Dedicated to the Study and Appreciation
of the Movies and Personalities of the Golden Age of Hollywood

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Museum That Never Was, Part 1

When I bought the catalog for the Debbie Reynolds Auction
from the Profiles in History auction house, I admit it was with
the thought that I just might be able to get down to L.A. for
the event itself on June 18. Well, family plans closer to home
made that idea a non-starter, but there was still the possibility
that I might be able to bid on something by phone or on line.
Then a 16mm print came up for auction on eBay that I set
my cap for, and it wound up costing more than I expected,
though less than I was willing to pay. (Not that you asked,
but it's a kinescope of a 1956 live TV dramatization of Jim
Bishop's The Day Lincoln Was Shot starring Raymond
Massey, Lillian Gish and Jack Lemmon.)

So what with one thing and another, my hopes of getting to
the auction or of taking home anything from it were not to be.
Not that I could have afforded much -- that became
clear as I started leafing through the catalogue.  Take
this little number, for example. It's the ivory colored
rayon crepe dress Marilyn Monroe wore in The Seven
Year Itch as she stood over that subway grate and
let the updraft send the skirt billowing up around
her 22-inch waist. The catalogue describes it as
"the most recognized costume in film history." Well,
I don't know about that; seems to me Scarlett
O'Hara's green portiere gown would give it some
competition (to say nothing of Darth Vader's cape
and helmet). But never mind, this simple halter-
top dress is recognizable enough, and it carries
a frisson of furtive 1950s voyeurism that Scarlett
and Darth never could. (By the way, Profiles in
History said that that green dress would also be up
for sale, but it doesn't appear in the catalogue.)

Debbie says she paid $200 for this dress when she
bought it from 20th Century Fox in 1971 -- along
with the rest of Marilyn's extant wardrobe -- at the
pre-sale before the studio put what was left on the
block. Profiles in History figured it would go for
between one and two million dollars. They were
too timid. By the time the gavel banged shut on it,
the bidding had climbed to $4.6 million. When you
figure in the auction house's 20 percent cut, which
is added to (not taken from) the sale price, that
means somebody shelled out something like
$5.52 million for this stylish summer frock.

Marilyn's "subway" dress was the top money-
maker at the auction -- in fact, it shattered the
previous record for a single dress ($1.4 million
in 1999, for another one of hers). And her red
sequined gown from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
came close to that '99 record, going for $1.2 million.

Other pieces in the Reynolds collection drew similarly
fabulous sums. These ruby slippers, for example. 
Do I really need to tell you what movie they're from?
Although actually, to be precise, they're not really
"from" The Wizard of Oz...

...and neither is this outfit. Both were worn by
Judy Garland (with duplicates for her stand-
in/double Bobbie Koshay) during the first two
weeks of shooting. But when director Richard
Thorpe was taken off the project, Dorothy Gale
underwent a complete makeover from head
(Garland's blonde wig was out) to toes (which
didn't turn up on the slippers she eventually
wore). The catalogue describes these two lots
as "test" items; "rejects" would be closer to the
truth. Nevertheless, the slippers went for
$910,000, the dress and blouse for $510,00
to the same buyer (rumored to be representing
Saudi oil money). That adds up to $1.42 million --
and let's not forget the 20 percent bump (another
$284,000) for the house. Not bad for a cast-off
ensemble that wound up never appearing on screen.
That's a pretty penny to shell out for a set of Judy
Garland's sweat stains, even at the rate two weeks of
Technicolor lighting would have been bringing them on.

If you were in the mood to dress up as Cleopatra next Halloween, you might have mix-and-matched your costume from the auction, beginning with this gold lame boudoir gown from Cecil B. DeMille's 1934 take on the doomed Egyptian siren. Of course, you would have had to be ready to start the bidding at 20 grand, not to mention fitting into a garment cut to Claudette Colbert's 18-inch waist.

Then you could have accessorized with this headdress,
worn 29 years later by Elizabeth Taylor for Cleo's
miles-over-the-top entrance into Rome. On the
other hand, if you were daunted by the
$30,000 opening bid, or by the headdress's
fragile condition...
...there was this three-piece wig and silver-beaded
headband worn by Vivien Leigh in Caesar and
Cleopatra, starting at a more modest $800 to
$1,200. If you still wanted to shop around, there
were clothes and accessories from a number of 
other pictures that might have suited you: The
Egyptian, The Ten Commandments, even Quo
Vadis, Ben-Hur or Julius Caesar might have 
done in a pinch.

