Gene Kelly, Creative Genius

A personal celebration of his life and work

'I'm their man..'

This page will focus on Gene’s wonderful relationship with children. All through his life he adored them, loved to spend time in their company. In return, children responded to him, were drawn to him, because he treated them with great respect, and understood them. He was never condescending, always met them on their own level and made them feel loved and important. Many lifetime fans will attest to the fact that they were drawn to Gene at an early age, some as young as five. He radiates some kind of magic to which children especially were - and are - susceptible.

 

 

Dance Teacher Now. January/February 1985

According to Kelly, loving youngsters is a definite prerequisite to teaching them.

 

Photoplay June 1944 It’s Like This – to be Mrs Gene Kelly

He likes children very much… and has a nice, easy manner with them. Whenever we go to Pittsburgh, where he had his school, the children who were his pupils come to see us. And every Sunday in California, the neighbourhood kids gather in our yard for kick ball.

 

Deseret News March 20th 1946

Margaret O’Brien has placed her first request for a screen leading man. He’s Gene Kelly. Ever since the little star did an impromptu routine with Kelly during her recent trip to Washington, she has insisted that she won’t be completely happy until they appear on the screen together.

 

Chicago Tribune. July 1st 1947

After seeing Gene Kelly perform with a group of children, you will note that his behaviour is entirely without that now-I-must-be-very-nice attitude so obvious in many screen stars when they work with youngsters. The star is completely natural, and I’ll bet the kids had fun with him…

 

Deseret News. July 26th 1947. Margaret O’Brien.

…I do know Mr. Kelly and I even got to dance with him once, it was at the President’s Birthday Ball in Washington. Mr. Kelly was in the navy and had to wear a sailor suit so I wore mine so we could look alike. Mr. Kelly taught me the dance he did in Anchors Aweigh. I was the mouse. At first I was bashful dancing with Mr. Kelly because he is such a wonderful dancer but he was so nice to me I forgot to be bashful and we had lots of fun. So last year when we went to Washington again I was very happy because I got to dance with Mr. Kelly again only he wasn’t a sailor anymore he was an officer. But I still wore my sailor suit. Now Mr.Kelly isn’t  in the navy anymore he is here in California and I see him almost every day. He has the cutest little girl and very smart too and I guess that’s why he understands little girls but she’s only five years old.

 

Modern Screen July 1947. Pied Piper

The Pied Piper of legend had an irresistible way with children. But even he could have picked up a whimsical trick or two from Gene Kelly.

The windows in the big, bare room were open, and a dozen tousled heads peered through. “Yah! Yah!” Came the small-boy chant. “Sissies, sissies.” Gene Kelly left his dancing class for a minute and stood in front of one of the windows. His hands were in his pockets and he rocked back on his heels casually, and no one could have known that his heart was beating like mad.

“Hi, kids,” he said. You know how nice and easy his voice is. “Say, how about dropping over to the gym next Friday. I’d like to shoot some baskets before class. Any of you guys any good?” There was a sprinkle of “Yah’s,” and then a modest murmur of “Gee-no’s,” and after that the heads vanished. Gene went back to his group of be-ribboned, be-laced little girls and reluctant junior Astaires and knew in his bones that next week things would start looking up.

When he’d taken this job teaching at the dancing school sponsored by a Pittsburgh synagogue, he’d pictured himself surrounded by dozens of kids, and his heart had warmed to the thought. With some guys, it’s horse-racing. With Kelly – now as then – it’s kids. He’s nuts about them.

The first day, the small, uninspired turnout was a real kick in the teeth, but the next week, a dozen of the ten-to-twelve-year-olds showed up, in addition to the original group. They started out eyeing Gene as if he had two heads, but after fifteen minutes of shooting baskets with him they relaxed and began to have fun. By the end of the afternoon, they weren’t quite on Strauss waltzes, but Gene had them doing dance steps reminiscent of Doug Fairbanks in his palmy days. And when the kid they called “Duckfoot” – a small-scale Eddie G. Robinson – mopped his brow and said admiringly “He-eey, this is strictly a workout,” Gene knew with a quick stab of joy that he was “in”.

Getting the teen-aged boys to come to dancing class required a different approach, but Gene was close enough to his own teens to know exactly what to do. He stopped one of the smoothies on the street one day. “Hear you’re having yourselves a ball up at the high-school,” he said.

