Saturday, August 18, 2012

Honoring Gene Kelly on his 100th: Actor's widow and Pitt plan announcement - Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Thursday marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Gene Kelly, the athletic artist and Pittsburgh native who revolutionized dance on film and often said his fondest desire growing up was to play shortstop for the Pirates. He also was a 1933 University of Pittsburgh graduate, and his alma mater is teaming with his widow, Patricia Ward Kelly, to honor him this year.

In an email last week, Ms. Ward Kelly wrote, "We are working with the University of Pittsburgh to launch major events in August and October."

Pitt spokesman John Harvith said the university "is making celebration plans for the Gene Kelly centennial and expects to make an announcement in the near future."

Kelly, already recognized with a plaque on Pitt's campus, has been honored nationwide throughout 2012.

"Gene Kelly spoke about how Americans are afraid to apply the word 'graceful' to men as if it would diminish their masculinity, but he, himself, was maybe the most graceful man we ever saw on screen, a combination of Willie Mays and Fred Astaire," said Ben Mankiewicz, daytime weekend host of cable network Turner Classic Movies.

"Even if you're not a dance expert, you can sense the boldness of Kelly, the innovation he brought to the art of dancing. ... Far from being merely a dancer, he was on the forefront of expanding how dance could look on screen. It probably had a lot to do with his charm, likability and good looks, but he still manages to make dancing look like what cool guys do. I think we want to know that our movie stars love their jobs, that they think their life is as great as we imagine it is, and that always seemed true of Gene Kelly."

Two July nights at Lincoln Center included films and conversations hosted by Ms. Ward Kelly, who has been on the interview circuit as entertainment outlets line up to pay tribute to Kelly. The Motion Picture Academy of Arts & Sciences presented "A Centennial Tribute to Gene Kelly" at a sold-out Beverly Hills theater May 17, with celebrities including Justin Timberlake, Hugh Jackman and "Glee's" Harry Shum Jr. offering testimonials.

The night was hosted by Ms. Ward Kelly, who 10 days later made her annual visit to Pittsburgh for the Gene Kelly Awards for Excellence in High School Musical Theater, a co-presentation of Pittsburgh CLO and Pitt. The Kellys, established in 1991, became a model for the Nederlander Foundation's national high school awards program and will be featured in the upcoming PBS documentary "Broadway or Bust."

The Kelly Awards represent a lasting tribute to the dancer's legacy in Pittsburgh, filling the Benedum Center with screaming, cheering families, all for the love of musical theater.

For many Pittsburghers who claim the "Singin' in the Rain" and "American in Paris" star as a favorite son, a statue here would be nice, too.

Since his death in 1996, there has been talk about a statue, and a committee, the Gene Kelly Statue Foundation, commissioned a design, and a site at Stanwix Street and Penn Avenue was approved. A cease-and-desist order from Ms. Ward Kelly stopped those plans in 2004, and that seemed to be the end of it.

The last time the Post-Gazette asked the question -- whatever happened to plans for a statue to honor Gene Kelly? -- it was suggested that his 100th birthday might be the time we would see him immortalized.

The PG's Patricia Lowry wrote in 2010 that there was the chance that the statue might still have legs when readers responded positively to a 2009 op-ed piece, titled "I Want My Gene Kelly Statue," by former PG columnist Barbara Cloud. The article said:

"One email came from [Ms. Ward Kelly], who hinted a statue project is in the planning stage but at this point, couldn't discuss it. ... And the clock ticks ever closer to the day some supporters regard as the ideal occasion to honor Mr. Kelly, the centennial anniversary of his birth: Aug. 23, 2012."

A website by Ms. Ward Kelly says, "Gene Kelly the Legacy is coming in 2012." As of Friday, genekellythelegacy.com offered only a link to a Facebook page, where commenters asked about upcoming tributes, and one, Brianna Wielbruda of Canfield, Ohio, summed up the sentiments of many fans. "Pittsburgh needs something for Gene's centennial!" she wrote. "It's his hometown!!"

On Pitt's Oakland campus, there's evidence that Kelly has not been forgotten leading up to the centennial this week. A plaque dedicated in 1987 and located outside the William Pitt Union reads: "After graduating from Pitt, Gene Kelly went on to become a Hollywood legend. His alma mater honors him as an outstanding alumnus and a great artist."

At the movies and on TV

On Wednesday, the eve of the centennial of Gene Kelly's birth, "Singin' in the Rain" will be back on the big screen. Check fathomevents.com for local theaters featuring the Turner Classic Movies event. On Thursday, the TCM "Summer Under the Stars" TV series, with co-hosts Robert Osborne and Patricia Ward Kelly, will feature 24 hours of Mr. Kelly's films.

The TCM TV schedule:

• "For Me and My Gal" (6 a.m.)

• "Anchors Aweigh" (8 a.m.)

• "The Three Musketeers" (10:30 a.m.)

• "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" (1 p.m.)

• "The Pirate" (2:45 p.m.)

• "Invitation to the Dance" (4:30 p.m.)

• "On the Town" (6:15 p.m.)

• "Cover Girl" (8 p.m.)

• "An American in Paris" (above, with Leslie Caron), (10 p.m.)

• "Singin' in the Rain" (midnight)

• "Inherit the Wind" (2 a.m.)

• "Black Hand" (4:15 a.m.)

Sharon Eberson: seberson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1960.

First published on August 19, 2012 at 12:00 am

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