VINTON– “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 Reynold’s 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.
Both have two children. Reynolds has one grandchild; Chewning, six.
Neither has ever really retired.
Chewning and Reynolds met in the early 1980’s at the Roanoke Valley Horse Show, introduced by a high school friend, Roanoke real estate developer Richard Hamlett, who was married to Reynolds at the time. That meeting resulted in an enduring friendship.
“Debbie and mom hit it off right away like they had known each other all their lives,” said Chewning’s daughter, Angie Chewning Lewis. “It’s fun hanging out with them when they are together; they are both like Energizer Bunnies.”
Hamlett and Reynolds 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, and the devastating financial issues that arose during their years together, along with details of Reynold’s career in the entertainment industry which has spanned sixty-five 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 in nightclubs.
Although Reynolds is most recognized for her role in the iconic film classic “Singin’ in the Rain,” she has been nominated for a Tony, 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 3500 costumes and thousands of photographs, 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 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 Reynold’s 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 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.”
When she was married to Hamlett 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.”
She went on to become one of the first 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 there.
She taught school for several years, and then married Bob Chewning in1961. She became a successful entrepreneur with their company, Chewning’s Interiors, and went on to own and operate two Hallmark stores in Vinton.
Although she taught physical education, 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.
Chewning has a two page single-spaced resume with the highlights of her public life, in both the entertainment field and in public service.
Just at the present time she is executive producer of the Miss Virginia Pageant, a columnist for the Vinton Messenger, Chairman of the Citizen’s Advisory Board for PBS, a poll worker on Election Days, a substitute teacher, 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 in Vinton thought she had moved into a retirement home in Salem when she appeared in their ad.
One of her most treasured jobs is as the Southwest Virginia liaison for the Virginia Film Office. She believes that film-making is a great boost to the local economy and that Virginia’s Blue Ridge, especially Explore Park, is a “natural backlot” for film-making.
“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.”
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.”
“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 respect her and to make up for the hardships she has endured in her life.”