By Amy Silverman
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Just as understandable, nobody in Debbiedom is particularly eager to field questions about the entertainer's wisdom in buying the hotel-and-entertainment complex, especially given Debbie's spectacularly bad track record as a businesswoman. In her 1988 autobiography, the actress reported that she inadvertently kissed off a fortune when she insisted that NBC-TV not air cigarette commercials during her 1969 sitcom, because she deemed cigarettes unsuitable products for a family show, even though she herself was an on-again, off-again smoker. That demand effectively nullified a two-year run the network had guaranteed the show, costing the actress several million dollars. And even though she claims to have earned approximately $10 million during her 13-year marriage to shoe-store magnate Harry Karl, her free-spending second husband, Karl racked up so many gambling debts that she was forced to live in her car for a period following the couple's 1973 divorce. @rule:
@body:While waiting for the boss lady to appear, public relations director Rich Hannasch admits that while she's a consummate entertainer, Debbie Reynolds' knowledge of hotel management is somewhere between zero and nil. "She and her husband run the whole thing, but they're basically just landlords," says Hannasch, explaining that most of the hotel is or will be leased out to independent franchises. "The hotel rooms, the casino, the restaurants--all of these are being leased to guys who are experts in their field, so Debbie and her husband can concentrate on the showroom and the museum. Those are their babies. She's got a lot of friends--Frank Sinatra, people like that--and if we can get them to come over here, I think she'll have a real winner here.
"The fact that there are only about 200 rooms is a real plus, too," continues Hannasch, obviously vamping for time until the tardy Debbie appears. "This place is a personality, not just a building, like the Luxor or the MGM. See, the older people who come to Vegas tend to get scared of the crowds on the strip and all the stuff that's happening out there. Now they can come over here, see the show and it's easy in, easy out." It has evidently not occurred to Debbie or to anyone else that the easily spooked folks that Hannasch is describing rarely, if ever, go to Vegas. Or that when and if the urge to gamble does strike, these are the people who grab a cottage-cheese container full of nickels and head for Laughlin or the nearest Indian reservation casino.
@body:Looking almost as trim and far more taut than she did in her last major screen appearance, more than 20 years ago, Debbie finally sweeps into the office, followed by a harried-looking group of employees that wants her to sign this, initial that. No dice, as they say in Vegas.
"I don't care what you told them," Debbie says curtly, brushing aside the young woman who makes the mistake of trying to get her to sign some checks. "Those checks aren't going out today." Autographs are one thing, signatures on checks quite another.
Oblivious to a handful of hotel staffers that is desperately vying for her attention, Debbie smiles graciously and apologizes for her tardiness. "When I woke up this morning, I had a feeling this was going to be a very stress-free day," she says. "I guess I was wrong."
Seemingly eager to talk about anything but the hotel (at one point, she launches into a lengthy discourse on the eye makeup she wore in The Singing Nun), the star of stage, screen, television and infomercials finally discusses her decision to become a Las Vegas innkeeper.
"Las Vegas' 'star policy' is gone," says the performer. "The hotels have gone corporate, and now they'd rather put on a big revue that can be staged relatively inexpensively than book individuals like myself. "Ann-Margret, Shirley MacLaine, Debbie Reynolds, Liza Minnelli, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., before he died--we are all live performers," she continues. "We are vaudevillians, and we have to go where the audiences are. Myself, I've been on the road for something like 28 years, 14 of those years solidly, and I've never had more than one week off during any of those years. I love being on the road, but you do get tired of it. That's why I decided to let the audience come to me."
@body:More than a few of Reynolds' Las Vegas contemporaries have come to the same conclusion themselves, fleeing the gambling capital for the far-more-favorable working conditions of Branson, Missouri. Nestled in the Ozarks, the country-oriented tourist hamlet has been hailed alternately as "the new Nashville" and "Las Vegas without the gambling." The town's main drag now plays host to more than 30 showrooms, many of them owned by former Vegas headliners (Wayne Newton, Tony Orlando, Andy Williams) who perform regularly in theatres bearing their own names.
With Debbie's wholesome following and Branson's estimated five million visitors per year (the American Automobile Association recently deemed Branson second only to Disney World as the country's most popular tourist destination), the entertainer's showroom-museum combo would seem to be a natural addition to the Ozark vacation haven, far more so than its present home in party-hardy Las Vegas. Or so it would appear to everyone but Debbie, who gives the distinct impression that she would rather do anywhere--Dallas, even--than Branson. "I went down to Branson, because I have a girlfriend who owns a lot of land down there, and she wanted me to put the museum and theatre there," says Debbie. "But I felt that the location of her property was a little far out--which, by tomorrow, will probably be in the center of town, with my luck." When the "Why aren't you in Branson?" query comes up again in a question-and-answer session during her lobby show, Debbie blithely changes her story: "Branson was a little too quiet for me--it seemed like everybody was in bed by 8 o'clock," Debbie announces, little realizing that she's probably pinpointed the bedtime of the majority of the people who have turned out to get her autograph. "I like living in Las Vegas," says Debbie, who has made the city her home for the past 20 years. "It suits my personal needs." @rule: