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Up Close and Personal With Gene Kelly

The Hollywood icon's wife celebrates his life and legacy in a new show coming to San Diego
Gene Kelly in Singin' in the Rain

By Kimberly Cunningham

See It!

Gene Kelly: The Legacy
Balboa Theatre,
April 15, 2 p.m.

Also: Kelly will introduce screenings of Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris at Cinema at the Balboa, April 2, 2 p.m. and 5 p.m.

Patricia Ward Kelly, wife of the inimitable Gene Kelly, has made it her mission to preserve her husband’s memory. This month she brings a unique show, Gene Kelly: The Legacy, to the Balboa Theatre. Weaving personal stories between popular and rare film clips, Kelly offers fans a behind-the-scenes look at one of Hollywood’s most beloved icons. Here, she opens up about the passion project, movie musicals, and Gene Kelly’s singular style.

On Gene Kelly becoming “Gene Kelly”…

The joke is that he realized girls liked a boy who could dance, so he ended up going to dancing school on his own to try to pick up extra things. He was an acrobat, he was a gymnast, and he could walk a tightrope. His style of dancing came out of sports. And even though he never really wanted to be a dancer, he ultimately studied very intensely all forms of dance. He was a classically trained ballet dancer, he was a trained Spanish dancer, he picked up jazz dancing, even though at that time it wasn’t even really taught. He was like a little sponge.

On his effortless style…

There is this great athleticism and masculinity, but he’s terribly graceful and beautiful. It’s this wonderful contradiction, in a sense, of tough and tender, and grace and masculinity, words that often don’t go together, but Gene thought they should.

On the state of movie musicals today…

They are very, very expensive to make; I think that’s part of the problem. They basically had a repertoire company at MGM, so everybody was under one roof—the costume designers, the writers, the musicians, the choreographer, the director. Nowadays, to gather that kind of talent for the amount of time you need, it’s virtually impossible. So people resort to re-creating things that have already been done onstage, instead of creating new work. But I think audiences are yearning for great stories and great songs, music that you remember the next day, that kind of sticks with you. They are yearning for pictures with a heart.

On La La Land

La La Land was very daring in that it was a new concept, new script, new music, and that the director—who’s a good friend of mine—essentially created a kind of MGM. He rented a big warehouse out in the valley and brought all these people under the same roof and kept them working together, so that they would screen things and watch and overlap. I am hopeful that La La Land will turn the tide, that investors will begin to put money into more works that are that inventive.

Up Close and Personal With Gene Kelly

Up Close and Personal With Gene Kelly

Patricia Ward Kelly and Gene Kelly

On Ryan Gosling…

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, and [choreographer] Mandy Moore, and [director] Damien Chazelle all came here to the house to see Gene’s things. And were terribly respectful of Gene and Gene’s work and of his colleagues. The one caution I gave was to not try to imitate work. I think there were multiple nods to Gene throughout La La Land, but you never get that cringe feeling, like, Ew, he’s trying to be Gene Kelly. I think the thing about Ryan that’s similar to Gene is that often it doesn’t even appear like he’s acting, because he’s so believable as this regular guy. The subtleties and nuances are really important.

On preserving a legacy…

It started officially for what would have been his 100th birthday in 2012. The Academy usually does what they call “a tribute to the legends at 100.” I approached them about creating something. I had spent over a decade recording him. And they let me do it, and let me perform it the first night. It went to Lincoln Center after that. And from there it just kind of grew.

On getting personal…

I weave stories in between film clips, the things he shared with me, not only the behind-the-scenes of how things were done but how he felt about them. He used to sing to me at night, and that was often how he revealed the tenderest parts of his life. If it got close to the bone, he would resort to song lyrics to try to explain a feeling, and I have some very rare recordings that are really powerful. People have not heard that kind of raw voice of his. I also have some of his belongings onstage, and I go into the end of his life, and the aftermath, how you begin to deal with grief and loss.

On the three questions she is always asked…

How did we meet? Are you a dancer? And did you dance with Gene? I answer all three of those in the show. As a teaser, I’ll just say: I was 26 years old; he was 73. And I didn’t know who he was!

Up Close and Personal With Gene Kelly

Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain

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