“That’s right,” said the kid.

“Want to be the best dancer at it?” Gene said. “Oh, I don’t mean just good. I mean really sharp stuff.”

“Well, I guess I wouldn’t mind.”

The smoothie brought a friend for moral support, and the news got around that this Kelly guy was terrific.. After a while the gym wasn’t big enough to hold the mob that flocked to learn from The Feet, and there wasn’t a happier man in Pittsburgh than Gene…

For Gene, teaching always meant more than fun. It was so very gratifying when some of his pupils became fine dancers, but there was a deeper satisfaction to his work than that.. Some of the youngsters came from lonely neighbourhoods or farms where there were few children. These shy ones used to suffer when they first attended the class. They hung back in a corner most of the time, and when Gene asked them to do an exercise, they melted in embarrassment. Under his gentle guidance and encouragement, they began to bloom, and when they suddenly found that they could dance just as well, and perhaps a little better than the others, they’d hold up their heads with a new-found confidence. Remembering his own shy childhood, Gene got a kick out of watching the half-pints knock down their own defense mechanisms.

There were the sick kids too. Several doctors sent paralysis cases to the Kelly school. They shared Gene’s feeling that dancing is often not only therapeutically good for crippled children, but wonderful for their morale. It gives them a pretty fancy feeling to know that even though they’re lame they can dance a little bit.

In connection with this work, Gene told me a story about a little crippled girl he’d worked with, and then he said, “Hey, you’d better skip that. It might embarrass the kid if she reads it.” But you know, Mr Kelly, I can’t skip that story. It needs to be told because of the encouragement it will give to hundreds of youngsters... I’ve changed the little one’s name so that she can’t possibly feel bad, and Mr Kelly, you old softie, please don’t be mad at me…

We’ll call her Joan, this five-year-old Gene discovered in one of his classes one morning. Her right leg was considerably shorter than the left, and she was so painfully conscious of her deformity that at first she wouldn’t even look at Gene. His big heart went out to her. He flopped down in a deep chair and stretched his right leg in front of him; then rose from the chair standing on that one leg.

“Joan,” he said, “can you do this?” Joan watched him, a brief wistful smile on her face, then she dropped her glance shyly.

“When you can do that Joan, I’ll teach you a dance step. Will you try?”

Well, she practiced for a week, awkwardly at first, her face burning with embarrassment, and there came a beautiful morning when she could do it quite easily. She tugged at Gene’s arm, too excited for mere words, and he watched her go through the exercise feeling his own pulse pound. When she’d finished he discovered that he had no words either, so he just gave her the old prizefighter salute, his hands clasped over his head. She became one of his star pupils, and in time her leg lengthened almost to normalcy.

Gene’s really travelled since those early days in Pennsylvania…

Now, after a few solid years as a Hollywood star, he’s back where he started – teaching kids. And still getting results. It’s like this.

For his new picture, Living In A Big Way he does a dance with a bunch of small sprouts. In order to select them, he asked the casting department to send him a couple of hundred boys and girls. In they trouped one morning, all like small Eleanor Powells and Fred Astaires, and executing entrechats for Gene. They left him very cold, so he called Casting again and asked them to send him kids who couldn’t dance a step as he wanted to teach them himself. Out of the second batch he was able to salvage a few normal unstage-struck youngsters, and his experience in the Pittsburgh synagogue school held him in good stead. Inside of an hour he had them all crazy about dancing – all but this one straight-haired, snub-nosed little boy who was much more enchanted with playing in the half-built house that was one of the props. During an intermission, Gene took him aside. “Bet your mom misses you this morning, Joe,” he said companionably. “Kinda hard on her with you gone all day.” The kid swung by his knees from a beam. “So I think I’ll let you go along home,” Gene finished quietly. No scolding, no loud voice. Just that. And when the youngsters lined up again, Joe was right there in the front row dancing like absolutely crazy, meek and obedient as a lamb….When you see the movie, look for the kid with the halo – that’s Joe. The Kelly touch with children is still deft.

 

Gene:  Filmland  February 1951

Those Were the Days.

