Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Gene Kelly: Soaked Shoes and Umbrella Forever

'GENE KELLY represented the Everyman of dance. He did for T-shirts, loafers, and an umbrella what his friend, sophisticated Fred Astaire, did for a top hat and cane,'' says Donald O'Connor, who tapped his way into celluloid history with Mr. Kelly in the legendary ''Singin' in the Rain'' (1952).

Mr. O'Connor was a constant visitor to the Kelly house, right up to Kelly's passing on Friday. Debbie Reynolds, the third member of that successful film-musical team, says of Kelly, ''He taught me so much, not just dancing, but how to love your work, and the discipline that goes with it.''

About these ads

Gene Kelly was nominated for an Oscar as best actor for ''Anchor's Away'' in 1945. He didn't win, but in 1951 he was given a special Academy Award saluting his multiple talents as actor, singer, dancer, director, and choreographer. Surprisingly, he wasn't even nominated for an Oscar for ''Singin' in the Rain.''

The American Film Institute gave its Lifetime Achievement Award to Kelly in 1985. At the ceremony he said, ''Growing up in Pittsburgh, I never aspired to be a dancer; I wanted to play baseball and become a shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates.''

Kelly excelled in sports in high school and spent one summer teaching gymnastics at a camp. He enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh, where he majored in journalism and minored in drama, and performed in college musicals. After graduation and a try at law school, Kelly's tapping feet soon took him to New York. After some small roles in the 1930s, he made the big time in William Saroyan's ''The Time of Your Life'' playing a happy-go-lively Irish hoofer. The next Broadway opening for Kelly was as the star of ''Pal Joey.''

Scouts for the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio saw him, signed him, and started him at the top, co-starring with Judy Garland in ''For Me and My Gal.''

He also took time out for a three-year hitch in the Navy.

Gene Kelly will be remembered for a series of firsts. He choreographed movie musicals and made ballet popular to the average moviegoer in ''An American in Paris'' (1951), which also won an Oscar for best motion picture. He co-directed with Stanley Donen, then soloed as a director and took straight dramatic roles, such as playing H.L. Mencken opposite Spencer Tracy and Fredric March in ''Inherit the Wind'' (1960).

Later he directed such prestigious movie musicals as Barbra Streisand in ''Hello, Dolly!'' and he even made a film, ''Invitation to the Dance,'' which was all dance, no dialogue.

About these ads

Three years ago, Kelly received a call from Madonna, who wanted his artistic input for the ''Singin' in the Rain'' tribute she was planning for her world tour.

He also brought to the art of dance a new look: masculine, muscular, and contemporary. He rolled up the sleeves of his T-shirt so you could see he'd pumped iron; he rolled up the legs of his pants so you could see his trademark white socks and brown loafers. Another signature was his use of props - swinging on lampposts, turning a rolled-up newspaper into a cane, and strapping garbage-can lids on his shoes.

At the American Film Institute dinner in Kelly's honor, the dessert was served with miniature chocolate umbrellas decorating each slice. Kelly applauded the pastry chef when he saw it.

Reminiscing once about his long musical career, he said, ''You have to discover, as I did, [that] you dance joy, you dance love, you dance dreams.''

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.