WHAT MAKES TAMMY RUN?GAMBLING-CAPITAL SKEPTICS HAVE RESERVATIONS ABOUT DEBBIE REYNOLDS, LAS VEGAS' UNLIKELIEST INNKEEPER
LAS VEGAS--Gazing out a second-story window of the intimate "boutique" hotel that bears her name, Debbie Reynolds, best known for her role in 1957's Tammy and the Bachelor, surveys the once-familiar landscape that's rapidly being transformed into some sort of whacked-out theme park for gamblers. "This town has really changed," the former star of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer musicals and Vegas showrooms sighs wistfully.
She can say that again. Over the next several months, visitors to the fabled Las Vegas strip will be able to gorge their eyes and empty their wallets on an array of gaudy new attractions unprecedented in the history of the garish gambling capital.
At the south end of the strip is the Luxor hotel and casino, scheduled to open in October; visitors will enter the 30-story pyramid through the mouth of a giant sphinx, then be ferried to the registration desk via barges floating up the hotel's in-house Nile. Up the road, workers are putting finishing touches on the $450 million Treasure Island hotel, where passing motorists will soon thrill to open-air buccaneer combat, complete with booming cannons. Next year, visitors will even be able to catch an aerial view of all this hoopla from an amusement-park-style thrill ride mounted atop the 1,012-foot Stratosphere Tower casino, Las Vegas' tallest structure to date.
For the time being, however, the most unusual and financially dicey new enterprise in Vegas has got to be the off-strip hotel and casino at 305 Convention Center Drive, located midway between the Stardust and the soon-to-be-razed Landmark. Still under renovation, but open for business since last July, Debbie Reynolds' Hollywood Hotel/Casino and Motion Picture Museum is undoubtedly the only hotel in town at which the celebrity proprietress, whose name once loomed over the Las Vegas strip on showroom marquees in letters 15 feet high, now performs in the lobby for free four afternoons per week. The 61-year-old performer is frequently accompanied by comedian Rip Taylor, the confetti-scattering comic best known to couch potatoes as the host of The $1.98 Beauty Show, Chuck Barris' late-Seventies companion piece to The Gong Show.
Debbie-ana is everywhere. The hold music on the hotel's switchboard plays "Tammy," Debbie's 1957 chart buster. To hit the jackpot on the slot machines in the minicasino, players must line up three Debbies. Meanwhile, another machine in the slots-only casino dispenses commemorative Debbie Reynolds coins. And if they're lucky, guests just might catch a glimpse of their famous hostess performing some down-and-dirty janitorial duties, as well.
"Debbie is very hands-on," says one employee of the remodeled hotel. "She's not afraid to pick up a vacuum cleaner or a dust cloth. And if she sees something that's dirty, she'll get down and clean it. That's why she's so busy all the time."
@body:One of the busiest stars in show business, Debbie (no one calls her "Miss Reynolds") has been working steadily in one field or another since 1948, when the 16-year-old "Miss Burbank" was spotted by a Hollywood talent scout. Following a couple of bit parts at Warner Bros., the pert and perky personality packed up her Peter Pan collars and ponytail and moved to MGM, where she appeared in a series of frothy but, with the exception of Singin' in the Rain, largely forgettable musicals. Shifting into Doris Day-type roles in the Sixties, Debbie and her brand of cute eventually wore out their box-office welcome.
Realizing that Hollywood was no longer making her kind of picture (in 1971's What's the Matter With Helen?, her most recent big-screen starring role, Debbie's character wound up being butchered by Shelley Winters'), Debbie hit the road with a live nightclub act, ranging from top Vegas shows to, more recently, the Sundome circuit. But it was Debbie's 1955 marriage to singer Eddie Fisher (and, more important, her subsequent 1959 divorce) that really put her on the map; that, more than any of her films, is probably what she's best remembered for today. Boy Next Door leaves Girl Next Door for home wrecker Liz Taylor! Perhaps the most publicized split in Hollywood history, the messy breakup and even messier aftermath (Liz eventually dumped Fisher for Richard Burton) make the Loni-and-Burt contretemps look like a lovers' spat by comparison. Proving that time heals all wounds, one of the large, movie-star blowups that adorns the front of Debbie's hotel is of none other than Liz Taylor. While Reynolds vehemently denies that the film had anything to do with her, more than a few moviegoers familiar with the actress's life have no doubt that she served as the role model for the megalomaniac former star portrayed by Shirley MacLaine in Postcards From the Edge, the 1990 film written by Debbie's daughter, Carrie Fisher.
