The long-delayed Gene Kelly statue may yet grace a Downtown corner
March 7, 2010 10:00 AM
Illustration by Daniel Marsula
By Patricia Lowry Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"Kelly Statue Could Grace City," read the Post-Gazette headline on Oct. 23, 1999.
Two Pittsburghers -- Aviva Radbord and Charles Gray -- were forming a committee of 20 arts and business people to explore the possibility of commissioning a statue depicting Gene Kelly and his signature star turn, swinging on a lamppost in the 1952 musical "Singin' in the Rain."
Two years later, PG drama critic Chris Rawson was wondering in print "whatever happened to that planned Gene Kelly statue? I'd put that image beside Bill Mazeroski's heading down the third base line as an emblem of Pittsburgh joy."
More than a decade later, a Maz statue is planned for PNC Park, but still there's no Gene Kelly statue on the horizon.
Or is there?
Something seems to be in the works, even though the first effort led by Ms. Radbord, KDKA-TV public affairs producer and weekend assignments editor, and Mr. Gray, executive director emeritus of Pittsburgh CLO, is officially over.
Early on, Mr. Kelly's widow, Patricia Ward Kelly of Los Angeles, had been cooperating with the committee but later broke off the relationship, effectively ending the project.
Around 2004, "I received a cease and desist order from her attorney out of the blue," said committee member Melissa Rossiter, who was Mayor Tom Murphy's liaison and spokeswoman on the project. There was no explanation.
Mrs. Kelly's approval was necessary because as sole trustee of the Gene Kelly Image Trust, she owns the right to his likeness.
Patricia Ward and Gene Kelly met at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in 1985 when he was the host/narrator for a television special for which she was a writer. Just 26, she'd never heard of him, had no idea the East Liberty native was one of America's top actors, dancers, choreographers and directors who'd appeared in 36 films and worked on nine Broadway musicals.
Six months later, he asked her to come to Los Angeles to help him write his autobiography. They married in 1990 and lived in his longtime Beverly Hills home until his death at 83 in 1996.
Although a location for the life-size bronze sculpture of Mr. Kelly and his lamppost -- a Gateway Center traffic island near Commonwealth Place -- had been approved by City Council in late 2001 and at first had Mrs. Kelly's blessing, fundraising toward the project's $500,000 goal couldn't begin without her approval of the design.
She initially embraced the "Singin' in the Rain" concept and, during her first visit to Pittsburgh in May 2000, visited the studio of sculptor Susan Wagner of Friendship. Ms. Wagner, who did the Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell statues and will do the Mazeroski tribute, was chosen to design it from a handful of artists who'd responded to the committee's request for proposals.
"She's a very difficult person to please," Ms. Rossiter said of Mrs. Kelly, who did not respond to e-mail messages requesting an interview with the Post-Gazette.
"We never released the maquette (a 1-foot-tall clay model of the Kelly statue) because Mrs. Kelly wanted to smooth his arms and legs into the proper position."
But Mrs. Kelly wasn't the only person to put the kibosh on the statue. The proposed location proved to be controversial; its critics, including this writer, found it isolating and unapproachable. The committee had wanted a location in the Cultural District, but the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust at the time said there was no suitable place.
By July 2004, the committee hadn't heard from Mrs. Kelly in more than a year but had heard through the grapevine that she'd decided to do something on her own.
A couple of months ago, the nonprofit Gene Kelly Statue Foundation's bank account was dissolved and its nominal balance -- about $50 -- was given to Ms. Wagner for work done up to that point.
By 2006 and perhaps earlier, Mrs. Kelly was meeting with architects here about her own Gene Kelly project for Pittsburgh. In a 2007 profile on the Pittsburgh architectural firm Astorino, the Post-Gazette reported that Mrs. Kelly and Joanne Rogers had met by chance in the firm's Firstside offices while both happened to be there to talk with architects about projects honoring their husbands. Astorino's work on the Fred Rogers statue, which debuted in November, involved converting the former Manchester Bridge pier into an arch-like opening and designing the platform that holds the sculpture.
The Post-Gazette reported in May 2007 that work on the Kelly statue was continuing behind the scenes and that it would be positioned to welcome visitors to the Cultural District.
Is Pittsburgh CLO involved in the new effort?
"Pittsburgh CLO is very supportive of the statue honoring Gene Kelly and has been from the beginning," said spokesman Jeremy Church.
"That's about all we can offer right now."
But the statue's proposed new location, several sources who requested anonymity say, is in front of Fifth Avenue Place, at the corner of Stanwix Street and Penn Avenue, where a pink circle in the pavement is partly framed by a curved planting bed.
The circle and curved bed were created almost five years ago, said Fifth Avenue Place spokesman Aaron Billger, when the sidewalk needed maintenance.
"They did create a place for public art, but it was never delineated as anything specific," Mr. Billger said, adding that something that marked the spot as the gateway to the Cultural District would be appropriate.
"Fifth Avenue Place would welcome the prospect of having a statue of Gene Kelly, but at the blessing of his widow and tribute organizers."
Of course, nothing will happen at that corner, Mr. Billger added, until construction of the subway's North Shore Connector is complete.
That should happen in early 2012, said the Port Authority's Heather Pharo. The subway's new Gateway Center T Station, now being built under (and eventually on) the triangular traffic island across from Fifth Avenue Place, is expected to be complete that year, too.
If sources are correct, the statue's new location -- a street corner at a busy subway stop -- is a huge improvement over the previous one. As the gateway to the Cultural District, it's also spot-on, not only for Mr. Kelly's contributions to the arts but also for the movie the statue represents. "Singin' in the Rain," which he co-directed with Stanley Donen, is the classic show-biz movie, about the birth of the movie musical and the comic struggles of silent-film stars as they adapt, or not, to the talkie era.
Paige Gilson is a 17-year-old senior dance major at Pittsburgh CAPA.
"I idolize Gene Kelly and believe that his achievements as a performer warrant a statue," she wrote in an e-mail to the Post-Gazette. "As my senior project, I would like to have a talent show and send all of the money I raise to the Gene Kelly Statue Foundation."
On the phone, Ms. Gilson said her grandparents introduced her to Mr. Kelly's movies when she was about 9.
"He had so much fun and you could really see the joy in everything that he was in,'' she said. "He wasn't too serious about himself, but he was serious about his art."
A Gene Kelly statue would be "encouraging to everyone, especially young performers," she said. It would be "a good reminder to show what you can do and how important the arts are."
Mr. Kelly's legacy enjoys a heightened awareness among young people here because of Pittsburgh CLO's Gene Kelly Awards for Excellence in High School Musicals, 20 years old this year. Since 2000, Mrs. Kelly has been an honored guest and speaker, offering encouragement to student performers.
A Kelly statue and its maintenance are likely to cost more than the $500,000 estimate of a decade ago, and the economy has tightened. But, while the Gene Kelly Statue Foundation no longer exists, letters to the Post-Gazette indicate Pittsburghers would open up their checkbooks to support it if it did. The newspaper and former PG columnist Barbara Cloud had lots of positive response to her Nov. 22, 2009, op-ed piece, "I want my Gene Kelly statue."
One e-mail came from Mrs. Kelly, who hinted a statue project is in the planning stage but at this point, couldn't discuss it.
So the plot thickens.
And the clock ticks ever closer to the day some supporters regard as the ideal occasion to honor Mr. Kelly, the centennial anniversary of his birth: Aug. 23, 2012.
Rain or shine, it could be a good day for a dedication.