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8/23/1912 - 2/2/1996
Gene Kelly gained fame in the 1940s for drama and dance. Also a choreographer, writer, and director, he is best known for his role in Singin' in the Rain (1952).
Gene Kelly was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on August 23, 1912. His prolific performing career, specifically as the leading male role in Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris, made him a household name for the greater part of the twentieth century. Kelly owed his commitment to dance and entertainment to the Steel City, where he performed and trained young dancers in Pittsburgh’s East End. He devoted his life to the performing arts by revolutionizing dance in the film industry, challenging traditional ideas of masculinity, and encouraging boys to enter the performing arts.
Eugene “Gene” Curran Kelly was born August 23, 1912, to Harriet and John Kelly in the Highland Park neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Gene Kelly and his four siblings came of age amid Pittsburgh’s peak industrial era and bourgeoning cultural and artistic age. The family moved from Highland Park to the working-class area of East Liberty shortly after Kelly was born, living there temporarily before relocating to the Point Breeze neighborhood. Kelly lived in this middle-and upper-class neighborhood between the ages of thirteen and twenty-six. His father’s successful career in phonograph sales allowed the Kelly family to afford this middle-class lifestyle.
As John Kelly traveled frequently for work, Harriet raised their children largely alone. She strongly encouraged her children’s pursuits in the performing arts. When Gene Kelly was seven years old, she enrolled him and his younger brother James in dance classes at Belinsky’s Dancing School in downtown Pittsburgh. Kelly dreaded the long trek across town to attend the classes because on his way he frequently experienced bullying from other children. In 1920, Harriet organized her children into a performing group called “The Five Kellys,” signing them up to perform at benefits, churches, and hospitals.
Naturally athletic and energetic, young Kelly preferred sports over dancing. As a student at St. Raphael Elementary in Morningside and as a student at Peabody High School, Kelly competed on many sports teams including tennis, football, track, and gymnastics. He loved attending sporting events, including Pittsburgh Pirates games, with his father.
As a high school student, Kelly pursued his passion for writing and rekindled his desire to dance. He wrote for Peabody’s literary magazine, the Civitan, and served as the Associate Editor of the Toreadors, the school’s newspaper. During his junior year, Kelly started teaching dance at the Lou Bolton School of Dance, located on Forbes Avenue in Squirrel Hill, and during his senior year he starred in his first major stage production. Kelly’s academic success allowed him to graduate with honors in three years.
In 1929, Kelly enrolled at Pennsylvania State University as an economics major. There, he performed in many university productions. The onset of the Great Depression in 1929 forced him to move back to Pittsburgh to help his family financially, however. In 1930, he enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh and worked service jobs including pumping gas, serving sodas, and laying bricks. Over the summer, Kelly worked as a camp counselor in Erie, Pennsylvania, where he produced shows for campers and built his professional reputation. He toured Pennsylvania with his brother James, breaking racial barriers by performing alongside Black musicians and dancers in de-facto-segregated venues. Kelly graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 1933 with a degree in economics. He then enrolled briefly in University of Pittsburgh School of Law before leaving to immerse himself in a performing career.
Kelly weathered the Great Depression by teaching dance and furthering his own dance training. Between 1931 and 1938, he ran two dance schools, one in Pittsburgh and one in Johnstown, both named Gene Kelly School of Dance. Kelly and his family operated the Pittsburgh school out of a third-floor space on Forbes Avenue in Squirrel Hill. The Johnstown studio, located on Main Street, served over one-hundred and fifty students each year, and brought dance education to the largely working-class town. While teaching at both schools, Kelly developed his own dance curriculum and emphasized exposing young boys to dance and the performing arts by drawing the connection between dance and competitive sports (Hess and Dabholkar 34-35). He also taught and choreographed productions for Pittsburgh’s Beth Shalom synagogue. As his local reputation grew, Kelly looked toward Broadway as the next step in his budding stage career.
In 1938, Kelly left the Steel City for the stages of New York and secured his first Broadway role in Leave it to Me. Between 1938 and 1941, Kelly choreographed for and performed in five Broadway musicals. His exceptional performance as Joey Evans in Pal Joey (1940) caught the attention of major Hollywood producers. In September 1941, Kelly married Betsy Blaire, whom he met while choreographing for the Diamond Horseshoe nightclub. Later that year, Kelly and Blaire moved to Hollywood, he starred in several minor motion pictures and helped raise their first child, Kerry Kelly. Gene Kelly’s big break in Hollywood came in 1944 with his role in MGM’s Cover Girl. Kelly revolutionized the Hollywood musical with his famous Alter Ego dance, which integrated dance into the plot to further the film’s story.
