Patricia Ward Kelly, widow of legendary entertainer Gene Kelly, says her husband emerged from the Great Depression angry at how his fellow Americans had suffered during the financial crisis.
He could have turned his back on his country. Instead, he celebrated its greatness the best way he knew how. Kelly helped create a uniquely American form of dance that still resonates–and inspires young dancers–today.
Kelly says the Singin’ in the Rain star eschewed European aesthetics, marked by ballroom dancing on polished floors. He sought to mimic how an American male moved, choosing popular songs from the era over European-style percussive beats as his soundtrack. The hockey fanatic brought that sport’s kinetic grace to his dance moves, ushering in a masculine, unmistakable brand of dance that remains relevant today.
Kelly’s widow brings her late husband’s career into sharp focus with Gene Kelly: The Legacy: An Evening with Patricia Ward Kelly, plays at 7 p.m. Nov. 12 at The Elaine Wolf Theatre in Denver after successful stops in other parts of the country including The Film Society of Lincoln Center. The show features rare footage of the incomparable entertainer, audio recordings and memorabilia along with his singular approach to capturing dance on screen.
Kelly, a film historian and biographer, created the legacy tribute last year to honor her husband’s 100th birthday.
“He was so specific about how he wished to be remembered … I crafted the show based on that,” says Kelly, who met the Hollywood icon in 1985 and married him in 1990. “He said he’d like to be remembered for changing the look of dance on film … and for creating a particularly American style of dance.”
Audiences of all ages have seen Kelly’s tribute performance, something she says debunks the notion that today’s generation cares more about “twerking” than a dancer who didn’t live long enough to see viral videos.
“People say, ‘oh young people don’t have an attention span,'” she says. “But if they’re exposed to it, they get it. Gene is so contemporary, he doesn’t look dated … young people are yearning for something like this.”
She says today’s entertainment channels don’t trust young audiences like her husband did. His hunger for perfection was a show of respect for his audience.
Kelly’s husband was a true movie star, an immense talent who connected with audiences over decades. Today’s A-listers rarely sustain that relationship with the American public, and Kelly suggests one reason why.
Stars from the dancer’s era received a modicum of protection from the major studios, and in return those companies gently demanded a level of decorum from their biggest talents.
“Gene was very respectful of that. When he went out, he knew eyes were on him. You behave a certain way,” she says.
Today’s Hollywood system is also obsessed with capturing the current pop culture zeitgeist. As a result, some films appear dated a few years after their theatrical windows.
Kelly says her husband never stopped looking ahead while making movies.
“He said to me the real challenge is to make something contemporary and yet make it timeless,” she says. “He had an extraordinary ability to know what timeless was.”