on Auction

The Beverly Hills Paley Center hosted Debbie Reynolds and the incredible costume, props and photos she has collected over the past 40 years.

“The Wizard of Oz”

As soon as guests, as diverse as Nancy Sinatra, Anna Maria Alberghetti, Patricia Heaton, Buzz Aldrin and Mimi Rogers, got past the obligatory red carpet and entered the foyer of Beverly Hills’ Paley Center, they were greeted by what was clearly an almost overwhelming display of movie memories. A painting of Garbo as Camille, two of the rare Marion Davies portraits Hearst commissioned with each of her films and then the gem of the collection, Marilyn Monroe’s “subway grate” dress from The Seven Year Itch.

Even though the catalogue was available for sale, the director John Landis (Animal House) was getting up close and personal with the costumes, photographing them with his digital camera while his wife, Deborah Nadoolman Landis (who is the chair of the David C. Copley Center for Costume Design at UCLA) stood back to admire Elizabeth Taylor’s racing silks from National Velvet, Judy Garland’s blue cotton dress and red slippers from The Wizard of Oz and the red sequined gown worn by Marilyn Monroe in Gentleman Prefer Blondes. If anyone appreciates the value of the collection it is Deborah who, while saying it breaks her heart that the industry did not somehow step up to keep at least part of the collection together for continued public display, hopes that at least some of the people who will purchase the items will be willing to loan them for future exhibitions.

For Disney star Nancy Olson Livingston, (Sunset Boulevard) it was “my life flashing before my eyes.” Her first husband was Alan Jay Lerner, and there was the Audrey Hepburn Ascot Races dress, designed by Cecil Beaton, and the incredible hat that went with it, along with Rex Harrison’s suit and My Fair Lady memorabilia. A little farther down was a dress worn by Betty Hutton, who had been married to Nancy’s second husband, Alan Livingston, before he and Nancy found each other and were together for almost fifty years.


On the second level of the Paley, where costumes from Ben-Hur, Cleopatra’s gowns (both Claudette Colbert’s and Elizabeth Taylor’s) and dozens of other dazzlers commanded attention, Tom Brown, TCM’s chief programmer, said he had flown in from Atlanta just for the chance to view the collection and we wistfully imagined if only Ted Turner had included the costumes and props when he bought MGM’s film library back in 1970. That was the same year that Kirk Kerkorian had bought the studio and began slicing and dicing it for a quick profit and it was at the MGM auction that Reynolds began her collecting, spending days on end going through the bundles and racks to pick up some of what are now acknowledged to be icons of fashion design.


For several decades, Reynolds has tried desperately to establish a museum for her collection and it’s the debts that she has accumulated in that attempt that have finally forced her to auction it all off. She says that selling it is “the hardest thing I have ever done,” but there she was smiling graciously and greeting her guests, so surrounded she was barely able to move, let alone get to the rooftop bar where her long-time accompanist (she still travels the country with her one woman show) Joey Singer was playing Gershwin, Porter and other classics. Debbie’s children, Todd and Carrie Fisher, were also there in support of their mother.

So between now and June 17, take advantage of what may be the last opportunity to see these amazing costumes in one place, open to the public and free of charge at the Paley Center at the corner of Beverly and Santa Monica in Beverly Hills. You don’t want to miss it.

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