All of us fanatics who are obsessed with the history of movies were sad to hear last year that Debbie Reynolds’ longtime quest to build a museum to house her collection of old costumes and props had failed and that the actress was selling off her treasures in a series of three auctions. The first auction took place this past weekend in Beverly Hills and it exceeded all expectations, setting multiple records for the sale of movie memorabilia.
The most famous item in Reynolds’ collection, Marilyn Monroe’s iconic white dress that she wore while standing over the subway grate in “The Seven-Year Itch” was estimated to sell between 1 and 2 million dollars but instead went for a whopping $5.6 million! Yowzah! One of the dresses that Judy Garland wore in the first two weeks of shooting “The Wizard of Oz” (footage that was later discarded) was valued between 60 and 80,000 dollars. It sold for well over a million. A test pair of the ruby slippers in an Arabian style (that never appeared in the film) sold for $627,300. A majority of the 500 items for sale sold for over twice the estimated worth, with many going for more than ten times. Who were these buyers? What recession? Of course the biggest fear among movie fanatics is that the items will be gobbled up by random billionaires who will never let them be seen again. Some museums have already asked the new owners to lend certain costumes for upcoming exhibits and I hope the rich folks comply.
The collection was available for public viewing in the days before the auction and I spent hours pouring over every single item. When the ticket taker at the entrance saw me leaving she said in complimentary surprise,“Are you still here?” It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get super close to these iconic bits of cinematic history. Marilyn’s white dress and a couple of other items were behind glass, but most of the costumes and props were not and while, of course, they asked people not to touch anything, we could literally stick our faces up to these artifacts and examine them from a distance of less than an inch!
Reynolds has been amassing her incredible collection for over 50 years. She bought many for peanuts at the infamous MGM auction in the early 1970s and was there when the other big studios began to sell off their histories. Many of the costumes from her own films were there as well and it was sad to see them on the block. Debbie has stated over and over again that she didn’t want to break up her collection but that she finally had to admit defeat. The cost of maintaining these valuable items must have been enormous and she just couldn’t afford it anymore. For a while many of the costumes were on display at her Las Vegas hotel and casino but that went bust years ago. Then came word that she was going to house them on the top floor at the Hollywood & Highland shopping complex which would have been the perfect location. I remember all the press about that and I happened to be sitting next to Debbie and her son, Todd Fisher, years ago, at one of the restaurants in the complex and heard them talking about the museum with great excitement. Alas, it never happened. The latest plan was a new museum in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, of all places, but the developers went bankrupt last summer causing Debbie to finally raise the white flag and make the difficult decision to sell off her treasures. You can’t blame the woman. No one worked more tirelessly to save so much important movie history from ruin, but Kendall and I still moaned “No, Debbie, no!” when we heard the news.
Seeing her own “Singin’ in the Rain” costumes up for sale (her flapper dress from the “Good Morning” number went for $33,000) along with her dresses from several other films including “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” and “How the West Was Won,” I wanted to rip them down from the display and save them for her granddaughter. Also for sale were two of the kids’ play outfits (supposedly made by Julie Andrews out of the old curtains in her bedroom) from “The Sound of Music.” They sold for $43,000. Leah and I saw Carrie Fisher’s daughter wearing one of these costumes at one of the Sing-along Sound of Music events we attended at the Hollywood Bowl. Fisher’s daughter also carried Maria’s guitar from the film that day (which sold for $172,000). Julie Andrews’ Do-Re-Mi dress from the film sold for $676,000 but two of Maria’s other famous outfits went for only 50 grand each. A steal!
Other big ticket items included Marilyn Monroe’s spectacular red-sequined dress from the opening scene in “Gentleman Prefer Blondes.” It sold for nearly five times its estimated value at almost a million and a half dollars. Two of Monroe’s costumes from “There’s No Business Like Show Business” sold for over $600,000 each. A beautiful outfit worn by Grace Kelly in “To Catch a Thief” sold for over half a million.
Elizabeth Taylor’s amazing headdress from “Cleopatra” sold for $123,000. Many people pointed out the delicious irony of Reynolds making a mint off of Taylor’s “Cleopatra” duds (there was a large number of “Cleopatra” items in her collection). When Elizabeth Taylor shot that film, she arrived on location with her new husband Eddie Fisher, who had famously left Debbie and their two kids to be with Taylor. But Elizabeth fell in love with Richard Burton during the filming and soon dumped Fisher. What goes around, comes around.
The second highest sale on Saturday was Audrey Hepburn’s famous Cecil Beaton-designed dress from the Ascot scene in “My Fair Lady.” It sold for well over ten times its estimated value at $4,551,000. These crazy inflated prices made many of the other items seem cheap by comparison. I was surprised that Laurel & Hardy’s very cool Model T sold for only $43,000 and their signature suits for only $19,000. Claudette Colbert’s stunning gold-lame dress from the 1930s version of “Cleopatra” went for “only” $49,000 as did Greta Garbo’s dress from “Anna Karenina” and Shirley Temple’s from “The Littlest Rebel.” I could not believe that Joan Crawford’s waitress uniform from “Mildred Pierce” went for only $27,000. Are those collectors nuts? Where were the gays?
It would take many pages to list all of the amazing costumes in this sale and I could go on for hours so I’ll force myself to stop. Suffice it to say that hundreds of the most famous films, actors, and costumes in the history of motion pictures were represented. Among the furniture for sale, I had my eye on two very cool matching red satin divans from the 1949 version of “Little Women.” They would have been perfect for our house and Kendall and I considered bidding on them since the projected value was only $400 each but alas, they went for almost $7,000. Odd items from the stars’ personal lives were also for sale from a lock of Mary Pickford’s hair ($4,305) to the diary child actor Freddie Bartholemew ($1,968) kept while shooting a film with Greta Garbo (“I am a little nervous at acting with such a great talent”).
Oh damn it to hell, why didn’t we buy those costumes from “Meet Me in St. Louis,” Leah NEEDS Judy Garland’s period dresses! Crap…she could’ve worn Hedy LaMarr’s peacock-feathered Delilah get-up this Halloween for only $14,000, or performed in a local version of “Hello Dolly” wearing Barbra Streisand’s actual signature dress ($67,000) from that film. And Charlie could have one day dressed in Yul Brynner’s “King and I” duds for only $11,000 and sat on his actual Siamese throne for $9,000. Doesn’t Kendall need to wear Ingrid Bergman’s period dress from “Gaslight” ($39,000) as she repeats lines from that crazed character (which she does about once a week) or one of Katharine Hepburn’s “Mary of Scotland” gowns ($17,000) while doing her killer Hepburn impersonation? I could have outfitted my guests at next year’s Passover seder in authentic costumes from De Mille’s “The Ten Commandments”—they only went for a few thousand dollars each, damn it. And, for only $12,000, I could have lounged around the house in Clark Gable’s red satin dressing gown he wore between takes during the shooting of “Gone With the Wind.”
Despite making a fortune this weekend, Debbie Reynolds openly cried several times during the auction. Thank you, Debbie, for being such a devoted steward of these beloved artifacts for so many years. And now that some of your immediate cash problems are solved, maybe you can hold on to some of the rest of your collection?