Monday, February 6, 2017

An Afternoon with Debbie Reynolds, A Month of Sundays with Mary Tyler Moore

Two bright lights of our entertainment heavens, Debbie Reynolds and Marry Tyler Moore left us recently. They both had charm, beauty and a perky sparkle of personality that shone like the true stars they were.

An Afternoon with Debbie Reynolds

I was a student at Lincoln High School in Des Moines, Iowa when I spent an afternoon with Miss Reynolds who was still a teenager herself. Someone at MGM thought she should go on a press tour to promote one of her first major films made with actor Carlton Carpenter, now 90, called “Two Weeks with Love”. The wrinkle was the press conferences were with high school newspaper writers and photographers. I was taking a journalism class and occasionally wrote for our school paper the “Rail-splitter.” On the appointed afternoon a carload of us were driven to the stately Kirkwood Hotel and rode up the elevator to the top floor and a suite. I had never been in a hotel suite. There was a large room with flowers, windows with views of the city, and a coffee table that held tubs of chilled bottles of Coca Cola and large bowls of Potato Chips for refreshments.

High school journalists and photographers from the four other high schools began arriving as we waited for Miss Reynolds. Across the room were two double doors which I presumed went to the bedroom or another part of the suite. Was there a back entrance to the accommodations? We were all facing a large sofa on the other side of the coffee table as we sipped our cokes and tried not to make noise crunching potato chips until the double doors opened and a press representative from the studio said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Miss Debbie Reynolds.”

I seem to recall a collective gulp as a beautiful, young, five foot two, California tan girl emerged from the other room smiling it seemed at each one of us. She wore a light blue dress and matching pumps as she walked to the upholstered arm rest on the sofa and sat down, crossing her legs choosing to dangle part of a shoe off the end of her foot. An assistant handed her a coke and the boys, anyway, grabbed their pencils in hopes of writing some answers to questions they and the girls had trouble framing. When she asked “What do you do for fun in Des Moines” there was a round of awkward laughter that broke the ice and from then on our group relaxed.

The press conference was a smart idea. All over the city the next edition of the school papers had stories and pictures about Debbie Reynolds new movie, the one that had the song “Abba Dabba Honeymoon” It became a big hit. Her next film was her breakthrough “That’s Entertainment.” Little did I know I was in the presence of someone who was destined to be one of our country’s great entertainers who continued in her craft nearly up to the end, truly she was “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.”

A Month of Sundays with Mary Tyler Moore

The Betty Ford Center opened in Rancho Mirage California sometime in October of 1982.

Their treatment program was based on the model of the Long Beach Naval Hospital and Hazelton in Minnesota using the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous as part of the spiritual path to recovery.

Frs Andrew and Barnabas helped arrange a Betty Ford Day
 at the 1985 General Convention in Anaheim California. 
Both did volunteer ministry at the Betty Ford Center in the 1980s and 90s

One of the directors at BFC, in fact the second person hired, was the Rev. Vernon Suter an Episcopal Priest. From the beginning they established a Sunday morning chapel service roughly based on morning prayer but significantly adapted to meet the needs of people of any or no faith. The first Clergy in 1982 to lead the program was a recovering Lutheran Pastor and the second person as me. I began when the Lutheran retired in 1984.

In those days a lot happened in the central administration building from admissions to lectures. Betty Ford had a small office off the main entrance accessible to patients from which she would walk to give her lectures and talks. We had a close knit sense of community. On the grounds there were three well designed resident building. In the center of each was a sunken living room where the counsellor gave talks. There were no private rooms at BFC. Our chapel, if one could call it that, was a circle of chairs in one of the rooms in the main building. We used printed leaflets for the service guide. No singing. Alcoholics weren’t ready for that. The program was more spiritual that religious.

I knew there was the probability of well-known people showing up. The Betty Ford Center had a strict rule of confidentiality in place. That’s what Anonymous means. It was only if the individual made a public statement about being present at the center could we acknowledge his or her presence. Several celebrities had come and gone. The of people there were alcoholics like me seeking sobriety and recovery.

One Sunday morning I was setting up the chairs and putting out the service leaflets as worshippers arrived when I saw a woman I recognized walking through the doors. She was wearing a white blouse, tan slacks, loafers, and a sweater around her shoulders. It felt like my jaw dropped. It was her. Had to be. Mary Tyler Moore. Like all newcomers, life was a bit strange and out of kilter for her. Others in the circle tried to be at ease. It was late fall, I think, and very chilly for the Coachella Valley.

I made some comment about how cold it was in the desert, and I hoped everyone had a coat of some kind. Truthfully it was about fifty degrees. There was a chuckle or two. Mary snorted and said something like “You people don’t know what cold is. I’m from New York where it is really cold. Let me tell you about cold.” The other easterners chimed in and the game was afoot. No pun intended but my comment about cold weather broke the ice.

Here is what Miss Moore wrote about how she felt in her own words years later: “Inside I was scared. I knew I’d gone over an edge, some edge, and I didn’t know what to grab for steadiness. I couldn’t, wouldn’t stop,” she wrote. That recognition, though, ignited light at the end of the tunnel. “Some part of my brain functioned well enough, however, to get me to the Betty Ford Center, where in 1984, over a period of five weeks, I grew up some,” she penned.

A person who has a successful four-week recovery experience undergoes a major transformation and the changes I witnessed over and over were nothing short of miraculous. Tears give way to smiles and joy, anger and resentments take flight replaced by hope for a better tomorrow. I suspect that’s the way it was in the first century church before Constantine brought us out of the catacombs and into the Basilicas

A writer in a Washington Post article following her death wrote, “Mary Tyler Moore grew to deeply admire Betty Ford, the former first lady and founder of the clinic where Moore — and several years later, her mother — finally found sobriety. Moore felt she could “be her sister.”

In one of her books MTM said, “You see, at that time (and less so today) many women felt that being a female alcoholic was a disgrace, the lowest of the low, and that an intelligent, well-read, dignified woman couldn’t possibly be a drunk,” Moore stated, But Ford “was, first and foremost, a lady (kind, well-mannered, gracious), anything but the commonly held image of an alcoholic woman.”

We all grew to admire and love Betty Ford whether worshipping with her at St. Margaret’s Church in Palm Desert or hearing a lecture from her at BFC or strolling the grounds at the Center. What a blessed person I’ve been to walk and work among the lights. Thanks Debbie, Mary and Betty. Thanks be to God for all your blessings.

The Rev Canon Andrew Rank SSP

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