Pitt celebrates Gene Kelly's life and career

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We thought we knew him -- the swashbuckling pirate, the romantic sailor on shore leave in New York, or the silent film star jumping puddles on a rain-soaked street, his face often wrapped in a bright Irish smile.

On Thursday night, Gene Kelly came home, in a way, escorted by his third wife, Patricia Ward Kelly, who graces the stage of the Benedum Center every spring during the Gene Kelly Awards that honor area high school musicals.

The occasion was the 100th anniversary of the tap dancing movie star's birth, for which Ms. Kelly assembled a montage of film clips and personal stories to honor her husband. She has given similar presentations at New York's Lincoln Center and Los Angeles' Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with the help of some famous fans like Justin Timberlake and Hugh Jackman.

Ms. Kelly chose to make this an intimate evening, loaded with Pittsburgh memorabilia, at the University of Pittsburgh's Alumni Hall. Chancellor Mark Nordenburg gave opening remarks, tying the occasion to the university's own 225th anniversary. And Lucy Fischer, English professor and director of the film studies program, confessed to having a "crush" on the school's most famous graduate.

It turned out that none of us really knew him.

Neither did Ms. Kelly when they met in the 1980s. A dedicated Herman Melville scholar, she wound up writing for a PBS special about the Smithsonian. Her no-nonsense attitude (and the fact that she didn't know Gene from Jean Kelly) led to her interviewing him for the script. They bonded over their surprising mutual interests in poetry and etymology. (He also knew four languages -- Yiddish, French, Latin and Italian.) She fell in love with his mind, "a surprising blend of erudite gentleman and Pittsburgh street kid."

Then she found out that he was famous ... and how. He invited her to his California home for two weeks to discuss his memoirs. She never left, and they were married five years later.

Ms. Kelly interviewed him over the course of 10 years (and, yes, the book will be out soon), becoming the most knowledgeable authority on her husband.

The Pittsburgh-based audience heard personal stories on his height (5 foot 8) and how he got his facial scar (a childhood accident on a Velocipede). There was the Kelly home address in S'Liberty, where the young violinist and dancer fought off bullies.

She told about his vaudeville act with his brother, which inspired some of his choreography, and how, amid pumping gas, teaching and performing, he didn't have much time for homework at Pitt. But he still graduated with a degree in economics.

The primary purpose of her presentation, however, was to portray the man behind the lens. "He wanted to be remembered as a creator, not a performer," Ms. Kelly said.

She filled the evening with colorful clips of his most famous routines, like "Singin' in the Rain" (he dug out new puddles in the street to suit the dance and filmed the iconic solo with a temperature of 103), and the "Anchors Away" duet with Jerry the Mouse, plus plenty of backstage stories and technical information (it took more than 3,000 cells to create Jerry's movements).

There were lesser-known nuggets as well, such as the tap-dancing, roller skating routine from "It's Always Fair Weather" (her favorite) and the "Alter Ego" number from "Cover Girl" with Rita Hayworth, in which he danced with a ghostly version of himself, a feat that the director said couldn't be done.

Fans could appreciate this talk for the juicy look at the man himself and film students for the many historical contributions Mr. Kelly made to filmmaking. Ms. Kelly simply enjoyed talking about her husband.

Did she ever get to dance with him, though? Yes, on a New Year's Eve, to his favorite Frank Sinatra songs, the couple danced arm-in-arm throughout the house.


Former Post-Gazette critic Jane Vranish can be reached at jvranish1@comcast.net. She also blogs at pittsburghcrosscurrents.com.


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