…Everything in life is relative, and I don’t think adult experiences can come up to childhood for sheer excitement. Everything is an adventure then, imagination is unfettered. Remember the boot you got out of a book – you didn’t just read it, you became part of it! Remember how it was seeing a movie, watching Doug Fairbanks and being him! Every day, every small thing is vivid to a kid, a matter of life and death. And Christmas! You waited for it in a way that’s impossible as a grown-up. You waited for it like nothing else in the universe mattered – including school – and you believed in Santa Claus, of course you did, he was the guy who brought that beebee gun.

 (For the full story of the 'beebee' gun, see the 'Pittsburgh' section of the 'Called it home' page)

 

Pittsburgh Post Gazette. February 21st 1967

The only thing twinkle-toes Gene Kelly likes better than dancing with women is hoofing with children, something he has always managed to insert in his sprightly movie musicals…

 

From an article about the abortive Broadway show about the life of Louis Armstrong, which Gene was set to direct:

On stage at the Alvin, meanwhile, children were poking their heads out from the wings. They were auditioning for the part of Mr. Armstrong as a boy, 12 to 15.

“How old are you, Jimmy?” Mr. Kelly said to the first candidate. “I’m 11,” he answered “Are you married?” Mr. Kelly asked pleasantly. After Jimmy auditioned, Mr. Kelly said, “Very well done” and called him a “good man.” When a young singer went flat, stricken by terminal nerves, Mr. Kelly lied through his teeth. “You sing very well,” he said encouragingly. “You have a very nice voice.”

A few times, Mr. Kelly sang himself - a snatch of “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” a phrase from “Blue Moon” - to put the kids at ease. It was precisely the voice from  An American in Paris, or Singin’ in the Rain. The timbre was raspy, an attenuated gargle. In the Alvin, a 14-year-old girl, who had seen those movies a dozen times, almost broke down and cried.

 

Claude and Andreé Guy, two of the children from the I Got Rhythm number. The Making of An American In Paris. DVD 2008

Gene Kelly wanted children who weren’t professional…Gene Kelly was terrific. He was so nice to the kids, loved playing with us even off the set. He’d tap dance round us and he would give us candy. He was like sunshine when he came into the studio. I don’t think I’ve ever in my life seen another personality like that.

 

Free Lance Star. April 5th 1978

Gene: "The father who wants his kids to have a good education these days has to pull a few wires: like the TV wire and the stereo wire." 

 

Roddy McDowell. Double Exposure Take Two.  1988.

Leonard Gershe:

About twenty years ago I travelled to Moscow with Gene about the possibility of doing a movie to be coproduced by an American film company and the Soviets. I was to write the screenplay and Gene was to direct. Nothing came of this venture, but Gene and I spent a week in Moscow where we were driven in a car provided by the Soviets and driven by an amiable fellow named Valentine.

One day, the driver told us that his young son had just come from the hospital where he had spent months as a result of falling out of the window of their third-floor apartment...He had never seen an American…Valentine asked us if we could possibly visit the boy for five minutes…

We found this sad-faced little boy sitting up in bed…Gene, who has the most wonderful way with children, began to clown and cavort. He made up games and tricks and sang and danced. In no time the boy was laughing and clapping his hands. We left him wreathed in smiles.

Valentine drove us to the airport…He presented Gene with two carefully wrapped presents – toys for Gene’s children. They had to have cost Valentine a week’s wages. Gene accepted the gifts, embraced Valentine and dashed into the airport without a glance at me. I know he didn’t want me to see the tears welling in his eyes. But I did.

 

......................................................................................................................................................................

 

The Star. February 20th 1996

Gene: Being a parent is probably the most important thing you can do in your life.

My kids and I are very close.

 

Modern Screen. June 1943

When Kerry was born, he acted like all the fathers in all the B-pictures ever filmed. He was all right till they took Betsy to the delivery room, then he went crazy. Her mother was there. Betsy had been reluctant to send for her mother. It smacked of female Victorianism. But Gene had insisted. That day he knew why. It was he who needed the prop of her presence. He’s contemplating a campaign to promote anesthesia for prospective fathers.

When Betsy was safe, and they brought the baby out, he looked first at her legs. It took the combined efforts of the nurse and his mother-in-law to persuade him that babies all entered the world bowlegged. 

