Gene Kelly's widow recalls his vibrant life

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Pittsburgh native Gene Kelly is best remembered as an acting, singing and dancing sensation whose considerable talents as a choreographer and film director can still be appreciated by watching his movies.

Kelly died in 1996, but his influence lives on in the current generation of performers such as Harry Shum Jr. of "Glee" fame, Justin Timberlake and Hugh Jackman as well as choreographers Rob and Kathleen Marshall.

’Gene Kelly: The Legacy’

Where: Byham Theater, Downtown.

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday.

Tickets: $20-$40; or 412-456-6666.

A fuller, richer portrait of Gene Kelly, the man, can be had by spending an evening with his widow, Patricia Ward Kelly, who will give a presentation about him at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Byham Theater. She created the 2-hour, 20-minute program with film clips and audio in 2012 to mark the centennial of his birth.

Ms. Kelly met her husband when he did a voice-over for a documentary and she was employed as a researcher.

"He was so far ahead of his time. He created works that were essentially timeless," Ms. Kelly said in a recent phone interview. "He wanted to be remembered more as a creator than as a performer. It's been really fun to take that on the road and introduce audiences to that dimension of him."

The Los Angeles woman is also in town to make her regular appearance at the Gene Kelly Awards on Saturday at the Benedum Center. The awards show honors the best in high school musical performance. Over the years, Ms. Kelly has visited 32 local high schools to talk with students about her husband and his career.

"They are just so bright and their questions are so on target. He still resonates so much with young people. He's still seen as cool and relevant. They get the nuances of what he did."

She enjoys staying in touch with successful Pittsburgh performers who have gone on to have a career in theater or in other fields.

"One of these kids went to [Pittsburgh Taylor] Allderdice and went on to be a neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins. Being on the Benedum stage for him was pivotal," Ms. Kelly said.

Recently, she watched another Pittsburgh performer appear at the Laguna Playhouse in a show about Johnny Cash.

Kelly pushed beyond boundaries, his widow said. "He was looking for new ways to capture dance on film and how you use a camera and how you make a three-dimensional art form appear three-dimensional in a two-dimensional art form."

Ms. Kelly taped much of the oral history interviews she conducted with her late husband.

"Often, if I had the tape recorder out, he was very self-conscious. It took many years for him to begin to let down [his guard]. I have notes on yellow legal pads."

The most intimate conversations, she said, "were in piano bars at night where we would go to listen to the songs of his youth. Things would just pour out of him. I have notes on sugar packs and cocktail napkins. Hearing 'Stardust' reminded him of his first love in Pittsburgh."

Ms. Kelly had a publisher for her personal memoir about the couple's life, but she ended up returning the advance.

"I found it very controlling. One publisher said they didn't want anything about his death and dying, that nobody wants to see Gene Kelly in decline. The high school kids really wanted to know how he died. It's part of the show. Gene approached the end of his life with such grace and dignity."

She may put her manuscript up for auction.

"The publishing world has changed so dramatically. I'll finish it and then make a decision. I just would like it to get to as many people as possible."

She envisions renting a recreational vehicle and traveling with her three dogs across the country on a book tour.

"It's time to finish the book. The show and the book go hand in hand. When I first started this whole thing, I imagined that people would be most interested in how he created 'Singin' in the Rain.' They really are interested in what made him tick."

As for a statue to Kelly in his hometown, she said, "He never wanted a statue of himself doing 'Singin' in the Rain.' "

She would prefer "something vibrant and alive that people can participate in." An example, she said, is a light sculpture with a series of antique lamp posts at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

"Every hour of the day, people are out there photographing one another and dancing through them. That's more in keeping with his spirit. I kind of wish that installation were in Pittsburgh."

But she's less concerned with that kind of memorializing and more focused on passing on her late husband's inspiration.

"What's more exciting are these young people who are introduced to him. They take it on and they carry it forward. That just keeps him perennially alive around the world."

Marylynne Pitz: or 412-263-1648.

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