Gene Kelly's widow shares his story
Patricia Ward Kelly talks to students involved with the production of the spring musical "Seussical" at West Mifflin High School.
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When West Mifflin Area High School students who were among the cast of "Seussical" this year attended the Pittsburgh CLO Gene Kelly Awards for Excellence in High School Musical Theater Saturday at the Benedum, they knew a lot about the namesake of the awards.
That's because Mr. Kelly's widow, Patricia Ward Kelly, spent two hours with them the previous day telling stories about her late husband, a legendary dancer, actor, choreographer and director of films. Mr. Kelly, a Pittsburgh native, is most notably remembered for his dancing performance in the 1952 classic "Singin' in the Rain."
West Mifflin was among four local high schools that participate in the Kelly Awards competition that received visits from Mrs. Kelly this year. The others were Central Catholic, Northgate and Avonworth.
Mrs. Kelly, 52, told the students of how she met her late husband, who died following complications from a stroke at age 83 in 1996. She was a writer on documentaries being made at the Smithsonian and he was a narrator.
After the project, he returned to his home in California, but about six months later contacted her to write his biography. The two fell in love and were a couple for 10 years -- married for six of them -- despite their age difference. She was 26 when they met, he was 73.
When they married in 1990, Mr. Kelly told the media that his wife was 36, rather than 31, because he was sensitive about the age difference.
She said he told stories of growing up in Pittsburgh's East Liberty neighborhood and getting roughed up by other boys because his mother made him take dance and violin lessons. He graduated from Peabody High School, where he starred in musical productions, and then worked odd jobs including pumping gas to help to pay his way through college, first at Penn State and later the University of Pittsburgh, from which he graduated.
She said he enrolled in Pitt's law school, but later left to teach dance and perform.
Mrs. Kelly talked about how her husband was known for his athletic style of dance and how he preferred to wear form-fitting clothes "that accentuated the line of his body." He changed the style of musical movies at the time, using dance to advance the story line rather than to interrupt it.
Mr. Kelly also was known as a perfectionist to those who worked with him, Mrs. Kelly said. She told students that perfectionism was what made him a success and reminded them to think about that during rehearsals when they are required to perform their numbers over and over to get them just right.
Mrs. Kelly painted a picture of herself as someone who was not particularly fashionable or sophisticated when she met her husband, comparing herself to Eliza Doolittle in "My Fair Lady." Mr. Kelly helped her to polish her public image, speech and presentation so that she felt comfortable appearing at public functions.
But she said her husband did not go out in public very often and preferred to stay home.
"Our first date we ate boiled hot dogs and watched the World Series. The next night we had frozen chicken pot pie," she said. "His favorite food was a fried bologna sandwich."
She said people often ask her if she is jealous because her husband kissed so many beautiful women during his film career. But she joked that there was no need for jealously because she wasn't even born when he was doing that.
"I didn't see the movies when they came out and we didn't watch TV in our house, so I missed Gene Kelly, but I got to know the man," she said.
Mrs. Kelly said that she had difficulty coping with her grief following her husband's death in 1996. Getting involved with the Kelly Awards has helped her to heal and honor her husband's memory.
"I was just so devastated when Gene died. There was really no reason to live. My whole life was about Gene. And then I started to come out here to the Kelly Awards and I just fell in love with all of you," she said.
This year, West Mifflin was nominated for three Gene Kelly Awards but didn't win any: Nina Danchenko for her role as Mayzie; Best Technical Crew/Execution; and Best All-Student Orchestra. In addition, student Ryan Baker was among 10 students who received college scholarships through the CLO Guild and Gene Kelly Cash Scholarship.
First Published June 2, 2011 5:56 am