Entertainer Debbie Reynolds, “America’s Sweetheart,” passed away on December 28 just one day after the death of her daughter, author and actress Carrie Fisher of “Star Wars” fame.
A private funeral was held in January. Their public memorial service was held on March 25 at Forest Lawn Cemetery in the Hollywood Hills in Los Angeles where the mother and daughter are buried side by side. Bootie Chewning of Vinton attended the memorial with her niece and “No. 1 companion” Deborah Alvord.
Chewning and Reynolds became devoted friends in the early 1980s when they were introduced by a high school friend, Roanoke real estate developer Richard Hamlett, who was married to Reynolds at the time. In 1993, Reynolds performed at the Roanoke Civic Center and asked Chewning to take over the logistics and promotion for the shows, which were a big success.
In 2013, Reynolds published her second book, “Unsinkable” which includes details of the years she lived in Roanoke and talks about her friendship with Chewning, which endured and flourished through the years. Reynolds sent special birthday greetings which were read at Chewning’s 80th birthday celebration last August.
Chewning describes the service for Reynolds and Fisher as “a show— Debbie hated funerals and memorials.” Reynolds’ son Todd Fisher and his wife Catherine produced a two-hour event, “Celebrating the Lives of Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Frances Fisher,” in tribute.
An excerpt from the program penned by Todd and Catherine said, “Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher lived every precious minute of their lives. They left nothing undone and nothing unsaid. They both loved a good party, so what better way to celebrate them than to throw them one?”
The 1,200-seat theater at Forest Lawn was packed with family, friends, and fans. Chewning said she was honored to receive a special invitation from the family to attend. She said hundreds of fans began lining up at 2 a.m. the night before to be admitted to the service.
“Debbie always took time in restaurants and out in public to talk to her fans and sign autographs because she knew that without fans, an entertainer would be nobody,” said Chewning.
She describes Reynolds as “a true legend loved by so many. I felt so honored that she chose me to be one of her friends. I have so many good memories of her. She was ‘unsinkable’ and is now singing with a choir of angels and probably leading the chorus.
“She was such a loving, caring person, loved by her fans. Her fans were family to her,” she added.
Chewning was one of those fans herself and “knew” Debbie Reynolds from her screen and acting career before they actually became acquainted.
“Having first known her on screen with all the world, it was like a dream come true to become her friend,” said Chewning. “We just hit it off. Strangely enough, I had been a P.E. teacher, which was Debbie’s dream. She was in the movies, which was my dream.”
“We should have exchanged lives,” Reynolds told her.
Chewning said one of the most emotional moments from the memorial was when R2-D2 from “Star Wars” came onto the stage and “beeped” near the empty director’s chairs bearing Fisher’s and Reynolds’ names and at their images on the screen. Fisher is best known around the world as Princess Leia from the movie series.
Asked about her best memories of Reynolds, Chewning says those included “sitting up all night after shows talking, especially visiting at her hotel in Las Vegas. I often wish I had had a video camera to be able to film her telling stories about all the stars she worked with.”
Many of those old-school stars attended the celebration on March 25.
As for Fisher, Chewning said that what she and the world will remember most about her, beyond her iconic “Star Wars” fame, is “what a fantastic writer she was” and most of all “how funny she was.”
“I hate the idea that the lives of two such talented people ended just a day apart,” said Chewning. “Debbie didn’t want to live without Carrie.”
Chewning said the celebration of their lives brought together two generations— older stars came to remember Reynolds, while younger “Star Wars” fans honored Fisher.
“There was a great crossover of generations paying tribute to them both,” added Chewning.
Students from the Debbie Reynolds Dance Studio were part of the entertainment and performed a dance tribute from her “Singin’ in the Rain” musical, along with actress Ruta Lee, and actor and comedian Dan Aykroyd, who was once engaged to Fisher.
The production included videos commemorating the accomplishments and philanthropy of both mother and daughter, music by “Star Wars” composer John Williams, and a new song written in honor of Fisher by British singer James Blunt.
Casting Director Jerry Franks, who now lives in Roanoke, was to have presented a eulogy at the service, but was unable to attend due to health issues. Chewning and Franks were introduced at a luncheon at Reynolds’ home.
Chewning said that a quote from children’s author Natalie Babbit, which was included in the program, best sums up the lives of Reynolds and Fisher: “Don’t be afraid of death, be afraid of an unlived life.”