Cover Girl launched Kelly into several other musical deals with MGM, including Anchors Away, in which he starred with Frank Sinatra (1945). As Kelly’s film career soared, he also wanted to serve his country in World War II. Thus, he enlisted in the United States Navy’s photographic division, in which he served from 1944 to 1946.
After returning from the war, Kelly scored the starring roles in On the Town (1945), and what would become Kelly’s two most popular Hollywood musicals: An American in Paris (1951), for which he won an Oscar, and Singin’ in the Rain (1952). Kelly would be most remembered for dancing, choreographing, and co-directing Singin’ in the Rain, which in 1989 became one of the first twenty-five films chosen by the Library of Congress for its National Film Registry.
In 1957, amid a decline in public interest in the Hollywood musical, Kelly and Blaire divorced. In 1960, he married Jeannie Coyne, his longtime dance assistant. The couple had two children together, Timothy and Bridgett, whom Kelly raised alone after Jeanie’s untimely death from cancer in 1975. For the last three decades of his career, he directed smaller TV and film productions, choreographed in the United States and Europe, and raised his children. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Kelly starred in many retrospectives and award shows, including That’s Entertainment, alongside Fred Astaire. He continued to be recognized for his work, receiving honors from the Kennedy Center in 1982, a lifetime achievement award from the American Film Institute in 1985, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In Pittsburgh, Kelly is commemorated at the Kelly Strayhorn Theatre in East Liberty, and through a historical marker on the University of Pittsburgh campus.
Kelly spent the last years of his life in his home in Beverly Hills, California, with his third wife Patricia Ward, whom he married in 1990. After suffering a series of strokes, he died on February 2, 1996, at the age of eighty-four. Kelly devoted his life to the performing arts and bringing dance to popular audiences. His legacy as a performer, teacher, choreographer, and innovator inspired future generations of young performing artists into the twenty-first century. His presence and acclaim as a dancer challenged traditional ideas of masculinity and encouraged boys to enter the performing arts despite negative societal stigmas (Hess and Dabholkar).
- Cover Girl. Dir. Charles Vidor. Columbia Pictures, 1944.
- Anchors Aweigh. Dir. George Sidney. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1945.
- On the Town. Dir. Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1945.
- An American in Paris. Dir. Vincente Minnelli. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1951.
- Singin' in the Rain. Dir. Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1952.
- Brigadoon. Dir. Vincente Minnelli. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1954.
- Invitation to the Dance. Dir. Gene Kelly. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1956.
- Les Girls. Dir. George Cukor. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1957.
- Xanadu. Dir. Robert Greenwald. Universal Pictures, 1980.
- Brideson, Cynthia, and Sara Brideson. He’s Got Rhythm: The Life and Career of Gene Kelly. Lexington, University Press of Kentucky, 2017.
- Cohen, Harold W. “Kellys Keep it in the Family.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 10 February 1940, p. 10.
- “The Drama Desk: Local Scrappings.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 1 Jan. 1940, p. 32.
- Hess, Earl J., and Pratibha H. Dabholkar. Gene Kelly: The Making of a Legend. Lawrence, University Press of Kansas, 2020.
- “In the Theatres this Week: Sheridan Square—Vaudeville.” The Sunday Post, 11 Sept. 1923.
- Kelly, Gene. Interview with Ron Haver. Film Comment, vol. 20, no. 6, 1984, pp. 56-59.
- Morgan, Ryan. “Gene Kelly.” Literary and Cultural Heritage Maps of Pennsylvania. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University, Fall 2003. Superseded Spring 2022. http://web.archive.org/web/20220720214041/https://pabook.libraries.psu.edu/literary-cultural-heritage-map-pa/bios/Kelly__Gene. Accessed 14 July 2022.
- Rickey, Carrie. “Gene Kelly 1912-1996: A Dance Master Dies.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 3 February 1996, p. 1A.
Photo Credit: Modern Screen. "Lana Turner and Gene Kelly attending a party in New York City, 1948." 17564. Photograph. Licensed under Public Domain. Cropped to 4x3. Source: Wikimedia.