I am not the first person to tell Patricia Ward Kelly that I lusted after her husband.
Apparently, I need to get in line behind other Gene Kelly fans.
“This woman came up to me the other night and said, ‘Oh my god, your husband was hot!’” says Gene’s widow. “I said, ‘Yes. He was.’”
She’ll meet many more fawning fans next weekend when the Kansas City Symphony presents another of its “Screenland at the Symphony” concerts, this time providing live musical accompaniment for a showing of “Singin’ in the Rain.”
Kansas City’s Symphony, led by associate conductor Aram Demirjian, will play the score as the movie is shown on a giant screen behind the orchestra.
Screenland Theatres owner Butch Rigby suggested “Singin’ in the Rain” for the Symphony’s movie-music series partly because he feels that the film’s score is under-valued.
“It is a terrific example of the great MGM Studio Orchestra under the direction of Lennie Hayton,” Rigby said. “Back then every studio had its own sound. MGM … had this rolling, rich orchestration of those old Arthur Freed songs.”
Rigby and Patricia will talk about the movie and its famous star after each concert. She also plans to greet people as they arrive at Helzberg Hall and, if anyone asks, sign autographs.
That’s part of her life’s work now as she takes his story on the road, reintroducing and introducing Gene Kelly’s work to young and old alike.
Kansas City audiences will find Patricia to be a living, breathing Google search of Gene Kelly trivia.
Maybe she’ll share the story about when Gene visited Michael Jackson at Neverland Ranch in the late 1980s before the “Bad” album came out. The two men had talked of working together. Jackson was a huge Gene Kelly fan and had memorized all of the icon’s on-screen dance moves. Patricia watched them hoof together that day in a “challenge dance.”
“Having Patricia Ward Kelly on hand lends us the closest thing to Gene Kelly’s voice most of us will ever experience,” Rigby says.
Top of the list
Many consider “Singin’ in the Rain” to be the greatest Hollywood musical ever made. It tops the American Film Institute’s list of the 25 Greatest Movie Musicals of All Time, besting “West Side Story,” “The Wizard of Oz” and other greats.
But Patricia says it wasn’t necessarily Gene’s favorite.
He would more than likely name “On the Town,” the 1949 musical comedy co-starring Frank Sinatra, because it broke new ground being shot on location in New York City.
“Singin’ in the Rain” came out in 1952, the year after Gene and a lovely French newcomer he’d discovered named Leslie Caron starred in “An American in Paris,” a monster hit that won six Oscars, including Best Picture.
“Singin’ in the Rain” was nominated for just two Oscars the following year, and won nothing. Critics and theatergoers alike largely ignored it, too. That it would go on to be considered “the movie musical of all time … I think Gene never anticipated it,” says Patricia.
Lest we forget, Gene not only sang, danced and acted in the movie, he co-directed with Stanley Donen.
His widow says that he wanted to be remembered for being a choreographer and director, and for changing the way the camera captured dance on film.
According to Patricia, we have Gene to thank for the genius casting of Jean Hagen — who was nominated for an Oscar — in the role of silent movie star Lina Lamont in “Singin’ in the Rain.”
“He loved Jean Hagen,” says Patricia. “He thought she was the glue that held the piece together. Try to think about the movie without Jean Hagen.”
Gene disagreed with producer Arthur Freed and Stanley Donen about casting her. “They wanted a prettier, more glamorous woman,” she says.
It was a mutual decision to cast Rita Moreno, who was on set every day even when she wasn’t in the scenes, Patricia says.
“What I think is really great is when you hear Rita Moreno say that she is grateful to Gene because it was the first time ever she was cast in a picture and was not typecast as a Latina. And she’s eternally grateful.”
Myths be gone
There’s a lot of lore surrounding the movie. I asked Patricia about some of the trivia floating around on the Internet:
▪ There was no milk added to the rain or puddles in the famous dance scene on the street to make the water show up on film. “It was extraordinary cinematography,” says Patricia, who adds that the glare from all those plate-glass windows along the street was an added challenge.
▪ Gene was very sick and running a high fever while singing and dancing in that rain. “But he’s directing a picture, he’s on a schedule, they’re on a budget. He has to bring it in,” she says.
▪ Gene was very angry with director Stanley Kubrick for using, without permission or payment, the “Singin’ in the Rain” song in a rape scene in “A Clockwork Orange.” “That was a slap in the face because Kubrick wanted to do a musical with Gene,” Patricia says. “Gene considered him a friend and colleague. It’s just bad form. You just don’t do that to somebody else.”
