Today would have been the 100th birthday of Gene Kelly, one of the greatest dancers to ever grace the silver screen.
But don’t take my word for it. Listen to what some of Omaha’s best choreographers have to say about Kelly, whose athletic and masculine style made him equally popular with men and women.
“Gene Kelly changed how a dancer could perform, could embody a character,” said Melanie Walters, who just won a 2011-12 Theatre Arts Guild trophy for choreographing “Altar Boyz” at the Omaha Community Playhouse.
“Every time I watch him dance ‘Singin’ in the Rain,’ those aren’t just steps — they’re performed with such love.”
Walters said she often shows video of Kelly to male dancers she works with as an example of “how they should perform, what kind of carriage they should have, how they should respond to their partner. He showed that you could dance and still be a guy’s guy.”
Kathy Wheeldon, choreographer of “Hairspray” at the Playhouse, said Kelly was groundbreaking, combining boyish charm with that athletic style in what she called “an irresistible combination. He was an icon.”
Roxanne Nielsen, whom the Blue Barn Theatre hired to choreograph “Spring Awakening,” said Kelly brought dance to the forefront of movie musicals, using it as an extension of character and story.
“He could do everything, all styles of dance. His understanding of dance made him a better director of movie musicals, because he knew how to shoot and edit dance sequences. I would say ‘Chicago’ is influenced by the way he shot and edited dance. Pretty much any movie musical is, really.”
Nielsen said Kelly was technically strong, but not “dancy dancy.” It looked like the average guy — a sailor, a boxer, an athlete — could do what he could. That made his dance more accessible to the general public, she said.
For Creighton University dance instructor Patrick Roddy, whose resume includes Broadway and touring credits, Kelly and Fred Astaire stood apart from a crowd of great dancers in the golden age of the movie musical — and had more in common than readily meets the eye.
“You can’t dance like Astaire and not be athletic,” Roddy said, “ but he doesn’t appear to be an athlete. Kelly was more of a man’s man. Both had charm and grace about them — different, but a certain charm and grace.”
Both danced on Broadway before they did movies. Both were forerunners in carrying lead movie roles as dancers.
“You can’t even imagine how hard that stuff is that they do,” he said. “You need stamina and technique. Both were extremely technical without making it obvious. They were masters of their technique.”
Kelly, he said, had more sex appeal and danced more sensually. Stocky, handsome, with a breathy singing voice, he was a triple threat.
Roddy got to shake Astaire’s hand once, in the late 1980s, at a tribute for the Irish American Foundation in Beverly Hills. “It was very cool,” he said.
Eugene Curran Kelly was born in Pittsburgh, the third son of a phonograph salesman. He had Irish blood on both sides of his family, plus a dash of German.
Their mother made the Kelly boys take dance lessons, which got them into fistfights over being called sissies. Gene quit for a while but resumed dancing at age 15, thinking it would be a good way to get girls. And it was. During the Great Depression, Gene earned prize money at talent contests and performed in local nightclubs.
At the University of Pittsburgh, he studied economics and was involved in theater. He established a Pittsburgh dance studio, then made the break to New York in 1937. He was at Mary Martin’s side on Broadway as she sang “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.” His Broadway credits included “The Time of Your Life” and Rodgers and Hart’s “Pal Joey.”
In 1941, he went to Hollywood, where MGM bought half his contract from David O. Selznick. His first movie was opposite Judy Garland in “For Me and My Gal” in 1942. His breakthrough came opposite Rita Hayworth in “Cover Girl.”
So many hits followed: “Anchors Aweigh,” 1945 (dancing with Jerry the mouse); “Ziegfeld Follies” (1945) and “The Pirate” (1948); “The Three Musketeers” and “Words and Music,” 1948; “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and “On the Town” with Frank Sinatra, 1949; “Summer Stock,” Garland’s last MGM musical, in 1950.
Then came megahits “An American in Paris,” for which he won the best-picture Oscar in 1951, and “Singin’ in the Rain,” a timeless classic, in 1952 that he co-directed, choreographed and starred in.
The popularity of the Broadway musical declined after that, though he did star in “Brigadoon” in 1954. He continued to direct (notably, “Hello Dolly,” a 1969 flop) and act (notably “Inherit the Wind,” a 1960 hit).
He collected honorary awards from the Motion Picture Academy, the Kennedy Center, the Screen Actors Guild and the American Film Institute before he died in February 1996 at the age of 83.