Debbie Reynolds spent decades saving, preserving and — after repeated attempts to memorialize them in a museum failed — auctioning her incredible collection of old Hollywood memorabilia. Now, her son Todd Fisher is picking up the mantle after her death.
On Wednesday, Fisher teamed up with TCM for a private preview of select costumes from Reynolds’ iconic films. The exhibit goes on display to festival pass-holders during the TCM Classic Film Festival, running April 6-9. The preview includes some of what remains of the actress’s unparalleled private collection.
The Singin’ in the Rain star’s passion for preserving Hollywood memorabilia goes back to the ’60s, when she was one of the top-grossing stars in town. “My mother met Mary Pickford and Harold Lloyd early in the ’60s, and there was talk of a museum back then,” Fisher tells PEOPLE. “There were many attempts in the early years to actually put this together, and it never happened.”
At the time, the big studios still ruled the land, and costumes and set pieces were stored and recycled for use in new pictures. When the studios began shooting more on location and less on sets, there was no longer a need to stockpile and, much to Reynolds’ chagrin, the costumes and set pieces were simply thrown away.
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“The great music scores when I was a boy, like Irving Berlin, I watched all those orchestrations be plowed by a bulldozer into the 405 landfill,” Fisher remembers. “Imagine mounds of scores, handwritten scores by the greatest writers of all time. I’m watching all of this, and my mother is in tears.”
Preserving Hollywood history was not valued at the time, but Reynolds refused to standby and watch the memories destroyed. “She was panicking to save … So she started to say, ‘I’m going to buy everything I can.’ She borrowed money, she spent every penny she had on it, right up to the bitter end. She became obsessed with the idea that it needed to be preserved for future generations.”
Reynolds was so committed, Fisher says, “At one point, we had 3,000 costumes that represented every Academy Award-winning film that had ever been even nominated for Best Production Design or Costume Design since the beginning of the Academy, and beyond … People have no clue how into this she was.”
She opened a Las Vegas museum to showcase the collection in the ’90s, but it went bankrupt in 1997. After years of pleading with the Academy to join her in a new museum venture, Reynolds finally decided to auction the collection. “Now, it broke her heart to do that auction, but [the collection] was burying her. The money to preserve this stuff was staggering. We were spending hundreds of thousands of dollars a year just to preserve it. Nobody’s helping, nobody even gets it,” Fisher explains.
Reynolds, who had lost the bulk of her fortune to her ex-husbands, also benefitted financially from the auction. “She made over $22 million in one night,” Fisher says. “I said, ‘Well just dry your eyes with hundred dollar bills, because that’s what you can do if you want to.’ She still kept a few pieces here and there, even through that.”
Many of Reynolds’ personal costumes remain, thanks in part to Fisher’s insistence, as well as other valuable items, like the typewriter from Citizen Kane. Moving forward, Fisher hopes the typewriter and other pieces will be apart of a new museum effort. “It’s not just a cool item, it’s now a piece of our fabric of our history,” he explains. “So what will happen to that? Maybe that should go to the Academy. Let’s see what they do with themselves. I’m open to all of these discussions.”
While Fisher says Reynolds did not leave him with specific instructions for the estate, he believes his mom would be proud of his work so far. Asked if there were any directions in Reynolds’ will, Fisher says, “No, because she knew that it was bred in me. At this point, if I don’t get it, then you can’t leave enough lists. I have a lot of lists. My mother is big on lists, so there’s a lot of lists, but none of the lists say, ‘Preserve my legacy.’”
In fact, Fisher believes his mom, staunchly humble to the end, “would have been mad” about all the attention. “But she would have altered [her feelings] a little bit because of Carrie going,” he explains, referencing the death of his sister Carrie Fisher, who died the day before Reynolds. “So I have a certain amount of latitude that I’m using right now based on my understanding of how she felt about Carrie, and what they would have done together.”
Had all the focus been on Reynolds alone, Fisher says, “I think she would have been annoyed, because I did have instructions — not having to do with Carrie — essentially saying, ‘Oh, don’t make any big thing of it. Just stick me over here in the hole, have me cremated, put me with grandma and grandpa over here at this place in the valley, and that’s the end of it.”
But Fisher feels he would have been able to talk his mom out of those feelings regardless, especially if she could have seen the reaction from her fans. “I know that when she would have seen the response from her fans, she would have given me permission to do what I did, because I know she would have wanted them connected, and wanted them to have their moments with her, because she lived her life that way.”
In the end, Fisher says, “I’m doing what I think my mother would want, based on my genetics, based on my upbringing, based on my programming from her. And boy, don’t get in my way.”
The next step, Fisher says, is “to build a little museum at Debbie Reynolds Studios temporarily, because I know that a museum is slow-coming. I will put that up first, and I will show them the way. Let’s just see what happens.”
As for what’s been left to Reynolds’ granddaughter, and Carrie’s daughter, Billie Lourd, Fisher says, “Lots of stuff. Billie has some of my mom’s costumes. They’re actually mine, but I’m going to share with her. My mother actually left her some of her Vegas stuff back with [designer] Bob Mackie.”
His dream is to see Billie live out one of Reynolds’ old goals for her: “My mother would love to see Billie go into Vegas, because Carrie never did. It would be the greatest vindication of all time if Billie gets a nightclub act.”
He adds, “I think that would give her great joy, and she did specifically lay out the Bob Mackie [dresses] that will fit Billy. So that’s going to be a funny day.”