She also knows which stories told are more “fanciful” than fact and she’s not afraid to politely call people out.
About Debbie Reynolds
“He made her a star,” Patricia says bluntly. “She always says he didn’t want her in the movie. That’s one of the myths that I dispel. He absolutely wanted her in the movie.”
In fact, Patricia says, casting Reynolds was Arthur Freed’s idea. This is how she explains it.
Freed showed Gene and co-director Donen a clip of Reynolds singing the tongue-twisting hit song “Aba Daba Honeymoon” from a 1950 movie called “Two Weeks in Love.” When Donen asked if Reynolds could dance, Gene replied: “It doesn’t matter. We can make that happen.”
“Gene always choreographed to the lesser dancers, whether it was Olivia-Newton John or Frank Sinatra.… He choreographed (Reynolds) to make her look great,” she says.
She’s pored through producer Arthur Freed’s personal archives and read daily production records for the movie. They are minute-by-minute accounts of moviemaking, right down to when her husband tied his shoes.
That’s why she’s skeptical of another story Reynolds likes to tell about how her feet bled so badly from all the dancing that doctors had to be called in. Patricia says she found no record of that.
Some of the stories that revolve around Gene’s involvement with the film depict him as a taskmaster, to put it kindly. Donald O’Connor once called him a “tyrant.” But egotistical?
“I don’t know that guy,” Patricia says.
The musicians and “real dancers” who worked with Gene “understood what it took, the precision it took to get those numbers off the ground,” she says. “You don’t waste time. You learn your numbers. You have to hit your marks.
“Was he really hard about that? I think he was precise and demanding. But he was no more demanding of anyone than he was of himself. People will be critical. But maybe, just maybe, that’s why we’re watching this movie 60 years later, because they hit their marks and learned their numbers.”
Gene Kelly did not give up the story of his life easily, says his widow. Nearly 20 years after his death she’s still working on that memoir, which she has decided to write from her perspective and how he revealed himself to her in the decade they spent together at the end.
“Doing these shows has helped me immensely, listening to people (ask) about what they want to know. They want to know how he died, when I first fell in love with him,” she says. “Speaking to people has really helped me hone the story.”
She must also tend to his archives, photos and manuscripts that she says “ultimately should be in public hands.”
I asked her about those supple leather loafers that were his dancing shoes. Sadly, his shoes and many costumes were lost in the fire that destroyed his Beverly Hills home right before Christmas in 1983.
Lost as well — it makes me want to cry — was that iconic umbrella from “Singin’ in the Rain.”
Screenland at the Symphony:
“Singin’ in the Rain”
When: 8 p.m. Friday; 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. April 12.
Where: Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.
Tickets: Limited. Call 816-471-0400 for availability.
Gene and Patricia
Patricia Ward Kelly is Gene’s third wife, with him for the last 10 years of his life before he died in 1996.
They met in 1985 when he hosted a TV special she helped write. She was 26, he was 73.
After they met, Gene hired Patricia, who is a freelance journalist, to write his memoirs; they married five years later.
Since his death she’s traveled the world, talking to people about Gene’s work in front of and behind the camera.
“I think Gene, certainly, is never going to fade away,” Patricia says. “I think these movies are going to be with us for a very long time. But I think what’s fun for me and what he hoped I would do is give people a greater understanding of his contributions. Not just as this gorgeous man on the screen but as the guy behind the camera.
“The history gets a little lost and people don’t see how radical he was and so far ahead of his time.”
Those are some of the big themes that she explores in “Gene Kelly The Legacy: An Evening with Patricia Ward Kelly,” a one-woman show that she has performed around the country.
She shares thoughts on his co-stars, like the strong feelings he had for Judy Garland, his co-star in three movies including Gene’s first, “For Me and My Gal,” in 1942. Patricia calls the chemistry between them “powerful. It’s just palpable.”
She knows how Gene got that trademark scar on his left cheek (he fell off his tricycle as a little boy), whether he really liked Fred Astaire (“they certainly were not rivals”) and who his favorite dance partner was.
Gene’s “smart aleck” answer to that last question, Patricia says, was that he liked working with Jerry the cartoon mouse in “Anchors Aweigh” because he showed up on time and “worked his little tail off.”
The No. 1 question people ask about her husband: How tall was he?
He was 5-foot-8.
| Lisa Gutierrez, email@example.com