Having had pictures of kids flashed on him by doting parents for years, this doting parent keeps Kerry’s decently withheld in his billfold. “But if you ask me about her, I’ll converse freely. I might even say in an offhand way that she’s beautiful.”

 

 ?1943. no source

Betsy calls her Kerry, Gene calls her 'some gadget'. The night she was born, he stood in the hospital corridor crying on his mother-in-law's shoulder. Which makes him blessedly average. Average but with a soul. When he smiles it's with his eyes...

 

Modern Screen January 1944

Gene Kelly’s world revolves around Betsy and Kerry. Betsy’s world revolves around Gene and Kerry. Kerry’s just over a year old. Her world revolves around her stomach, with her parents somewhere close to the hub but still outside it. She welcomes them with cries of simple pleasure. She welcomes food with a moan of pure ecstasy and falls on it like a wolf in babe’s clothing.

That’s by her father’s account. Gene’s a split personality where his child is concerned. Part of him stands outside himself and says, “So she’s our kid, so what, there have been others.” That part tries to be objective, but who does it think it’s kidding? The other part just lets go and wallows in adoration…

Gene’s pretty deft about doing infant chores, while protesting loudly. “Who, me? Kelly the movie actor? Change a baby’s pants? You must be crazy.” He’s nonchalant now, though he used to be a little tense. The one time he really got scared was when she was three weeks old and wailed through the night. Betsy was still in bed. He had 60 pages of script to study and a 7 o’clock call. Chasing between the script and his child, he grew distracted. “She hates me,” he informed Betsy gloomily. “I can see it in her eyes.”

At 14 months Kerry’s such an agreeable girl that her dad likes to hear her bawl once in a while. “Just to prove she’s not slap-happy.” He addresses her indiscriminately as Dopey or Angel, and is firmly convinced that she is going to be a dancer…Like him, she’s a night owl. “Won’t go to sleep till you hit her over the head.” This fails to bother her parents, who don’t go by the psychology books. Deaf to the cries of the orthodox, they’ve been known to haul her downstairs at 3a.m to meet the people. “Trains her to cope with life,” the Kellys maintain.

The one thing she resents is the end of a meal. Take the spoon away and she sputters all over her bib. Pop eggs her on. “Attaboy, Kelly, stand up and fight.”

 

Modern Screen. August 1944

They call Kerry MGM’s $80,000 baby – (as a gag, of course, she really didn’t cost all of that). But it did so happen that the day she picked to make her entrance, Gene was lined up for a super-Hollywood scene in Dubarry Was A Lady with a couple dozen chorus girls, a thousand extras, bands…hanging around as a background for Gene’s cut-ups. Then at lunch he got the news from the doctor. Gene rushed out of the studio and he did all the things every hospital waiting-room B-picture papa ever did – like wringing his hands, wearing out carpets, chain-smoking, pestering nurses, turning green at the gills and getting palpitations of the heart.

But that’s what happens to the canniest guy at a time like that. So even Gene Kelly is human, I’m happy to state

 

Seventeen magazine. September 1946

Balanced on his fifth vertebra in an easy chair, his feet up on the coffee table, his hands in his pockets, Gene Kelly announced, “Teenagers are my favorite people."

MGM’s dancing star, who tucked Broadway audiences in his pocket with Pal Joey and went out to Hollywood to become Fred Astaire’s only rival, concentrated on his moccasins, slipping them on and off. His brown tweed sports jacket looked “comfortable,” his shirt was open at the neck and his gabardine slacks boasted a Crosby-like lack of crease.

“You can do things with people in their teens,” he told us. “We have kickball games after dinner every night in our yard out in Hollywood. All the neighborhood kids come over. But do you think I could get anyone over twenty-one to get out of an easy chair long enough to play? They’ll get up only to shoot some golf or lie on the beach and get blisters.

“Besides, you can talk to kids. Their minds (like their muscles) haven’t yet ossified. Kids don’t tag people by what they do or earn..."

 

Silver Screen. April 1947

“I just cannot understand people who have the best life in the world saying they don’t want their kids to be actors. I certainly hope that Kerry will be in one of the arts. I don’t care whether it’s acting, dancing, painting, sculpturing, designing, writing or music. If she can’t do anything else, I don’t mind if she plays the harp!

