The late Gene Kelly is best known for his stunning work as an actor and dancer in classic films including An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain.
However, most people don’t know that his career behind the camera was equally impressive: He also directed Singin’ in the Rain, as well as the film version of Hello, Dolly! some 17 years later.
It’s this other, largely unknown side of Kelly that his widow, Patricia Ward Kelly, is most excited about sharing with the world in her show Gene Kelly: The Legacy, which will come to the McCallum Theatre on Wednesday, March 5.
“I created (the show) for what would have been his 100th birthday in 2012,” Patricia says. “He was so specific about how he wished to be remembered. He wanted to be known for his work behind the camera.”
Despite the large theater setting, Patricia Ward Kelly says the evening is meant to have the feel of a chat in a living room. She says she greets attendees as they arrive and leave, and in between, she shares stories, film clips, audio recordings and memorabilia from the life of Kelly, who died in 1996 at the age of 83.
“It’s a very personal thing. It’s not a lecture,” she says.
Patricia has all of these clips, recordings, photographs and items because she got to know Gene in an atypical way: Before they fell in love and married, she was hired to be Gene Kelly’s biographer. Patricia, in fact, says she didn’t even know who the man, 46 years older than her, was when they first met in the mid-1980s.
“My situation is really unique,” Patricia says. “Not too many spouses were entrusted from the start to tell … a life story. From Day 1, I recorded everything he said and did.”
Gene Kelly was born and raised in Pittsburgh, and as a boy was enrolled in dance classes—apparently against his will—by his mother. Of course, Kelly would go on to become one of the 20th century’s most renowned and influential dancers and choreographers; among other things, he’s credited for bringing ballet into cinema in a commercially successful way. He was also an expert in a variety of other dance styles, from tap to acrobatics.
“He’s credited for creating a particular American style of dance,” Patricia says. “The clips (shown during Gene Kelly: The Legacy) show the breadth of his dance ability.”
However, Kelly’s talents didn’t stop at dance. Patricia says he was a true “Renaissance man,” with a love of language—he was fluent in French, for example—and poetry, who became friends with some of the 20th century’s greatest figures, including John F. Kennedy.
“People who come (to the show) often say, ‘I never knew he was such an intellectual,’ Patricia says. “I only knew him as that.”
Since every major 20th century celebrity seems to have some sort of connection to Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley, it’s inevitable that Gene Kelly does, too. Patricia says that while Kelly didn’t have a home here, many of his friends did—including Frank Sinatra, with whom Kelly starred in several pictures.
Since Kelly was close to both Kennedy and Sinatra, he wound up on the periphery of a major dispute between Sinatra and Kennedy in 1962: The president planned a trip to visit Sinatra at his Palm Springs home, and Sinatra spent a large amount of time and money preparing for Kennedy’s arrival. However, as the visit approached, Kennedy—apparently uncomfortable with Sinatra’s ties to organized crime—decided to instead stay with Bing Crosby. Sinatra, not surprisingly, was livid.
While Gene Kelly has now been gone for 18 years, and his best-known work is six decades old, Patricia Ward Kelly says she’s not concerned about Gene’s legacy.
“Awareness of him has almost grown exponentially” in recent years, Patricia says. “At the show, we have audience members in age from 9 to 90, with a lot of 20-, 30- and 40-year-olds. I think part of that is that he is so contemporary: He’s still the inspiration for almost all of the dancers and choreographers coming up.”
Gene Kelly: The Legacy takes place at 8 p.m., Wednesday, March 5, at the McCallum Theatre, 73000 Fred Waring Drive, in Palm Desert. Tickets are $20 to $50. For tickets or more information, call 760-340-2787, or visit www.mccallumtheatre.com.