BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Without Chicago, Gene Kelly might not have been “Singin’ in the Rain” with Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor, forever our “American in (Gershwin’s) Paris” with Leslie Caron, or casting “Anchors Away” with Jerry Mouse. His early dance classes here, World’s Fair gigs, his correspondence with Chicago dance critic Ann Barzel, and views of the rare dance films she shot had a lifelong impact on arguably America’s favorite and always contemporary dancer.
The Current Newberry Library “Legacy of Chicago Dance” exhibition, up until July 6, tells it all with early photos of Kelly, correspondence, and some of the rare dance footage he watched. Ann Barzel, who said that she spent 90 years collecting Chicago dance materials and filming the extraordinary dancers who came through town, not only left her encyclopedic collection to the Newberry but encouraged others to do so as well.
Alison Hinderliter, Manuscripts and Archives Librarian, recently invited a Newberry research alumna to their auditorium to tell Kelly’s story. No one knows it better than the lithe and approachable Patricia Kelly, Gene’s widow who matches his big-screen grace with her own.
We recently had breakfast with Patricia at Tempo before her practice run at the Newberry. Her short-cropped haircut frames wide blue eyes that light up constantly as she talks about Gene. If the phrase contemporary relates eternally to her late husband, it does to her as well.
Being back in Chicago, a city special to both Patricia and Gene, gave her delight. Patricia knows the Newberry’s marbled halls—now strikingly renovated—from her days as a Colorado College student researching Herman Melville. She had arrived here late the night before from a performance of Gene Kelly: A Life in Music that she first performed with the Edinburgh Symphony Orchestra.
She shared, “When most people think of Gene, they think of dance, but music was central to his work. It influenced him, inspired him, and in many ways defined him. In 1969 the musical arrangements to many of MGM’s classic films were destroyed. Now with these scores carefully reconstructed, we can see Gene dancing on the big screen while a magnificent orchestra plays.”
“We feature clips from Singin’ in the Rain, Les Girls, Brigadoon, An American in Paris, and Anchors Away, plus some rarely seen numbers from television specials,” she continued. “I host the evening and share what Gene told me about making these films and his love of movies.”
For her lecture that night, she dressed in pantsuit worthy of an on-screen duet between Cyd Charisse and Gene. She greeted guests in the hall as they entered, lingering for selfies and conversation with young dancers in the audience afterwards, including some she had entertained at her Los Angeles home.
“Two of Gene’s favorite companies are Chicago’s. He loved the Joffrey and when they left New York, he encouraged them to come to Los Angeles but then felt they had made the right decision to choose Chicago. Whenever Hubbard Street Dance came to Los Angeles, we saw them perform, and I have continued to invite them over to dinner when they came to town,” she said.
We asked Patricia if she and her husband ever went out dancing, and she answered no, “because everyone in the room would have come to cut in to have had the opportunity to dance with Gene.” Everyone certainly wanted to hear all about his Chicago days—the Newberry event sold out almost immediately.
Patricia recounted how their relationship began:
“I was hired to work on a 90-minute documentary for the Smithsonian with Gregory Peck slated to be the host. Peck dropped out for some reason, and I was told Gene Kelly was taking over the role. I was 26 and he was 73. I knew nothing about him but soon discovered that he was drop dead gorgeous, totally young at heart. He was described as one of the top-five most eligible bachelors in the world and was certainly a very elegant dresser. He even bowed to me when we met in such a courtly way. Later, he would sing Gershwin songs to me; he was such a romantic.
“The day I first met him I was dressed in corduroy pants, thick socks, and clogs and had a very wild haircut at the time. By the middle of the week, I was totally enchanted and 48 movies later, I was asking myself what turnip truck I must have fallen off to not know who Gene Kelly was.
“By the weekend, he had asked me to stay and write his memoir. I have always thought that my work as a researcher at the Newberry really paved the way to Gene. For 10 years Gene and I worked daily on his memories, mealtimes filled with my questions. I have been cataloging and digitizing the materials into a virtual collection because I want to have them online and at no cost for all.
“When you come into my house you almost can’t sit down and you have to walk single file, I have so much material—85 filing cabinets in all!”
Although he learned to dance in his native Pittsburgh, Gene’s career took off—on roller skates—at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1934 when he was 22. Patricia explained that he was assigned to the Enchanted Island where the “kiddie shows” were performed. While Sally Rand was dancing with her feathers on the adult stages, he was performing on roller skates with his brother, surrounded by acrobats.
Gene was in Chicago for classes between 1933-35, taught by, in part, the Spanish dancer Angel Cansino, uncle of Rita Hayworth. “He also danced then with the fierce and beautiful blonde Berenice Holmes who was so strong that she could dance the men’s parts as well and could leap higher than most of them. She took Gene dancing at the Zebra Room and it took him months to tell me that they had had a romance,” Patricia revealed.
It was about at this time that Gene watched a cat on a balcony jump to the ground and he learned that grace, she says.
Throughout his time in Chicago, Gene researched choreography and dance theory, spending days in the University of Chicago library reading everything he could find on dance in both English and French. At one point, she shares, he became determined to be a classical dancer and received an invitation to join the Ballet Russe. He chose to decline, realizing he would rather be a dance teacher and earn a bit more money instead.
While still in Chicago, he was offered small parts in musicals and in 1939, Robert Alton cast him in One for the Money with Alfred Drake. Catherine Cornell came to see him and told him to take elocution lessons, stating that he should pursue acting.
“Chicago’s theater was so rich then. John Barrymore was starring at the Selwyn Theatre that shared an alley with Gene’s theater. Larry Olivier and Orson Welles were also performing here at the time. Gene would take Dorothy McGuire out for donuts and a walk around the Lake. He, Barrymore, and Brenda Forbes would go out for drinks at the Pump Room and then go skinny dipping in the Lake,” she shared.
The current Newberry exhibit features a intriguing hint of the 30,000 feet of the rare film footage from Ann Barzel, shot from just behind the stage sightlines, featuring some of the world’s finest dancers. In 1947 Gene wrote to Ann, who had been in one of his classes when he studied in Chicago.
“He definitely knew that the footage would help in his choreographing of American in Paris and other films. She is not going to give up her whole collection to him but is happy to share an hour or so of film. I love how she writes to Gene: ‘Do keep being successful.’ And Gene said back to me: ‘Imagine being friends with a dance critic!’ ”
Off this month to perform her symphony tribute in Dublin, Patricia left the audience with celestial imagery: “Sometimes he would wake me up in the middle of the night to walk out on the balcony to look at the moon. I can still feel the warmth of those tiles on my feet. I think he was almost a little disappointed when Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon because he felt it might take away some of the moon’s romance.”
“Gene was like a comet that only comes around once.”
To learn more about the exhibition, visit newberry.org.