‘What a glorious feeling’: Events offer intimate look at dance icon, actor Gene Kelly

Patricia Ward Kelly, wife of the late actor Gene Kelly, spoke to Iola Middle School students and introduced his movies for the Buster Keaton Celebration this week. She will give a program, "Gene Kelly: The Legacy," at 7 p.m. Saturday.

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September 23, 2022 - 3:18 PM

Among the Miss Chelsea’s Dance Academy members dancing to “Singing In The Rain” are, from left, Brynnan Jones, Jaylie Herrmann, Kenady Lucke and Drew Remboldt. The dance preceded a special showing of the movie on Thursday at the Bowlus Fine Arts Center. Photo by Richard Luken / Iola Register

Hand after hand raised as Iola Middle School students peppered Patricia Ward Kelly with a wide variety of questions about her husband, the iconic movie star Gene Kelly, during a discussion at the Bowlus Fine Arts Center on Thursday.

“How did you meet Gene?”

Patricia Kelly’s answer: At the Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. “I was going into the ladies room and he was coming out of the bathroom and he was very elegantly dressed in a blue suit and red tie, and he just sort of bowed to me. All the women were literally scratching at the door to get in because he was the most eligible bachelor in the world, so the director threw me in the room to keep all the other women away from him.” The two of them sat together and quoted poetry back and forth. “So I encourage all of you to learn poetry because you might meet someone like Gene Kelly.”

“What was his favorite sport?”

Kelly: Gene loved watching Monday Night Football, and saw a lot of similarities between the athleticism of baseball and classical ballet. He also liked hockey and volleyball, and invited the Olympic volleyball team to play in his backyard. “The only sport he didn’t want to do was golf.”

“Do you have any dogs?”

Kelly: Yes, two adopted dogs. “Do any of you know Ryan Gosling, the actor? He came to my house for dinner with Emma Stone to research the movie ‘La La Land.’ He brought me an apple pie and a quart of vanilla ice cream. But the one thing I said was, ‘Ryan, please don’t let my dogs out.’ And as we were saying goodnight, Ryan opened the gate and one of the dogs ran out so Ryan took off his suit coat and he was running, like, in slow motion up the street.” The director of the movie ended up catching the dog. Gosling often told the story at red carpet events.

Patricia Ward Kelly introduces the movie “Singing in the Rain.”Photo by Richard Luken / Iola Register

And, of course, one of the students asked: “How old were you when you met?”

Kelly: “I love you guys. Everyone is always so timid to ask that question but you aren’t afraid.” The age difference was 46½ years. She met Gene when she was 26 and they were married when she was 31; he was 77. 

“He was so young at heart and he was so vibrant and his mind was so brilliant and I have to say he was really, really handsome. I mean, I have never seen a man this handsome or romantic. He used to sing to me at night and he would recite poetry to me so I never noticed he was older until the tabloids at the grocery counter all started talking about the age difference.”

Iola Middle School students raise their hands to ask questions of Patricia Ward Kelly during a special discussion on Thursday afternoon at the Bowlus Fine Arts Center. Kelly will present “Gene Kelly: The Legacy” at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Bowlus.Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

IF THURSDAY’S discussion with IMS students is an example, then prepare for a very intimate look at Gene Kelly’s life and relationship with his wife at a special program Saturday night.

Patricia Kelly created “Gene Kelly, the Legacy” in 2012 to honor Gene’s 100th birthday. He died on Feb. 22, 1996. The two had 10 years together, with six of those as a married couple. 

“What I realized is, people didn’t really know very much about Gene. They see him on screen and he’s quite beautiful up there, but they didn’t know anything about him as a man,” she told an audience gathered to watch “Singing in the Rain” at the Bowlus on Thursday evening.

“There’s so many dimensions to him that I wanted to share with people.”

She will deliver the program at 7 o’clock Saturday night at the Bowlus. Tickets are $17 and still available at the door. The show also kicks off the Bowlus’ Sleeper Family Trust Speaker Series.

Patricia Kelly will weave stories between film clips. 

She described the show: “It’s like getting in a little boat with me. It’s like a Disneyland ride and you don’t really know quite where you’re going to go.

“I’ll weave you through this life but also into his mind, into his creative process and into his heart because he was such a decent man and had a really large heart.”

Daniel Kays, director of the Bowlus, makes a special appearance during a dance number by Miss Chelsea’s Dance Academy before a special showing of “Singing in the Rain” on Thursday evening. Photo by Richard Luken / Iola Register

THE KEATON festival this year is featuring Gene Kelly, with showings of his movies “Singing in the Rain” on Thursday followed by “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and “Starstruck: Gene Kelly’s Love Letter to Ballet” on Friday.

Keaton movies are featured Saturday, with “The Cameraman” at 10:30 a.m. and “Steamboat Bill Jr.” at 1:30 p.m.

Patricia Kelly introduced Thursday’s featured movie, sharing bits of trivia with the audience.

Want to know the true story? Just ask her. She told the crowd she enjoys communicating with Gene’s fans, and spends time greeting attendees before and after shows.

This year is the 70th anniversary of the film’s release.

“There’s a lot of mythology about the making of ‘Singing in the Rain,’” Patricia Kelly said.

“One of the things you’ll read online is that they put milk in the water so you can see the raindrops. There’s no milk in the water. It’s just fabulous cinematography and lighting.”

She spoke briefly about each of the main characters: Debbie Reynolds had very little dance experience so she had to work very hard. “You’ll read accounts that her feet bled and all this big drama, but none of that is true. It made for a good story. She’s fantastic in this. Gene always choreographed to his partner, to make the other person look their best, so you’ll see the steps that he gives Debbie are just a little bit different than what he gives to himself and to Donald O’Connor.”

Patricia Ward Kelly speaks to Iola Middle School students about her late husband, Gene Kelly.Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

As for O’Connor, Gene felt he was one of the greatest comedians and “an unsung hero” who never got the recognition he deserved. O’Connor shines in the movie, and improvised making “funny faces” during the “Moses Supposes” number, but it was so funny that it became part of the script. 

Jean Hagen, who plays the actress Lina Lamont, is “the glue that held the movie together.” She was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance as the gorgeous, self-absorbed silent film actress with a very irritating voice. 

The plot of the movie hinges on how Hollywood dubbed voices to make actors sound better, particularly during the transition from silent movies to sound. Patricia Kelly noted the hilarious irony of one scene: on screen, Reynolds’s character is dubbing for Hagen’s character to cover for her obnoxious voice, but behind the scenes, the movie is actually dubbing Reynolds by using Hagen’s real speaking voice.

Patricia Kelly also talked about Cyd Charisse’s sexy jazz and ballet dance numbers, which pushed the boundaries of censors at the time but hardly seem risque today. Charisse was a ballet dancer who had never been “off-pointe” in her dancing until this role, but her movie career took off after that.

Patricia Kelly wrapped up her introduction by telling the audience to look for very specific details in the movie, such as how O’Connor rolls his eyes as Gene Kelly talks about “dignity, always dignity.”

“I’ve seen this movie about 3,000 times now,” Patricia Kelly said. 

“And every time I see something different.”

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