Sunday Forum: I want my Gene Kelly statue!
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I am excited to have the new statue of the late Fred Rogers overlooking the Point -- in part because it celebrates a side of Pittsburgh other than sports.
Of course, we are a city of sports nuts and our teams have brought us glory few others can claim. We love parades and have had more than our share to welcome home our conquering heroes. We wear their rings, their jerseys, their team colors. We build statues of them.
And yet ...
I don't ask for much. Just one more non-sports statue. A figure from the performing arts, one whose name is synonymous with Pittsburgh.
Gene Kelly once said, "I didn't want to dance like a rich man. I wanted to dance like the man in the streets."
Is that a Pittsburgher talking or what?
His name is seldom uttered without mention of his hometown. We have our Gene Kelly awards for high school musicals, which have been copied nationally due to their great success here in honoring and encouraging the arts in Pittsburgh schools. And yet we have no statue to show the world how proud we are of this man, this unique talent whose work still thrives and thrills.
We have a Stephen Foster memorial statue in Oakland. As far as I know, that's the most recent city statue to honor a person of the arts, and it was standing near the entrance to Schenley Park when I came to the city 50 years ago!
Where is the tribute due Gene Kelly?
I suppose the next question is, who's got the money?
A good question.
Almost everyone in my generation remembers Saturday afternoons watching Gene Kelly in the movies. Some even recall taking dancing lessons from him at his East Liberty studio. But we are fading fast. Who will fight for a memorial to him in Pittsburgh when we are gone?
I was on a committee many years ago -- at least 20 -- that got as far as producing a mock-up of a statue and it was, of course, from the famous photo of Kelly hanging onto a lamppost with his umbrella ... singin' in the rain.
Why hasn't it come to pass? There was a dispute about where to put it, but really ... Why did the plan die on the vine, or the lamppost?
I keep asking. I get no answers.
Milwaukee has a life-size statue of Henry Winkler, "The Fonz," on its famous RiverWalk. His TV show, "Happy Days," was set in Milwaukee but it was shot in California. The replica of Mr. Winkler cost $85,000. Mr. Winkler is still alive! And he's no Gene Kelly!
In Minneapolis, Mary Tyler Moore is honored with a statue depicting her as Mary Richards from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." Minneapolis was the setting, not her birthplace! The statue is taken from the iconic opening credits as Mary tosses her hat in the air ... an image almost as familiar as Mr. Kelly clinging to the lamppost. She's cute, but she's no Gene Kelly!
I take nothing from the joy such performers brought to us on television, but they cannot compare to Gene Kelly. Their statues honor characters in sitcoms. We could honor a real person of real accomplishment who was born and raised here.
I have ranted a bit about this through the years, I admit. Several times I have been placated with the words, "Don't worry, it will happen. It's in the works."
I'm waiting. And aging.
At some point, just about anyone who's younger than I will ask, "A statue to Gene Kelly; who's Gene Kelly?" Sad will be the day.
Gene Kelly has been dead for 13 years, and he'd now be 97 years old. Still no statue.
OK, money for such projects isn't easy to come by ... or is it?
When people set their mind to getting something done in Pittsburgh, somehow it seems to get done.
Bless the late Cordelia Scaife May for the money her foundation provided to build the Fred Rogers memorial on the North Shore. Why hasn't someone with an Irish name like Kelly been able to inspire the green it takes to commemorate a talent recognized around the world?
Gene Kelly wasn't just a dandy dancer or a one-movie actor. He remains one-of-a-kind. He redefined dance. And he was one of us.
"Singin' In the Rain" alone was a seminal achievement. The American Film Institute has ranked it the best musical of all time and the fifth best film. Kelly not only played the lead, he co-directed and choreographed the production. Kelly's Wikipedia entry calls him "a dominant force" in the golden era of Hollywood musicals and says "he is credited with almost single-handedly making the ballet form commercially acceptable to film audiences."
While we remain busy building new arenas for our sports heroes, renovating Market Square (not a bad place for a Kelly statue, now that I think about it ...), constructing lofts and mini-malls and high-rise apartments, we should honor one of our own who brought joy to so many with song and dance and spirit.
We are not just a sports town. And it would be nice to keep proving that to the world.
First Published November 22, 2009 12:00 am