Debbie Reynolds taught Stuart May more than a thing or two about show business.
"I got to watch her every night for four years. She didn't just show up on stage. She didn't just phone it in. She nailed it every time, whether there were 25 people in the audience or 2,500," says May, one of four backup singer-dancers in the star's Las Vegas casino act in the mid-1990s.
Then in his 20s, May is 50 now and a professional makeup artist in Moorestown.
"Debbie taught me how to smile on camera: You barely open your mouth and you just say, 'Hi,' " he recalls. "She did her own makeup, and she taught me how to do makeup. She did it the MGM way. What she gave us [in the show] was MGM training."
Among the last major musical stars to emerge from Hollywood's fabled studio system, Reynolds died Wednesday at 84. Her daughter, the actress and writer Carrie Fisher, had died a day earlier.
"What upsets me so much is that Debbie died of a broken heart," May says. "It breaks me up, because she was the strongest person I've ever been around. She always said The Unsinkable Molly Brown was her favorite role, and she truly was that tough. She was tough, but she was kind."
Thrice unhappily married, and buffeted by changing tastes in popular entertainment, Reynolds "was not a hot commodity" when May was working with her. And the Debbie Reynolds' Hollywood Hotel casino "was struggling greatly," he says.
"It was one of the hardest times for her. But she never canceled. She taught me you did the show no matter what."
Reynolds also was every bit "a star, and she let you know she was a star," May said, chuckling. "One time after the show I was still in stage makeup, and she looked at me and said, 'Dear, the eye makeup. Tone it down a bit. I'm the pretty one in the show.'
"You never called her before 2 in the afternoon, and she'd answer the phone, 'This is DR,' " he continues. "She never had food in her house. She ordered out, or her assistant got her something, either from Piero's, which was fancy, or from Taco Bell.
"Sometimes there would be a small gathering after the show, and if you were going to leave, she might say, 'Mother doesn't need you to leave yet. Stay and have a drink,' " May says, adding, "Then this sweet little woman would take your hand, and you knew you weren't leaving."
He did eventually leave the show, in 1997, although he did a special Christmas performance with Reynolds and saw her occasionally for years afterward. He retired from show business in 2006; the last time he and Reynolds spoke in person was in 2009.
Veterans of the show – "we're Debbie's boys," May says – keep in touch. A couple of the guys went to see her recently at her home in California, where she had been in failing health for some time.
"I will miss her," May says. "She was the highlight of my career, and the best years of my life as a performer were with Debbie Reynolds. And I thank her for that."