By Declan Fitzwilliam
Gene Kelly, originally christened Eugene Curran Kelly, was born on 23rd August 1912 in East Liberty, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Although he was an American, he was later granted Irish citizenship. His father was born in Peterborough, Canada; his grandfather was an immigrant from Derry. “Gene Kelly was proud of his Irish roots,” his wife Patricia Ward Kelly once remarked.
When Gene was eight his mother enrolled him and his brother James in dance classes. They formed a popular vaudeville act “The Five Kellys” creating original dance routines, to win prize money in local talent contests.
In 1931 Gene enrolled in the University of Pittsburgh. When the family opened a dance studio in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh in 1932 they renamed it the “Gene Kelly School of Dance” where Gene was a teacher. In 1937 he moved to New York City to find work as a choreographer. The following year he was working as a dancer in Cole Porter’s brilliant production “Leave it to me”. His first major breakthrough came in October 1939 when he danced his own choreography in “The Time of Your Life”. Then, in 1940, he secured the lead role in Rodgers and Hart’s smash hit “Pal Joey” which propelled him to stardom.
Throughout his phenomenal dancing career Gene Kelly was totally committed to long hours of rehearsing and extremely hard work. “Gene was easy-going, as long as you knew exactly what you were doing,” Johnny Green, Head of Music at MGM recalls. “If you wanted to play on his team, you’d better like hard work. He isn’t cruel, but he is tough.”
Gene Kelly’s first film was “For Me and My Gal” (1942) in which he starred with Judy Garland. But it was his vibrant, breath-taking dancing in “An American in Paris” (1951) and “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952) that made him a star and ultimately a household name. In these classic Hollywood movies he was co-director, lead star and choreographer. Listed as one of the best ten films of all time “Singin’ in the Rain” is described as ‘a masterpiece of the classic Hollywood musical’.
The extremely talented Gene Kelly had an original and truly captivating style of dancing. “I don’t have a name for my type of dancing,” he said. “I’ve borrowed from modern dance, ballet and American folk dance. It’s an Irish quality, which is a good quality for a male dancer to have.”
Sadly, during the late 1980s Gene Kelly’s health declined. In 1995 he suffered a severe stroke and died in Beverly Hills, California on 2nd February 1996.
He was 83.