Rger Ebert once called “Singin’ in the Rain” the “greatest Hollywood musical ever made.” All the more reason to be excited that it’s coming to Harding this weekend. And a perfect opportunity to tell you about the time I met two of its original three leading stars.
It was exactly 29 years ago this week — October 23, 1986. I was 14, a bumbling high school freshman with a really odd taste in music. While my friends were banging their heads to Def Leppard and Quiet Riot, I was at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta listening to two middle-aged crooners. Some people take pride in liking certain bands before they are cool. I’ve always preferred stuff 30 years afterwards.
“Singin’ in the Rain” fit my criteria perfectly. The 1951 musical was genius on so many levels — a perfect cast, memorable songs, dazzling choreography and one of Hollywood’s best satires of itself. Set in the late 1920s as sound technology was rocking the movies, MGM’s masterpiece follows a couple of actors trying to make the transition from silent films to the talkies. Gene Kelly and Jean Hagen play the perfect manufactured showbiz couple — adored onscreen and rumored to be together off. Donald O’Connor is Kelly’s amiable sidekick.
All goes well until the studios switch over to sound. Kelly is not used to talking on camera and flubs his lines, and Hagen has a voice … well, let’s just say that if you scratched a record, ran your fingernails over a chalkboard and then stepped on a cat, you would still rather hear all of that instead of her voice. With Debbie Reynolds as an aspiring actress with golden vocals and a cold shoulder for Kelly, the stage is set for great fun.
And there I was in ‘86 — a teenager who would soon be pining away for Debbie Gibson — cheering wildly for Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds in concert at the Fox. O’Connor was 61 but could still do the comic pratfalls from his signature song “Make ‘Em Laugh,” which he had choreographed himself back at MGM. Reynolds was 54 and still a glamorous talent—belting out the musical numbers she made famous on Broadway and in the movies. When the two of them reprised “Good Mornin'” and “Singin’ in the Rain” together, they brought the house down.
I was in the audience with my best friend Jimmy. He was over 30 years my senior, but we had the same screwball sense of humor. We dressed up in gaudy ties and vintage hats and told corny jokes to anyone who would listen. Most teens would be embarrassed by a friend who takes out his false teeth in public and yells, “Look, Ma! No cavities!” But I loved it. We were a modern-day Laurel and Hardy.
We also shared a love for the Hollywood classics. While those old films were new discoveries for me — they were the stuff of Jimmy’s childhood. Growing up in Atlanta in the 1940s, Jimmy used to get up early on a Saturday and go door to door looking for odd jobs. By the time he had earned 25 cents, he took the bus into town and bought a 10-cent ticket to the movies. You could stay all afternoon on one ticket in those days, and Jimmy escaped from his ordinary life into a fantasy world of Clark Gable, Rita Hayworth, and Abbott and Costello.
Jimmy was misty-eyed during the entire two-hour concert at the Fox that night. Later, in the best Stage-Door-Johnny tradition, we stood outside the theatre with a small crowd, waiting to get a glimpse of fame. Debbie Reynolds was the first to come out. She joked that her co-star was still backstage sweating. When she signed my program, I looked around for Jimmy. But I couldn’t find him. It turns out that after he got an autograph, he ran around to the other end of the line to ask Ms. Reynolds for a hug before she got into her limo. She didn’t seem to mind.
When Donald O’Connor came out, Jimmy turned his hat sideways and broke into an impromptu chorus of “Make ‘Em Laugh.” Mr. O’Connor chuckled, signed our programs and thanked us for coming. We practically floated home.
A copy of the iconic movie poster hung in my basement for years — it featured the three leads with yellow raincoats and umbrellas, happily singing in the rain. So thanks to the cast and crew of this year’s Homecoming musical for bringing back some special memories. I just wish Jimmy could be here to see it, too.