The Morning File: What a sunny way to honor Gene Kelly

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The University of Pittsburgh plans this afternoon to have its 3,800 incoming freshmen honor Gene Kelly by attempting to break the Guinness world record for "Greatest Number of People Simultaneously Performing an Umbrella Dance at a Single Venue."

The effort, laudable though it may be as a class-bonding exercise at an institution too large for a class to really bond, raises a number of questions:

1. Is it possible we have too many world records if one already exists for single-venue umbrella dancing?

2. What number will Pitt's freshman class be whittled to by virtue of its members having their eyes poked out?

3. Who the heck is Gene Kelly?

We're kidding about that last one, even though Benoit College's annual Mindset List of what incoming college freshmen know and don't know suggests most of them would be clueless about J.R. Ewing, Rod Serling and Billy Graham, among others.

Other than little Jackie Evancho, Gene Kelly may be the greatest Pittsburgher to have neither a bridge named after him nor a statue bearing his likeness. Thanks to "Singin' in the Rain" and other classics, he made it seem manly instead of sissified to dance (though, let's face it, it's still possible on an autumn Sunday that if a 23-year-old Pittsburgh male says he's going to the ballet instead of watching the Steelers-Ravens game he will receive a quizzical look).

The idea of a statue for Kelly has certainly been kicked around, before ultimately being kicked to the curb. He and his umbrella were going to be embronzed in Gateway Center back in the '90s, right there for all passing traffic to spew their state-limited emissions upon. Then Kelly's widow, who married him in 1990 despite nearly half a century of age difference between them -- he was the older one, in case you were wondering -- put the kibosh on any public statue plan.

It might be nice to at least name a bridge after the East Liberty native, but Gene would have to get in line now. The Downtown portion of the Allegheny River already has spans honoring Roberto Clemente, Andy Warhol and Rachel Carson, and Allegheny County Council voted this week to launch a serious study of renaming another -- most likely the 16th Street Bridge -- after historian-author David McCullough.

Not to be outdone, county Councilman James Ellenbogen used that vote as the catalyst to renew his call to have a bridge named for Steelers founder Art Rooney Sr. That notion raises a key question in the name race: Is it fair for another famous Pittsburgher to get both a bridge and a statue, when some deserving candidates have neither one?

If Rooney is able to join Clemente receiving both honors, how would that make the followers of Gertrude Stein and Johnny Unitas feel? And heck, where's the love for Christina Aguilera in all of this? If we're doing group re-enactments of Kelly's bit from "Singin' in the Rain," are the folks around Meadville doing some mass portrayal of Sharon Stone's best-known role in "Basic Instinct?" (Let's hope not.)

The problem around here is just too many Western Pennsylvania celebs competing for all these honors: Fred Rogers (statue), Jimmy Stewart (museum), Stan Musial (bridge), Andrew Carnegie (town, university, museum, libraries, etc.), Mike Ditka (steakhouse). Actually, maybe a steakhouse doesn't stack up quite the same as a measure of one's local legacy, but it's more than Michael Keaton, Jeff Goldblum or Dennis Miller is ever likely to have here.

In any event, the tribute to Kelly to be performed on the lawn beside the Petersen Events Center today should be quite a spectacle. It's unfortunate that it's supposed to be sunny, as no doubt the famed entertainer honed most of the skills he used in his famous dance number by walking each day through Pittsburgh's famously dreary weather to Peabody High School. A touch of the pride of achieving a new world record for umbrella dancing must be lost from doing it in the sunshine.

Which brings to mind a last question: Considering the current umbrella-dance record of 1,461 participants was set last year in Bucharest, Romania, what hometown hero exactly were they honoring? It really should be a Pittsburgh record, just like one would hope we hold the title of most french fries ever put on a sandwich.

So go for it today, you new Pitt students -- remember, though, keep an eye out for the tips of those umbrellas.


Gary Rotstein: or 412-263-1255. Brian O'Neill is off today.


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