Gene Kelly's Widow Stages One-Woman Show About the Screen Legend (Q&A)

Don Flood
Patricia Ward Kelly

Patricia Ward Kelly sat down with THR to talk Gene Kelly's legacy and how he was different than Fred Astaire. Her show, "Gene Kelly: The Legacy" will be at the Pasadena Playhouse this weekend.

Patricia Ward Kelly was only twenty-six when she met Gene Kelly while working on a documentary for the Smithsonian back in 1985. At the time, she didn’t know who the 73-year-old entertainer was. But she found out soon enough when he invited her to Los Angeles to become his personal biographer and eventually his wife.

This weekend she’s bringing her one-woman show, Gene Kelly: The Legacy to the Pasadena Playhouse for two performances, Saturday night and a Sunday matinee. It includes clips and photos and nostalgic tales about the star of such classics as Singing in the Rain, On The Town and An American in Paris.

“One of the reasons I created this was cause Gene was very specific about how he wished to be remembered,” she told The Hollywood Reporter about her late husband who died in 1996. “He wanted to be known more as a creative artist behind the camera than as someone up on the screen.”

Recently Patricia Ward Kelly sat down to talk about his legacy, how different he was than Fred Astaire and who he thought was the sexiest woman in Hollywood

What specifically did Mr. Kelly do to change the look of dance on film?

When you choreograph for camera, it’s completely different than when you choreograph for stage. When he came out from Broadway he thought it was the same, he thought you could lay out the dance numbers in the same way. Then he realized this camera, which he called the one-eyed monster, you lose that third dimension. He realized the time was much different, the things that could last much longer on stage looked way too long on camera. And literally taking the dance into the street, you could actually move toward the camera and you have a kinetic sense of energy there, which you don’t have on stage.

Taking it out of the ballroom and into the streets paved the way for so many popular dance forms we see today.

It was a very conscious thing for him to take the dancing in to the streets and to create a particularly American style of dance. Breakdancing, he definitely saw the connections. He absorbed his predecessors and codified what he saw. You look at Michael Jackson who was like a sponge and took everything Gene did and made it his own.

Weren’t there plans for Mr. Kelly to work with Michael Jackson at one point?

We wanted to do Frankie and Johnny with him. It would have been extraordinary. We met at the house at Neverland, but it was right at the time that Bad was about to break. Gene said you have the world in the palm of your hands. Do something different now. But it was just too hard. Too many people calling the shots.

What were some of his biggest regrets?

The role he begged for and didn’t get was he wanted to be Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls. He and Lew Wasserman flew to New York to beg for the role and Sam Goldwyn kept trying to hold it for Gene, but the role went to Marlon Brando. The other role that he really wanted was to play Cyrano de Bergerac and he would have been exquisite in that and MGM wouldn’t allow him to do that.

What about his rapport with Fred Astaire, were they rivals?

The two men couldn’t be more diametrically opposed. You have a right wing republican in Astaire, you have a very liberal democrat in Gene. Gene hung with a different crowd. He was with kind of the arts crowd from New York, the dancers, the composers, the arrangers, where Astaire was with the moneyed crowd, the Vanderbilts and Whitneys, the horse crowd. But there was no rivalry. Astaire continued a European style of ballroom dancing on polished floors. Gene said I want to break with that European tradition and create something that was particularly American.

He was quite close to Judy Garland with whom he made The Pirate and For Me and My Gal.

He had a real love for Judy Garland and he thought she was the sexiest woman in Hollywood. He thought she was the quickest study, just a brilliant woman and he she could look at anything and absorb it. And she knew all the Tin Pan Alley songs. There’s something between them this is just really magic and probably not to be seen again.

Who else did he consider close?

Richard Brooks would come to dinner every Thursday night. We would run movies and the two of them would weep. Big softies! Brooks especially was this tough guy and here was this former marine and Gene weeping at what they saw on the screen, the poetry of it. 

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