Ask a 20-something if they know who Gene Kelly was and most likely the response will be a blank stare. Start singing the lyrics to “Singing in the Rain,” and immediately his or her face will light up with recognition of one the most famous, eponymous American film musicals.
Gene Kelly’s choreography, dancing and singing are indelible in the American musical landscape —particularly in the films “An American in Paris” and “Singing in the Rain.” However, what many may not know is the breadth of Kelly’s work beyond his singing and dancing, as well as the iconic dancer’s talents and interests that lived outside the limelight of his film and theater career.
With the show “Gene Kelly: the Legacy, an Evening with Patricia Ward Kelly” (at the Pasadena Playhouse March 1 and 2), Gene Kelly’s widow, Patricia Ward Kelly, strives to introduce the man behind the scenes that few people knew.
“It’s a very warm, personal show,” film critic and historian Leonard Maltin said of “Gene Kelly: The Legacy” in a recent telephone interview. “Not just that you get to see great footage of Kelly at work — that in itself would be an entertaining evening — but Patricia shares her personal story: her relationship with Gene, how they met, what she learned that she didn’t know ... She really brings him to life in a very intimate 3D way that makes you appreciate his work that much more.”
After catapulting into stardom with the Rodgers and Hart theater musical “Pal Joey,” Gene Kelly came to Hollywood where his unique choreography and exuberant dance captured the imagination of the American film-going audience. Kelly choreographed many, if not most, of the dance sequences in the films and theater musicals he starred in, came to direct his own musicals that starred friends like Frank Sinatra, and was behind the lens of others, such as “Hello Dolly!” with Barbra Streisand.
He is credited with introducing ballet to the general American audience by integrating the dance form into his choreography and using professional ballerinas. He used distinctive lighting, camera techniques and special effects to integrate dance and film in a way that was never seen before. And Kelly was one of the first to use the split screen and double images, as well as mingle live action with animation (an effect in the film “Anchors Aweigh,” in which Kelly dances with the cartoon mouse Jerry).
“There was nobody like him,” renowned dance historian Elizabeth Kaye said. “He was unique in what he did, and the level of joy he could bring to an audience.”
Patricia Ward Kelly, who met her late husband in 1990 when she was 26, did not know who Gene Kelly was when he hired her to write his autobiography after meeting her on the set of a TV special he was filming. The writer hadn’t yet been exposed much to the film world and, as she described, never dreamed of Hollywood and certainly never expected she would end up marrying someone so famous. “I was more interested in writers,” she said. “I was bookish.”
Gene brought the neophyte to Los Angeles to be his ghost writer, and soon they fell in love over, among other things, their appreciation of words and poetry. They married in 1996. The fact that they were 46 years apart in age never fazed Patricia.
“I didn’t even think about it because the work started first. It [our love affair] was never on the horizon,” she said. “Neither of us expected it to happen. [And] oddly there was so much in common … we laughed at the same things … had the same look at things.”
It was these things — the personal, the insights he had on history, politics, economics, as well as his work and the work of other famous singers and performers — that Gene Kelly shared with his young wife and which she recorded daily in notebooks. In “Gene Kelly: The Legacy,” she introduces audiences to the expanse of her late husband’s life, from “the beginning to the end of his life, and beyond,” Kelly said. “His stories he shared with me, I weave between film clips and audio. He used to sing to me at night, that’s how he would reveal part of his life to me. It was incredibly romantic, lying in the dark, [him] singing, ‘ With My Eyes Wide Open I’m Dreaming …’ “
Beyond his extraordinary career, Kelly shares the intellectual life of her husband — he spoke fluent French, “street Italian” and Yiddish. He read a book a day.
“It was like feeding an animal,” Kelly said, recalling how she would go to the library to get books for her husband. “That was his life, to read, which fit very well with how I like to spend time.”
The book she was hired to write more than 20 years ago is still in the works. After 10 years of recording daily the thoughts and experiences her husband told her, which he sometimes would say he had never told anybody before, ended up in carefully archived boxes and notebooks.
“Originally, I was supposed to be the ghost writer. After he died, I thought it was pretty disingenuous. It didn’t feel right, like I was wearing someone else’s clothes, using his words ... I had to tell my story. I had to turn it all on its head, and go back through [all the] boxes and notes, and change the frame [of the story] to our decade together.”
In the meantime, Kelly plans to introduce as many people as she can to the legacy of her husband, the impeccable and talented performer, choreographer and director, as well as the personal man she came to know so well.
“I think when you see Patricia you get such a good sense about him,” said Kaye, who first saw the actor’s widow on a Turner Classics Movies program the year of Gene Kelly’s centennial birthday. “I knew a lot of women in this town who were angling for Gene Kelly. This person he picked, it speaks so well for him.”
Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Avenue, Pasadena.
When: Saturday, March 1, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, March 2, at 2 p.m.
Tickets: $15 to $70
More info: (626) 356-7529, PasadenaPlayhouse.org
LAURA TATE is a regular contributor to Marquee.