"Nor do I agree that children can’t be raised ‘normally’ in the environment of Hollywood. That depends on the parents. It’s their job and it’s one that is shirked by a lot of people who yip about ‘phony atmosphere’ and simultaneously raise brats because they don’t take the time to give them normal home life.”

Children are close to the Kelly heart. He remembers with unabashed Irish sentimentality the happiness of his own childhood as one of a family of five children. He and Betsy both hope they will have more children…

Gene, always cooperative, balks however at ‘home sittings’ and ‘family portrait’ type of publicity art, and we don’t blame them.

“Our home and home life are our own,” he suggests. “It’s especially important to Kerry, for that ‘normal’ life… She has reached an impressionable age, and I think she should have her picture taken only if she does something herself to deserve it. If she wants her picture in the paper enough, and can’t get it there any other way, she could get to be a female Jesse James and hold up a train – or something.”

See what we mean? That Kelly. Always kidding…

 

Movie Stars Parade. July 1947 Tap Happy.

Gene Kelly’s got his heart in his feet. Even when it comes to his four-year-old daughter Kerry, as you could see that day he came home from the studio and found the black-haired beauty with a garden hose in her hands, squirting away. “Daddy,” she shrilled, “There’s a storm at sea and those are all my boats!”

Kelly dashed for the water hose and his daughter. The love lamp in his heart blazed up and set fire to the sharp words he keeps stored under his tongue. “Kerry,” he said, “you can burn down the house, you can stick nails in my tires, you can feed butter to the dog – but don’t use my dancing shoes for boats! DON’T USE – “

Kerry turned away to find some butter and the dog, and Gene bent to pick up the shoes.

 

Pittsburgh Post Gazette. October 22nd 1948

Little Kerry Kelly, Gene Kelly’s daughter, visited her father at MGM the other day and after watching him do a scene with Esther Williams in Take Me Out To The Ball Game, Gene took her over to the Big Jack sound stage and introduced her to Wally Beery. “Honey do you know who I am?” Beery asked. “I’m the greatest dancer in the world.” “Oh, I don’t think so,” she said solemnly, shaking her head, “my daddy is.” The Kellys have her well trained all right.

 

St.Petersburg Times. November 13th 1948

…Love this item about the Gene Kellys who were practicing nursery songs with their young daughter. Asked to sing Rockabye Baby, she warbled: “Rockabye Baby, on the tree top…Down came baby, cradle and all…BOINNNNG!”

  

Motion Picture 1949. Betsy Blair:

Kerry came home from school one day wearing a quite new dress and a woeful expression. Gene asked her what was wrong. “The dress is too short”, she told him sadly. “Aw, g’wan wid ya, ‘tis not,” Gene kidded her. “Looks fine.”

Said Kerry gravely, “Please let me tell you daddy, that the girls in our class know all about the ‘New Look’." Gene realised at once that this was real, this was earnest. “Fetch me the scissors,” he told her. “Let’s let ‘er down.”

 

Movieland. July 1949

The Kellys have seen to it that Kerry maintains a very good sense of values about her place in the scheme of things.

A few years ago, for example, Gene caught Kerry bragging about her picture which had appeared in a fan magazine. In order to protect Kerry from getting spoiled, he immediately issued an order. “No more home layouts for the magazines.”

The publicity boys yelled at that. “Think of your publicity,” they cautioned Gene. “It’ll drop to nothing.”

“I’m thinking of my kid,” Gene said.

 

Los Angeles Times. October 9th 1949. Hedda Hopper.

“As far as subject matter, I don’t think we’ve even started exploiting certain fields. Specifically I can mention history and education. We’ve done practically nothing in making films to supplement teaching routines in school.

“One of my pet projects is to direct a series of films for children between the ages of 4 and 10. Except for occasional cartoons, they have almost nothing in the way of film fare. I’ve studied the reactions of Kerry, my 6-year-old daughter, to pictures and learned a great deal. In breaking her in, I showed her the dance routines from Anchors Aweigh. She enjoyed them.

“Then I took her to see The Three Musketeers. I thought she’d get a laugh out of seeing papa in a wig and curly moustache. She did, but when the bad men began chasing papa she became almost hysterical and we had to leave the theatre. Not even my presence by her side could reassure her that I was in no danger.

