Here’s an easy question for you: Can you name a legendary dancer and innovative choreographer who also successfully directed movies, and whose athleticism, masculinity and exuberance won audiences’ hearts the world over each time his magical gifts leapt onto the silver screen?
There’s only one correct answer: Gene Kelly.
His magic was palpable every time he dazzled us on the screen. Classics such as “On the Town”, “An American In Paris” and the musical of musicals, “Singin’ in the Rain” were phenomenons yesterday and still are today.
After hearing that Gene Kelly’s widow/biographer, Patricia Ward Kelly, was finally bringing her unique show, GENE KELLY: THE LEGACY – AN EVENING WITH PATRICIA WARD KELLY, to New York City I was ecstatic. I couldn’t wait to buy my ticket to learn more about the man and the performer from the person who knew him best.
After my friend and fellow blogger Lisa Carpenter of Grandma’s Briefs reviewed this event last year, I became excited about seeing Mrs. Kelly using her mix of rare and familiar film clips, unreleased audio clips from conversations with her husband, while adding her own thoughtful commentary to give us a behind-the-scenes look at her husband.
This would be the stuff my dreams are made of.
The first time the Kelly’s met was in 1985, when Patricia Ward was 26 and her future husband was 73. She was hired as a writer for a television special. Her husband, as she tells it, was a last minute replacement for Gregory Peck. On her way to the bathroom, dressed in work boots and a typical “big hairstyle” of the 1980’s, she ran into a dapper gentleman who simply said hello.
She had no idea who he was.
He eventually invited her to join him in California to help write his memoirs. They fell in love and married in 1990. They remained married until his death in 1996.
When Patricia agreed to a telephone interview a week before the event, I was thrilled. Our conversation started off by talking about family, film and the genius of Gene Kelly. It felt comfortable to speak with her, and her amiable manner made it easy for us to chat for forty-five fascinating minutes.
THE GENE KELLY LEGACY/INTERVIEW WITH PATRICIA WARD KELLY
Gene Kelly has been gone for almost twenty years, yet his body of work is timeless. He has influenced countless performers with his innovations in dance, choreography and directing.
His dream was to become a shortstop for his hometown Pittsburgh Pirates. Instead he became a classically trained ballet dancer, and studied modern dance with Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey. A trained acrobat and gymnast, he could even walk a tightrope
He fell in love with in jazz, and also enjoyed American composers such as Cole Porter and Irving Berlin’s music to dance to. After the crash of 1929 he began to choreograph dance to win prize money for his family.
Eventually he landed in New York.
Searching for work as a choreographer eventually led him to a minor role in a Cole Porter play, then onto his breakthrough role in, “The Time Of Your Life,” and finally Broadway stardom as the lead in “Pal Joey.”
But Hollywood kept calling, and he answered the call with his screen debut in, “For Me and My Gal” opposite Judy Garland. Soon after, he appeared in his breakthrough role as a dancer on film in “Cover Girl”, co-starring Rita Hayworth, where he created an innovative routine dancing against his shadow at a time, as Mrs. Kelly points out, when there were no computers to edit the scene.
That’s when he decided to challenge himself to change the way dance looked on film because it was, as his wife said, two-dimensional. He illustrated the best of dance by choreographing dancers to move towards the camera, using light and color to add a third dimension, and insisting that dancers’ full figures be filmed instead of close-ups of arms or feet.
Using inanimate objects such as a mop, a newspaper, a cartoon character named Jerry or dancing with his shadow, Gene Kelly successfully won his own challenge.
Part of the reason Patricia Kelly created her show was to illustrate how relevant her husband’s work is today. She’s traveling around the world, and makes a point to introduce his work to younger audiences. As she told me, “It continues to resonate with them, and they see he is cool and relevant and he still doesn’t seem dated.”
“I am taking it to universities and high schools so young people can get a different appreciation. Then when they look at contemporary musicals they’ll see it differently, that they are chopped up. It’s really body parts, which is what Gene really disliked.
“He’s still the go-to guy for choreographers, dancers, cinematographers and directors. He set a standard. They’d learn quite a bit if they’d study why he did what he did. That’s what I hope to do with this show. I hope to educate people in an entertaining way.”
She entertained us for three solid hours, and showed us how authentic she is by personally greeting us as we arrived at the theater.
Her one-woman show felt as if she had invited us to “sit on the couch” with the Kelly’s. (A phrase she repeatedly used. It was a favorite spot for the couple to sit and chat while they listened to some of Mr. Kelly’s favorite songs, including songs by Mr. Kelly’s dear friend, confidante, and three-time co-star, Frank Sinatra.)
“I had the privilege of recording him (Gene) nearly every day for over ten years,” Mrs. Kelly told me over the phone, “so I have a story that no one else has. But I do tell people that Gene’s is an extraordinary legacy to represent in any fashion. He doesn’t need any help because it stands on his own. When we talked about it, Gene was explicit in how he wished to be remembered. It is for being behind the camera, and for the innovations with the choreography and the use of the camera and capturing dance.
“Many people who know of his work don’t think about him in those terms. They think of some glorious man up on the screen, and don’t understand how radical it was in what he was doing with Jerry the Mouse and “Cover Girl.”
“Unlike a singer, you can look away for a minute but don’t miss the song. But with a dancer if you look away, you just interrupted the whole sequence; you missed something.
“His whole thing is that the camera had to stay on the dancer. I think sadly that today it’s the editors and camera operators who are making the choices of the shots, as opposed to someone who really understands the dance. And so I encourage a lot of today’s choreographers to direct and call the shots like Gene did. Maybe they will start to do that and start to turn things around.
