The international ballroom dance phenomenon rolls on as a big, retooled version of the West End hit revue Simply Ballroom swings into the Granada next week. The show combines first-rate singing-courtesy of screen legend Debbie Reynolds and a supporting ensemble of voices including singing British soap star Sam Kane-with a crew of the hottest young ballroom dancers in the world. Designed to educate as well as thrill, Simply Ballroom offers a taste of nearly every style of contemporary ballroom dancing. Reynolds will MC, sing songs from her classic movies, and tell stories from her fabulous career, which includes what many consider the greatest movie musical of all time, Singing in the Rain.
I spoke with Reynolds a month ago.
What should we expect from Simply Ballroom? What kind of show is it? It’s dance. When you’re in a show that’s all dance, it’s very different from a standard Broadway musical. Some of the cast are very young, and several have never been in a proper show at all. But they can all dance wonderfully.
Why do this show now ? There are so many reasons. For one thing, television has made ballroom hot again. There’s the excitement of seeing celebrities trying so hard to execute these moves, but there’s also a lot more to competitive ballroom itself. When you start seeing more of it, you realize that there are degrees of difficulty that are every bit as strict as those you see in the Olympics during gymnastics and diving. The splits that these people are doing aren’t just showy-they’re hard. We don’t have the competitive ballroom tradition so much in the United States, but elsewhere in the world it is huge.
Tell me about your own experiences as a dancer in the movies. I only started dancing when I was 16. I began to dance because I went into movies, and I had to learn fast-sometimes a whole routine in 20 minutes. I had done some gymnastics, but it was still a challenge. The dancing I did in Singing in the Rain was all filmed while I was still very young, and I was often hard pressed to keep up with my costars, but somehow I managed. We got people’s toes tapping with that one.
What was it like to make Singing in the Rain? The rules on the set were strict. I had to mind Gene Kelly, and I had to mime him as well, because Gene was the choreographer. He did everything-other than make ‘em laugh. That was Donald [O’Connor]’s job. I am proud of the young girl that was me in those days. She was all right.
Tell me about this memorabilia collection you have put together. I hear it is now valued at $50 million. My memorabilia collection began when I saw that nobody in Hollywood really cared what happened to all this stuff. It was hard to get the people at the studios to preserve anything. So all the things I thought were important-the great costumes, the great distinctive properties, all the magic elements that had come together in so many classic performances-I purchased. I now have almost 5,000 items stored in Belle Isle, Tennessee, and this fall a museum will open there: the Debbie Reynolds Hollywood Motion Picture Museum. My son Todd [Fisher] is running it, and I am excited about it, because I have put together the largest private collection of Hollywood memorabilia in the world, and finally I am going to see it properly presented to the public. People will be able to see Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, and the dress Marilyn Monroe wore in The Seven Year Itch.
You have been working with some of the singers from American Idol. Do you enjoy the contest shows that have become so popular on television? I think the American Idol and Dancing with the Stars phenomenon is very important, and could potentially do a lot of good. But the judging is often not what it should be. The put-downs are unnecessary; it’s as though these people lack the expertise to make any constructive comments. There’s no need to be evil and mean. In Simply Ballroom, we have an element of competition, but we always encourage the dancers. And that’s kind of my feeling about these television programs that use contests-let’s have them, by all means, but let’s make them even better. A good MC or judge makes all the difference. I would do it, and so would some of the other actors and actresses who made the classics.
How is it for you to travel with a show like this? I still love the road, but a place like Santa Barbara makes me think about settling down. I played at the Granada when I was quite young, and I will be happy to play there again in a few weeks. But if someone were to offer me a small home somewhere in, say, Montecito, I could imagine being happy with that too.