Biography: The fierce, fervent and festive world of Joe Kelly, 1966-2010

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It is sometime in the early 1980s. I am working in Heads Together, a video and music store in Squirrel Hill. A teenager approaches the register and, steadying his posture, asks, "Do you have any movies by John Waters?" I help him and offer suggestions. He returns frequently after that, seeking advice on both film and music.

Later on, Joe would tell me that I was the first "rock 'n' roll gay" he ever met. What better compliment is there?

Joseph Patrick Kelly had a personality so large, so fully formed and life-embracing, that it's hard to imagine him as a child, growing up in Dormont, before he developed these attributes. Exciting, dangerously charismatic, stubborn, willful, amusing, intense, extremely smart and wildly talented, he was also demanding and exhausting. He habitually toyed with conversational English and had a seemingly endless litany of idiosyncratic catchphrases that he changed periodically.

Joe died peacefully in his sleep on Jan. 10, about two weeks shy of his 44th birthday, in Provincetown, Mass., of complications from ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. His friends and family are gathering Saturday night to celebrate his life and art.

Joe worked in the film world, usually in the locations departments of feature films. But he made his mark as an experimental filmmaker; his work "Skull ...." was shown in the 1993 Whitney Biennial and remains in the New York museum's permanent collection. While working on the 1999 independent film "Jesus' Son," he met co-screenwriter Oren Moverman, who went on to write and direct "The Messenger." Joe and John Vernon (Joe's husband) were commissioned to create a documentary, "Notification," for the DVD version.

A decent body of work, to be sure, but what else did Joe leave behind? I know that not a day goes by that I don't think of something he's said or hear his voice in someone else's turn of phrase or opinion. What better legacy is there?

1994: I am walking around Monroeville Mall, suit shopping with Joe. He's wearing boxer shorts with cartoon dinosaurs as outerwear and combat boots held together with duct tape. He has a dyed blond crewcut. Salesclerks are caught in his glare.

"I need a serious yet fierce suit for a dinner."

"Of course you do, sir."

2002: Six of us -- including Joe's beloved sparring partner and sister, Judy -- are at Joe's house in Shadyside. We are lying on the floor, trying to make our fists move like pistons against a drop cloth. Joe wants us to move our arms closer, the only trouble being they are all attached to bodies that require more space. Joe is filming choreography rehearsals for "Fist: The Musical!" We all leave exasperated.

Later that week, it snows heavily and Joe shows up unannounced and surprises everyone by clearing their driveways with his new snowplow. Our arms are somehow compensated for their shortcomings.

From Amy Lamb of Lumiere Films: "I worked with Joe on a number of commercials. He was like the location ambassador of Pittsburgh. Everyone enjoyed the production because Joe made them feel like they were an important part of the process: homeowner, security guard, intern, police officer. I remember Joe doing a helicopter scout of the city and just being so impressed with the city of Pittsburgh, the city that he had a photographic memory of. Every street and back corner. Every neighborhood and alley. The details of Pittsburgh were etched in the banks of his memory."

Summer 2006: Joe is marrying his partner, John, in Provincetown. It is a wonderful ceremony filled with relatives, dogs and friends, many of whom perform.

Fall 2007: I can see Joe, his legs still strong despite the ravages of ALS, stomping down into the backyard of their house in Dutchess County, N.Y., yelling at his dogs, Muttley and Gumdrop, to behave. His arms are limp at this point. He windmills his one arm around to bring a cigarette to his mouth.

Every time I catch that movement, I have to once again adjust to the fact that this wasn't a new affectation of Joe's, but an actual display of the illness that would eventually take him.

He still seems so strong and willful. It is hard to believe that the disease won't just give up its argument and acquiesce to him -- like we all inevitably did at some point.

A gathering to remember Joe Kelly is set for Saturday from 5 to 7 p.m. at Lumiere Films, 131 Beam Way (first floor) on Mount Washington; 412-480-3308.

John Artale worked in the music industry for more than 32 years, primarily as buyer and purchasing manager for the National Record Mart chain.


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