@body:Debbie is apparently so preoccupied with business elsewhere in the hotel on one recent Saturday afternoon that no one can determine her whereabouts. Not the frazzled young woman who's frantically tracking Debbie down to sign checks that "should have gone out yesterday." Not the harried PR man who's trying to locate the absentee entertainer for the benefit of both an out-of-town reporter and a Today camera crew unloading in the parking lot.
And certainly not the hotheaded factotum who's reaming out another employee who had failed to locate Debbie when country singer Mickey Gilley dropped by to say hello earlier in the week. When the staffer counters that Debbie was in a meeting and had left explicit instructions that she was not to be disturbed, the first employee fumes, "That was yesterday! If you've got another star in here who's visiting the hotel, I don't give a damn if Debbie's on the toilet! I talked to her last night, and Debbie said she doesn't give a shit who it is, you call her!" If tempers are running short around chez Debbie, it's understandable. Since purchasing the run-down resort at an auction last fall for $2.2 million, the actress and her real estate developer/husband, Richard Hamlett, have had more than their share of problems with the property, many of them still unresolved. Last May, an Illinois-based riverboat-gambling operation called Hollywood Casino-Aurora filed a federal suit against the hotel, claiming the name of Debbie's hostelry violated trademark laws. The following month, the Nevada Environmental Protection Division discovered that hotel workers had dumped hazardous paint stripper into a grease trap that emptied into the city sewer; although the hotel subsequently spent $20,000 cleaning up the waste, the hotel may still be fined. According to various stories that have appeared in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Debbie and spouse are still struggling to scrape up financing for the hotel, whose much-touted, 500-seat showroom, motion picture museum, gift shop and gourmet restaurant have yet to open. And last August, The Globe, a supermarket tabloid, printed a story claiming that worries over the "problem-plagued" casino were jeopardizing the "cash-starved star's" marriage.
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:
@body:But whether Debbie's hotel meets the needs of the typical Las Vegas tourist is something that the city's oddsmakers are still handicapping. Does the "bawdy, zany, madcap, vaudeville revue" that Debbie plans to perform in her showroom twice per night stand a chance against the multimillion-dollar pyrotechnics available just down the street?
Anthony Curtis, publisher of the Las Vegas Adviser, a monthly tip sheet focusing on bargains in the gambling world, says he's not privy to any inside information about the hotel, but predicts that anyone who took over the hotel was going to have his work cut out for him.
"She's bound to have a bit of a tough time, because that's a notoriously unsuccessful location," says Curtis of the ten-year-old property. Although located about a quarter of a mile east of the Stardust hotel on a major thoroughfare that intersects the strip, the hotel might as well be ten miles away. Because average Vegas tourists tend to walk from casino to casino along the strip, there is currently no good reason for anyone to make the hike to Debbie's isolated hotel.
"The place was formerly the Paddlewheel; before that it was the Royal Americana," says Curtis. "One after the other, they open and they close. And, certainly, when something doesn't open on schedule, something's wrong."
During a hearing to grant the renovated hotel a gaming license last June, a member of the Nevada Gaming Commission expressed doubts about the profitability of the enterprise. Referring to the property's long history of failure, commissioner Augie Gurrola reportedly commented, "Is Debbie Reynolds going to make a difference? I personally don't think it will suffice."
"Everybody here is pretty skeptical about the hotel's chances for success," says another Las Vegas gaming observer, who requests anonymity. "I wouldn't count it out, but it does seem they are undercapitalized. Her only real commodity is her celebrity, such as that may be. But if she oversaturates that to the point where it's no big deal to walk in the place and see her, she might be in trouble." @rule:
@body:Nevertheless, on a recent Saturday afternoon, the hotel's behind-the-scenes trouble seems to evaporate, and the biggest problem appears to be finding a seat for the 3 p.m. minirevue in the lobby. By 2:30, the area surrounding the check-in desk is already jammed with Debbiephiles, most of them females in late middle age; one fan later earns a round of applause when she reveals that she is 103. Some carry scrapbooks, while others struggle with wheelchairs and walkers. Bounding onto the makeshift stage to the tune of "There's No Business Like Show Business," the veteran trouper cracks jokes about her failed marriages, impersonates Zsa Zsa Gabor and Bette Davis, sings song parodies (You made me love you/You woke me up to do it"), mugs for the shutterbugs and hawks video copies of her old movies and exercise tapes.
Then, eager to make the distinction between the "bawdy, zany, madcap, vaudeville revue" that may soon be her bread and butter and the impromptu entertainment currently transpiring, Debbie waves a cautionary finger in the air. "This is not a show," she chides jovially. "It's an 'open house.' You'll notice that we are in the lobby and that you didn't pay. We're just doing this until the showroom opens. And if it doesn't open soon, I'll be broke!"
Well, if worst comes to worst, she can always try to line up three Debbies.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.