A day apart, Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds died. A photo showed Reynolds on stage at the Riviera in 1963 as her six-year-old daughter Carrie watched from a stool just offstage. Indeed, Las Vegas was an important part of Debbie Reynolds’ long and fascinating life, and Carrie Fisher had something to do with Las Vegas as well.
Debbie Reynolds became a star in 1952 at age nineteen in Singin’ in the Rain, which many experts consider the greatest musical Hollywood ever made. Reynolds didn’t begin performing in Las Vegas until the early 1960s, sometimes at the Riviera and more frequently at the Desert Inn. But she was around here in the 1950s. In 1955, she married singer Eddie Fisher, a frequent Las Vegas headliner. In 1957, a few months after Carrie’s birth, he was the opening showroom star at the Strip’s newest hotel, the Tropicana. She was there, not performing, but part of the crowd.
On another occasion, Elizabeth Taylor was also in attendance in Las Vegas. She and her husband Mike Todd were close friends of Reynolds and Fisher. Debbie Reynolds’ son with Fisher is named Todd. But Mike Todd died in a plane crash in 1958. Soon Eddie Fisher began an affair with Taylor, and left Reynolds for her. Fisher and Taylor married and later divorced. The two women later became friends again.
Meanwhile, Debbie Reynolds pursued her career, in film and television and on records and stages. That meant a lot of appearances over the years in Las Vegas. When she played the Desert Inn in the summer of 1971, she had a singing partner: Carrie, then fourteen, six years before she won worldwide attention as Princess Leia in Star Wars. Carrie’s brother Todd also would perform with their mother in Las Vegas. Reynolds would go on to appear at other Las Vegas properties, including the Hilton, where she and old friend Rip Taylor were part of the large cast of Bal du Moulin Rouge in the mid-1980s.
Debbie Reynolds kept performing in Las Vegas until as recently as 2014 at the South Point, along with her son, daughter, and granddaughter. But she ended up having another role in Las Vegas that was unusual for an entertainer and for a woman: hotel owner.
Other entertainers had invested in resorts, including Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. Wayne Newton co-owned the Aladdin. Women have rarely been the main owners of resorts. But in 1992, Reynolds bought a 193-room hotel on Convention Center Drive. It had opened in 1970 as the Royal Inn and later became the Royal Americana and the Paddlewheel. Now it would be Debbie Reynolds’ Hollywood Hotel. She had a collection of movie memorabilia, and her son Todd organized it into an attraction. She appeared in the showroom, as did a variety of other performers. Unfortunately, she didn’t have the financing to make a success of it. She and the hotel filed for bankruptcy in 1997. The next year, the World Wrestling Federation bought it. It went through several owners and names before its implosion in 2015.
Implosions remind us that the old Las Vegas has given way to the new. The death of Debbie Reynolds reminds us of the stars who made Las Vegas the entertainment capital of the world, and Las Vegas old and new, possible.
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