“It’s funny because Gene was more contemporary 60 years ago than what we see today. He was newer and fresher than the stuff we’re seeing now.”
Patricia Ward Kelly talks to me about Gene Kelly exclusively for An Empowered Spirit:
On his influences:
“As far as tap it was Bill (Bojangles) Robinson. He knew him before he was “Bojangles” and spoke of him a lot. And a guy named Clarence Dancing Dotson, who he saw in Pittsburgh. A lot of traveling acts that came through Pittsburgh influenced him.
I just wrote a piece for “Biography” that you see Bill Robinson in “Moses Supposes” in the “Singin’ in the Rain” number itself. Bill had a style that Gene just loved. He loved the perfection and precision of his taps and the clean sound. He thought he was the epitome of tap dancing.”
On having to repeatedly answer the same questions (and promising I d ask fresh and never-before-asked questions):
“Well, no, that’s okay. I think it’s good to get it out. I think you make a really good point and this is again, the method to my madness in this show because people don’t realize Gene had such breadth in his dancing and in his choreography. What I try to do subtly is to let people see the different styles of dance, so they can see the dimensions. That’s really important because I think that is what distinguishes him.”
On what Gene Kelly would want dancers to be working on today:
“Instead of creating new material, they are doing stage versions of, for example, ‘Singin’ in the Rain.’ They kind of go back and redo the stuff that’s been done, and that’s not what Gene wanted. He didn’t want people to imitate what he had done, he wanted them to take it and make it their own.
One of the dancers for the American Ballet Theatre, Herman Cornejo, was deeply influenced by Gene, and has become this extraordinary classical dancer who also plays a role as he’s dancing, so he really embodies Gene, as does the Italian dancer Roberto Bolle.
And a lot of the dancers at The New York City Ballet and a lot at ABT and a lot at San Francisco Ballet and Joffrey. They are doing it in a slightly different way, but they definitely are absorbing it and taking it forward.
Then there are a lot of these choreographers that I meet, and they’ve memorized all of Gene’s stuff and are trying to incorporate it, taking and doing things with it and experimenting. A lot of them need to move into the director’s role so that they have the control over the work, otherwise they’re creating things but it’s not executed quite the same.”
About the demographics and love of the show:
“I’m seeing audiences from ages 9 – 90, with half men and half women, which is unusual. It cuts across all economic divisions. I am still continued to be amazed with the letters I get after the show, and what aspects of his career has touched someone.
“I get just as much out of doing this as the people who see the show. I’d do this every night if I could. I’d do it every place in the world if I could.”
On directing movies such as “Hello Dolly”, “Cheyenne Social Club” and “Guide for the Marrying Man”:
“He preferred to direct and choreograph. He’d just as soon not be in front of the camera, but the studio wanted him to perform. He much preferred to be in the creative seat, and he directed several things just primarily for the people who were in them. “Cheyenne Social Club” is a great example with Jimmy Stewart and Hank Fonda, and “Gigot” with Jackie Gleason.
“Gene was disappointed in “Gigot” because he thought Jackie Gleason had the right of final cut and it turned out he didn’t, and they both were extremely unhappy with what the Seven Arts people did.
“In the archives there are wonderful black and white photographs of the two of them shooting that. And again it isn’t well known of the relationship between the two, and there’ll be quite a lot about it in the book, when I finish it.”
About co-starring in “Inherit the Wind” with film heavyweights Spencer Tracy and Frederic March:
“It’s really a superb performance, and as I say in the show, he went to the rushes the first day and never went back. He felt he did the best he possibly could with two giants.”
“He was very conscious of his own image, and in retiring, when he knew he couldn’t jump over the tables the way that he used to, he retired.
“I think Gene was very right to end his career so he stays kind of evergreen. He’s kind of always preserved in this contemporary manner and I think that was very smart on his part.”
On working on his legacy:
“After his house fire in 1983, many of his letters and photographs survived. There is an extraordinary collection that I inherited from Gene, and I think he knew I was a trained archivist. I’m working on cataloguing everything, documenting it, and putting everything in archival sleeves. It will all ultimately go to a public institution.
“I don’t believe it should stay in private hands. I believe it should be available to the world and I’m kind of working on a virtual exhibition of it so that people can access it around the world if they can’t travel to a particular place.
“He and I went through a lot of things together, the photographs for example, and he would comment on them and I annotated them.
“The same with the letters. We went through those, so I have a lot of his responses to the letters. It’s a huge volume of material, and I’m still going through a lot of it, and I discover new things every day.
“I’m kind of looking forward to getting back into that. I’ve been on the road so much with the show I haven’t had as much time to get in and work on the archives.
“It’s exciting because it’s an extraordinary collection of the history of the 20th century through correspondences. He was so connected to so many different types of people, not just dancers and filmmakers, but politicians, historians, writers and artists.
“I try to connect all the dots wondering what play did he see that night and what are they all commenting on? What was the date and what theatre?
“But talk about great work, if you’re going to be passionate about something, this is a pretty great thing to be passionate about!”
What Patricia said that made me feel even happier:
“I think you have a very broad and appropriate understanding of him and his work. Some people have much less knowledge of his real contribution, so I think he would certainly appreciate that”.
I certainly hope so!
- Check out The Gene Kelly Legacy website, and sign up to stay abreast of events and activities. You can also visit their Facebook page to keep up with Patricia. I hope she will be coming to a location near you!
- The Dizzy Feet Foundation is an organization Patricia is passionate about. Their mission is to support, improve and increase access to dance education in the United States.
OTHER POSTS YOU MIGHT ENJOY