Debbie Reynolds and Bootie Chewning: An Enduring Friendship

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PHOTO FROM VINTON MESSENGER ARCHIVES – Chewning has been a columnist for The Vinton Messenger for many years. This column from August 1993 is about her trip to Las Vegas and her visit with Reynolds

The following is a reprint of an article about Debbie Reynolds and her friendship with Vinton’s Bootie Chewning, originally published in The Vinton Messenger in April 2013.

“Actress, dancer, author, survivor” — those are words that describe both Bootie Chewning and her idol Debbie Reynolds.

Reynolds has been described as “ebullient, feisty and outspoken,” words which are pretty much applicable to Chewning, also.

Reynolds and Chewning share a history in beauty pageants: Reynolds was Miss Burbank in 1948; Chewning has been involved in the production of the Vinton’s Junior Miss and the Miss Virginia pageants for many years. Chewning was a physical education teacher for several years; that was Reynolds’ original career goal.

Reynolds has written two books; Chewning has long been a columnist for The Vinton Messenger.

A striking difference is in their marriages. Chewning was married but once, to Bob Chewning, the “love of her life”; Reynolds had three marriages that ended in divorce.

Neither has ever really retired.

Chewning and Reynolds met in the early 1980s at the Roanoke Valley Horse Show, introduced by Chewning’s high school friend, Roanoke real estate developer Richard Hamlett, who was married to Reynolds at the time. That meeting resulted in an enduring friendship.

“She calls me her sister, and I’m glad to call her my friend,” said Chewning.

“Debbie and Mom hit it off right away like they had known each other all their lives,” said daughter Angie Chewning. “It’s fun hanging out with them when they are together; they are both like Energizer Bunnies.”

Reynolds and Hamlett met at a party in Nevada, and were wed from 1984 to 1996, when their marriage ended in a contentious divorce.

The saga of their marriage and divorce, along with details of Reynolds’ lengthy career in the entertainment industry spanning 65 years, are the subject of her memoir “Unsinkable.”

The book was co-written with Dorian Hannaway and published on April 2, 2013. The book details her life as an actress during Hollywood’s Golden Age, and her innumerable roles in film, on stage, in television, and her nightclub engagements.

Reynolds is most recognized for her role in the iconic film classic “Singin’ in the Rain” released in 1952, one of the most famous and emulated musicals of all time.

During her career, Reynolds has been nominated for a Tony for her performance in “Irene,” five Golden Globes, an Emmy for her work on “Will and Grace” and an Oscar as best actress for “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.”

She earned a Gold Record for “Tammy” in 1957 from her movie “Tammy and the Bachelor.”

At one time, she owned a collection of 3,500 costumes, 20,000 photographs, and thousands of posters, sketches, and props from the golden years of Hollywood. Her noted collection of film memorabilia included Marilyn Monroe’s dress from the subway scene in “Seven Year Itch,” which sold for $5.6 million dollars at auction in 2011.

In writing the book, Reynolds and Hannaway sought Chewning’s recollections of those years when Reynolds lived with Hamlett in their home on Sugarloaf Mountain in Roanoke, and the months when their marriage was coming unraveled.

Chewning is mentioned several times in “Unsinkable,” especially on her advice to Reynolds when she purchased the Paddlewheel Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas with Hamlett, and from a surprise trip to Roanoke to pack up her belongings at the denouement of the marriage.

“Thanks so much for all your help with Debbie’s book,” said Hannaway in a note. “Your recollections were so important to the story.”

Chewning was delighted to be part of Reynolds’ memoir.

“I am surprised, thrilled, and honored to be associated with Debbie Reynolds in any way,” said Chewning. “I am always proud to say she’s my friend.”

She describes Reynolds as “one of the most pleasant, down to earth people you would ever want to meet. She is great to be around. She is a very trusting person, and always a lady. She has kept her dignity and sense of humor no matter what the situation. Even if she is dog-tired after a performance, she takes the time to talk with fans she encounters and says ‘thank you so much’ to them. She always remembers who put her where she is.”

During the time she was married to Hamlett, and at the time of the purchase of the hotel and casino in Las Vegas, Reynolds was scheduled to perform at the Roanoke Civic Center. Hamlett was in Nevada working on the business deal and asked Chewning to take over the logistics and promotion for the shows, scheduled for November of 1993. She agreed and the performances were a big success.

Chewning grew up in Vinton, and has always felt an affinity for the entertainment business, which contributed to the connection she has always felt for Reynolds.

She describes herself as a “ham” and a “promoter” for as long as she can remember.

“Even as a kid, I directed and taught dancing and had shows in the neighborhood in Vinton and in Grandma’s living room in Covington. People paid a nickel to see the shows.

“I always danced,” said Chewning. “I remember dancing on stage at Roland E. Cook Elementary in first grade.”

Chewning was the cheerleading mascot at WBHS and drum majorette. She went on to become one of the first five female cheerleaders at Virginia Tech in 1954 when the school was still male only and Radford was its “sister college.” She starred as “Gigi” in the production at Radford as a student among many other roles in her years there.

She then taught school for several years and later served on the Roanoke County School Board.

She married Bob Chewning in1961 and became a successful entrepreneur with their company, Chewning’s Interiors, and went on to own and operate two Hallmark stores in Vinton.

Chewning says she was not a good athlete, but was always recognized for her “team spirit,” which continues to this day, but is now transformed into “community spirit.”

If there is a cause that needs a cheerleader, promoter, and hard worker, Chewning invariably receives the call.

Just at the present time, she is executive producer of the Miss Virginia Pageant, a columnist for The Vinton Messenger, a poll worker on Election Days, a substitute teacher, a member of the Kitchen Committee at Thrasher Memorial Methodist, and a founding member of the Vinton-Roanoke County Veterans High Ground Monument committee.

She is a big supporter of the Vinton Relay for Life, as she lost her husband to cancer. She still dances with the Roanoke Valley Shag Club. She acts in local commercials, so convincingly at one time that her friends thought she had moved into a retirement home in Salem when she appeared in its ad.

“I love theater and the movies, and I would like to see us have jobs here so we don’t lose young people to other places. Besides I just love to see talent promoted.”

Chewning thinks so highly of Reynolds that she has contacted the Kennedy Center to nominate Reynolds for the Kennedy Center Honors, which “recognize individuals who throughout their lifetimes made significant contributions to American culture through the performing arts in dance, music, theater, opera, motion pictures, and television.”

“I would like for them to honor Debbie’s career,” said Chewning. “She is a true legend. She needs to be honored so she can know that people love her and to make up for the hardships she has endured in her life.”