Bear in mind that all the prices I'm quoting on this
hypothetical Cleopatra ensemble are just the opening
bids as they appear in the catalogue. I have no idea
what the articles eventually sold for. It would take
only two duelling Cleopatras with deep pockets
and indomitable wills to send the bidding sky-high.

Not everything at the auction required the resources of an Arab oil sheik or a Japanese electronics magnate. There were props, furniture, lobby cards, posters, letters, and other items -- all a tad high-end, price-wise, for most collectors but not entirely out of the question. I cast a covetous eye on a six-sheet poster for How the West Was Won (my all-time favorite movie, and the one in which Debbie Reynolds herself gave the performance of her career), but at eight feet square, where would I keep it? More reasonable, and in the same price range ($300 - $500), was this one-sheet from Kiss Me, Kate autographed by Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel (notice that Keel, perfectly in character for his Petruchio/Fred Graham role, placed his signature right in the middle of Grayson's pert little behind). Before The Day Lincoln Was Shot diverted my attention and resources, I was thinking I just might be able to follow this item for a bid or two -- maybe more, if the competition wasn't too stiff.

While I sent for the catalogue in good faith (from the auction house's point of view) and with nebulous dreams of getting some piece of the collection for my own, perusing the book once it arrived sent me off on a whole other train of thought. Like most movie buffs, I've known for decades that Debbie Reynolds was amassing this collection (she began in earnest in 1970, when MGM auctioned off everything but the studio's real estate) with the idea of establishing a Hollywood museum. But until I actually started thumbing through the catalogue, I never quite grasped what a monumental collection she had managed to put together. And this seems to be only the tip of the iceberg -- some 587 items, with Part 2 of the auction scheduled for next December. I read somewhere (and I can't remember where now, so I can't confirm it) that her full collection extends to over 5,000 pieces -- meaning that this hefty two-pound catalogue represents barely the tenth part of the museum she hoped to set up. Truly, Debbie Reynolds is (or, alas, was) the Smithsonian Institution of historical Hollywood.

Evidently, James Smithson had less trouble persuading the United States to accept his endowment than Debbie has had with Hollywood. According to Virginia Postrel, writing on, the auction became necessary when Debbie's most recent attempt to establish her museum collapsed in 2009. The museum was going to be part of a tourist attraction called Belle Island in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee; apparently, when the Belle Island project went bankrupt it took Debbie's museum down with it, leaving her with a lot of bills to pay.

This begs the question: Why on earth did Debbie Reynolds have to go all the way to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee to find a home for her museum? Is L.A. that crowded? Just to take one obvious example, doesn't the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences cherish the hope of someday establishing a museum as a "year-round Hollywood attraction"? That's what they say on their Web site, anyhow. I don't know why Debbie and the Academy couldn't come to some agreement (for the past 40 years); maybe she was too married to the idea of the Debbie Reynolds Hollywood Movie Museum while they were dead set on the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. But that doesn't explain why the Academy didn't even try to bid on anything at the auction. (Way to go, Academy; you let a lot of choice exhibits slip through your fingers last month, and I suppose you'll do it again in December. But then, if you weren't interested when you could have had Marilyn's subway dress for $200, why bother now? Maybe the revenue from the Oscar broadcast isn't what it used to be.)

I'm not sure what Debbie's vision for her museum was; myself, I'd have loved to see something like the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum -- now known as the Autry National Center -- in Griffith Park. (And by the way, if you thought a "Gene Autry Museum" would amount to little more than a collection of Gene's old guitars and posters from his movies, think again. It's a world-class facility honoring every facet of America's western heritage, and belongs at the top of your must-see list if you're ever in Los Angeles.) Whatever Debbie's ideas were, they've come to naught, while she's spent half her life (and apparently all her money) acquiring and properly storing and maintaining umpteen thousand pieces of Hollywood history -- and trying to find a home for them.

