Joey Singer well remembers the night in 2006, when Debbie Reynolds appeared at the dazzling Sydney Opera house during her first tour of Australia in two decades. The entire series of shows had sold out, with extra security summoned to rein in Reynolds’ overzealous fans.
“It was raining that night, and the line outside the stage door — just to get a glimpse of her — was the longest at the Opera House in 20 years,” Singer, who was Reynolds’ music director and close friend for 30 years, said Thursday morning. “But she signed every autograph that night. She took every fan seriously, and never sloughed anybody off.”
After 90 minutes (at least a half-hour longer than the time she typically spent meeting her fans), Reynolds’ limo pulled away from the venue. But she was not finished. Trudging along the side of the road was a woman holding an umbrella, failing in her attempt to meet the Hollywood legend.
Reynolds asked the driver to stop so she could get out and sign one more autograph.
“That was how she was,” Singer said.
A favorite Las Vegas pianist and music director for nearly three decades, Singer is winding down his run as associate conductor of “Steve Wynn’s Showstoppers,” which closes Friday night. Singer was still shaken, his voice often quivering, in the aftermath of Reynolds’ death on Wednesday at age 84. She suffered a massive stroke just a day after the death of her daughter, Carrie Fisher.
Singer is a longtime friend of Reynolds’ son, Todd, and daughter-in-law, Catherine Hickland. He was already devastated by Fisher’s death when he learned of Reynolds’ passing through his friend and fellow Vegas entertainer Dennis Bono.
“I was very emotional already, and lost it big-time when Dennis told me. I just let it flow,” said Singer, who was enveloped by his band mates and members of the “Showstoppers” cast when he arrived Wednesday night at Encore Theater. “Everyone in the orchestra was hugging me and crying, and I was a mess until about 7:20. Then I looked up and knew Debbie would want me to give my best.
“Inspired by her memory, I did that.”
Singer was hired by Reynolds as a synthesizer player during a run at Harrah’s in Reno in 1985. Fittingly, this longtime artistic love affair started on Valentine’s Day and was further galvanized when Reynolds hired Singer as her music director a year later.
He continued working as her music director from that point forward, including a two-year national tour of the revival of “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” in 1989-90 through her final performance at the Community House theater in Fire Island, N.Y. in August 2015. Her last show in Las Vegas was a family showcase with Todd, Carrie and her granddaughter Billie Lourd at South Point Showroom in November 2014.
Singer’s memories of Reynolds are of groundbreaking performances, superstar versatility and uncommon generosity.
“We played England in 2010, a five-week tour, that ended in London,” Singer said. “We were told that British people don’t stand up, no standing ovations, and Debbie knew this before we started. But every night of the tour, people were on their feet. She got these unbelievable standing ovations.”
This was 58 years after Reynolds’ first starring role, at age 19, as Kathy Selden in “Singin’ In The Rain.” Still, singer says, “She was Hollywood royalty.”
Reynolds was tireless onstage, but also understood how to maximize her zeal to perform. Singer recalls a night in the 1960s when legendary comic and showman Jack Benny took in a Reynolds performance, and afterward remarked, ““It was good, but I have no idea who you are.”
“He was telling her she wasn’t letting her guard down, to get off the script,” Singer said. “That changed everything about her approach to performing. She was fearless, and had the sense that if you were afraid to look foolish and fail, you would never be great … and she was never afraid to be great.”
One of Singer’s favorite Reynolds performances is something of a dim memory, other than she had been asked to perform at a memorial service for a rabbi in Reno in the late-1980s and leveled the place.
“I asked her, ‘How do you handle this?’ ” Singer said. “ This was at a funeral service of someone she had not known. But she put on one of the greatest performances I’ve seen. She had everyone on the floor, laughing, turning a tragic situation into a real celebration of this guy’s life.”
Reynolds was known to treat members of her production team as family members and confidants. She once called Singer into a meeting in her suite at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco to talk about an illness that had wiped out her voice. This was during the “Molly Brown” tour, and there was no understudy – Reynolds was the only Molly Brown in this show, with two performances set for that night.
“She asked me to listen to her sing, and I did, and there was nothing there,” Singer said. “I said, ‘I know the show must go on, but I think you should cancel. Otherwise, you might be putting the rest of the tour at risk.’ She nodded –and then went out and gave two flawless performances. I was watching this, thinking, ‘So much for taking my advice.’ ”
Away from the stage, Singer often assumed the role of Reynolds’ chauffeur. He referred to these trips as “Driving Miss Debbie,” as he tooled around Las Vegas in a Cadillac owned by Reynolds.
One afternoon, about a decade ago, he and Reynolds were motoring along Maryland Parkway, across from the Boulevard Mall. The two noticed a sad but common site on that stretch: A woman on the sidewalk, asking for money. At her side with a little girl. Reynolds asked Singer to halt the car.
“She was very upset when she saw this, and handed me her purse and asked me to take out all the money I could find,” Singer said. “I did, and it came to $122. Then she said, ‘Give it to that woman.’ ”
The gesture was generous, spontaneous and entirely in Reynolds’ character.
“She cared about people. She was just a naturally very caring person,” Singer said. “She cared about every fan. She was giving, she was fun, unbelievably quick and when she was great, she was as great as anyone.”
Singer then paused, adding, “What I want known is, this is more than losing a boss. It’s family. I worked with someone I loved, who never, ever gave less than her very best.”
John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section, and Fridays in Neon. He also hosts “Kats! On The Radio” Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on KUNV 91.5-FM and appears Wednesdays at 11 a.m. with Dayna Roselli on KTNV Channel 13. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.