“About two weeks ago some friends took Kerry to see The Wizard Of Oz, which is supposed to be a child’s picture. Last night she woke up terrified, thinking that the winged monkeys were after her. The graphic quality of the screen medium could be turned to advantage if we made films especially for children.”

 

Source unknown:

The Gene Kelly's daughter, Kerry, disagreed with Wallace Beery when he jokingly told her he was the world's greatest dancer. “I don't think so,” she said seriously. “My daddy is.”

 

LA Examiner. April 12th 1950

I was formally introduced to miss Carrie Kelly, daughter of Gene Kelly. She was at the Church of the Good Shepherd with her father. I said, “Isn't that a new hat?” She said “Yes.”...Gene pointed to his dilapidated chapeau and said “Papa didn't get a new hat though.”

 

Deseret News. January 19th 1952

Too bad Gene Kelly was in Paris for Father’s Night at the PTA meeting in the Beverley Hills Hawthorne School. George Seaton, in charge of the fathers. Put on a quiz show of Pops versus Offspring. Take it from me, never engage in verbal combat with little Kerry Kelly. She slaughtered the opposition.

 

 Modern Screen December 1952

American In London

Kerry Kelly is a delightful child, according to any standard. She is that appealing creature, a shy, well-mannered little girl who is interested in others. Londoners often see Kerry and her mother at London Bridge, the Tower, Westminster or other points of local pride. Kerry looks into all of them, then she writes full and interesting letters to her many friends at home in California, and her Parisian schoolmates. She learned to speak and write French beautifully last year. It was her first experience with a private school. At home she attends the neighborhood public school. This year she will again attend private school here in England, but the exact one hasn’t yet been chosen.

 

Beaver County Times March 4th 2002

By Doug Nye

As good as Gene Kelly was as a performer, he was just as spectacular as a father, says daughter Kerry Kelly Novick.

“He was a very involved and wonderful parent. I remember a lot of trips to the mountains where we would go fishing and do some climbing. He would take me roller skating and skiing…There were games like charades and there was volleyball and baseball. He played them all to win. He was a complete athlete who was able to pick up any sport at any age.”

…Unlike some kids of famous stars, Kerry realised at an early age just what her father did and the impact it had.

“I always understood what he did because I saw him practicing routines at the house. I often would go to the studio with him and be there on the set and have lunch at the commissary.”

One of her fondest memories is the making of Singin’ in the Rain and Kelly’s co-star Debbie Reynolds.

“She let me come with her on a cookout trip. I was 8 years old and thought that was so great.”

And what favorite movie memories does Novick have of her dad?

“Oh, there are bits and pieces of a lot of films, but my most complete favorite is It’s Always Fair Weather  and I also like Inherit The Wind. That allowed dad to play a different kind of character.”

 

 

Modern Screen November 1955

Gene and Betsy have worked out a most wonderful operations program involving daughter Kerry. When Betsy works, Gene is in charge of the girl and vice versa; so that over the years Kerry has gotten to know each parent exceedingly well. In most households the father is relatively unknown to his offspring but Kerry considers Gene and Betsy her closest friends. Career or no career they have never neglected the child and have always insisted that she be in the company of at least one parent.

 

 Hartford Courant. July 21st 1964

Gene Kelly’s pretty new daughter, Brigit, is progressing beautifully, so Gene now admits that, for a while, her survival was touch and go.

 

Pittsburgh Post Gazette. February 21st 1967

Like most parents Kelly feels suitable children’s fare on TV is inadequate, and he is a little surprised NBC went for his fairy tale. [Jack and the Beanstalk].

“Since this is an advertising medium, I can see why sponsors shy away from educational children’s shows,” said the entertainer, and I understand the reasons for all the kids’ cartoons, but it’s the easy way out, and some of those cartoons are too violent for the 3 to 7 year-old group.”

Informed of a suitable Saturday morning animal program, Kelly smiled and said, my kids are not going to look at the set on a Saturday morning, they’re going to be outdoors.”

 

American Way. June 1984

On raising Tim and Bridget alone: “I don't think I had any choice. I never felt sorry for myself. It was a very tough job, but it made me appreciate the woman's role in the house. Anyway, sing no sad songs for me.”