Frankly, if I were Debbie Reynolds, I'd be mad enough to bite the bumper off a truck. In an interview about the auction with Idaho TV station KIDK, she said, with an air of philosophical resignation, "I'm a fan of all of these great stars and I wanted to save their moment for a museum for the future. I didn't reach that goal, which makes me sad, but these things will be shared with people that love the stars as much as I do." In another interview she sounded a little more like I'd probably feel (i.e., testier): "I am really sick and tired of it. I feel that I must call it a day now. Over the years, I have literally spent millions of dollars protecting it and taking care of it. If you were me, wouldn't you give up after 35 years? There is no other road. I need a little rest from the responsibility of trying to do something it seems that nobody else wants to do. Hopefully everyone will have a good time with their piece."

All those years haven't completely gone to waste. The day-to-day operations of Golden Age Hollywood are as over and done as the haggling in an Etruscan marketplace. We may still have the movies -- and that ain't exactly nothin' -- but it won't do to lose sight of the nuts and bolts that went into building them. Being able to see and study these artifacts (like this gown Debbie wore as she crooned "A Home in the Meadow" in How the West Was Won) gives them a real-world texture and solidity that the movies alone, even HTWWW in all its 7-channel Cinerama glory, could never do.

Without Debbie Reynolds, the items in her collection -- Charlie Chaplin's derby, Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes Inverness cape, Audrey Hepburn's black-and-white Ascot dress (and Rex Harrison's clash-matching brown suit), Barbra Streisand's entire Funny Girl wardrobe, the kids' drapery outfits and Julie Andrews's guitar from The Sound of Music, Elizabeth Taylor's Cleopatra sedan chair, palace decorations and Yul Brynner's whip from The King and I, Bette Davis's throne from The Virgin Queen, Empress Josephine's royal bed from Desiree, Clifton Webb's Boy Scout uniform from Mr. Scoutmaster, Howard Keel's rifle from Annie Get Your Gun (or Clark Gable's from Mogambo), the 20-foot miniature warships from The Winds of War, the Ark of the Covenant from David and Bathsheba -- all might well be long-moldering somewhere in Los Angeles County's bulging landfills. As frustrated and disappointed as Debbie might be, she can claim victory in (and we can thank her for) having shepherded all these things past the point where they were simply junk.

I'll have more to say on this in Part 2...


Kevin Deany said...

Wonderful article, Jim, if not more than a bit sad. Hollywood is known for not celebrating its past like they should, and the fact that Debbie Reynolds could not find a home for her treasure trove is heart wrenching.

I remember the first time I visited Hollywood in the early 1990s how disappointed I was that the city fathers did not seem fit to capitalize on the glamour of Hollywood. Of course, Hollywood is not what it was back in the early days, but millions of people from around the world flock there every year and its depressing that some smart planners have not done more to capitalize on that.

Its too bad the new Kodak Theater could not find room for a Hollywood History Museum. It seems like a natural idea and one that should have been done years ago.

Even a few blocks around the area of Grauman's, the Egyptian and the Roosevelt Hotel could have been transformed into something special. After all, who knows more about illusions than Hollywood? I guess anywhere but their own backyard.

Looking forward to Part Two.

DorianTB said...

Wow, Jim, I'm floored that all the beautiful, amazing artifacts and memorabilia in Debbie Reynolds' "Museum that Never Was (Part 1)" can't find a home, or at least go on tour with all these wonderful things. This collection belongs in the Smithsonian or The Metropolitan Museum of Art, or perhaps go on tour like the King Tut exhibition! These remarkable items don't deserve to be all but lost to the ages. If Princess Diana's memorabilia could get a record-breaking tour, why not Debbie Reynolds' items? Where's a winning multi-million-dollar lottery ticket when you need one, so we fans could build such a museum ourselves? I look forward to Part Two of this fabulous yet poignant post, Jim!

Also, Jim, while I have your attention, thanks a million for including my blog TALES OF THE EASILY DISTRACTED among your favorites in your own wonderful blog! My dear hubby and frequent co-blogger Vinnie thanks you, too!

Jim Lane said...

Kevin, Dorian, thanks both. It is mystifying, isn't it, how Debbie has had to face so many obstacles in this. Seems to me the proceeds from a single weekend of a Transformers or Pirates of the Caribbean movie would be enough to build a museum that would be one of the wonders of the world. Ah well.

Dorian, as I'll be saying in Part 2, at least these exhibits aren't literally "lost to the ages." But they are lost to the public -- so your "all but" qualifier is exactly right.

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