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Gene Kelly

Pittsburgh Dance Instructor becomes Oscar wining star of  "An American in Paris" and "Singin' In the Rain"

Gene Kelly was the leading star in the classic Hollywood movie musicals from the mid 1940s through the late 1950s.  Multi-talented he was a singer, dancer, choreographer actor, film director and producer.  Audiences love his delightful singing, his athletic dancing, his charming good looks, and his likeable characters.  He is credited for reviving movie musicals and redefining dance in films.  Kelly was honored with lifetime achievement awards from the Academy Awards, the Kennedy Center Honors, the Screen Actions Guild, and the American Film Institute. The American Film institute ranks him 15th on their list of “Greatest Male Stars of All Time”.  His most memorable performances include starring roles in Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris, On the Town, and Anchors Aweigh.  Gene was the star and choreographer of the film ‘An American in Paris” which won 8 Oscar awards including best picture and a special Oscar for Gene recognizing his contributions to screen choreography.  Singin’ in the Rain, called "a movie masterpiece" by Vincent Canby of the New York Times, has been voted the most popular movie musical of all time. 

Growing Up in Highland Park

Born Eugene Curran Kelly in Pittsburgh on August 23,  1912, Gene Kelly grew up in on Mellon Street in Highland Park. He attended St. Raphael’s elementary school and was an altar boy at the church.  His Canadian born father James Patrick Joseph Kelly was as sports lover and a sales executive for the Thomas Edison's Columbia Phonograph Company.  Every winter James, who loved hockey, flooded the backyard to make an ice hockey rink for the family. Gene learned to skate at age 5. 

Gene's mother Harriet, who as a hobby performed in local stock productions, made all five of her children take music and dance lessons.  She enrolled the eight year old Gene in dance classes at Blinsky’s School of the Dance on 6th and Penn in downtown Pittsburgh. The Kelly kids Jay, Jim, Gene, Louise, and Fred began performing dance routines around 1921 as "The Five Kellys" at amateur vaudeville nights and charity events. 

After getting in fist fights with neighborhood kids who called him a sissy, Gene quit dancing.  He preferred sports. He played on a men's amateur hockey team age at 14 and dreamed of playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The Kelly's moved from Highland Park to 7514 Kensington Street in the Point Breeze neighborhood near Frick Park in 1924. Gene attended his first year of high school at the Sacred Heart School. 

At age 15 Gene thought dancing would be a good way to meet girls, so he began dancing again. He took dance lessons while also playing on his high school football, baseball and hockey teams.  He also participated in gymnastics.  

Graduating from Peabody High School in 1929 he enrolled at Penn State to study journalism.  With the 1930 stock market crash hurting the Kelly family’s finances, Gene left Penn State planning to cut costs by living at home while studying at the University of Pittsburgh.  He dug ditches, pumped gas, worked as a soda fountain jerk and carpenter's helper, and danced to earn tuition money. Gene and his younger brother Fred devised dance routines and found work dancing in local nightclubs as the “Kelly Brothers”. 

Gene Kelly Studio of Dance

Gene’s mother took a job as a receptionist at Boulton's dance school in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. When the owner Lou Boulton skipped town leaving behind a pile of unpaid bills, Harriet took over the dance school.  She paid the bills and renamed it the "Kelly School of Dance".  Gene at age 19 and his brother Fred became dance instructors.  Gene worked as a dance instructor while he attended studies at Pitt.  He taught tap, toe and ballet.  To learn routines Gene went to night clubs, movie musicals and vaudeville shows. He'd teach them the next day in his classes. With Gene’s growing reputation as a teacher the studio was renamed The "Gene Kelly Studio" of the Dance in 1932.  The Kelly’s opened a second dance school on the main street of Johnstown, Pennsylvania in 1933.  Gene taught at the Johnstown school on weekends.  He continued to teach dance for six years. 

The dance school was a great success, but Gene was not content being a teacher.  He want to be a choreography and director.  Gene wanted to combine the styles of ballet and tap-dance into a new American dance for.  To learn ballet he took classes from ballet masters in Chicago and New York during the summers.  Gene attened classes at Chicago Association of Dancing Masters.  Seeing his talent the school asked him to a few classes.  Gene also read every book that he could find on ballet in English and French.  He practiced constantly.  Putting his skills into practice Gene danced in an choreographed musicals while attending at the University of Pittsburgh. 

Pitt's Cap and Gown Musical Reviews

Gene enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh in 1931 studying economics.  At Pitt he joined the Cap and Gown Club, which staged four times a year at the Stephen Foster Memorial Theater along with an an annual event at the Nixon Theater.  Gene performed in the original musical comedy productions written by members of the Cap and Gown Club.  Completing a Bachelor of Arts in Economics in 1933, Gene then enrolled in the University of Pittsburgh’s Law School.   After two months of study groups and torts Gene decided that he wanted to be an entertainer and dance teacher.  He dropped out of school to pursue his entertainment career full-time teaching at the dance studio and doing performances.  Gene remained a member of Pitt’s Cap and Gown Club serving as its serving as its dance director from 1934 to 1938.  He was the assistant director of their 1936 Nixon Theater show "Out for the Count".  Gene first created his rolling skating dance routine in the Cap and Gown's production of "Tt's Always Fair Weather".  Gene directed the club's 1937 production of "Trailer Ho" at the Nixon and then took the show on the road for performances in Johnstown, Bradford and Erie. In 1938 Gene Kelly choreographed and directed the Cap and Gown show "Pickets Please" at the Nixon.  

In addition to his work with the Cap and Gown Club did choreography for vaudeville and other organizations. Vaudeville acts that passed through Pittsburgh during the 1930’s hired Gene to create dance routines. In 1931 the Rodef Shalom Synagogue hired Kelly to teach dance and stage the annual Kermess show. He kept that position for seven years. Gene continued to perform with his brother. The Kelly Brothers performed in a theater for children at the Chicago World's Fair in 1934

Broadway Stardom

In 1937 at the age of 27 Gene moved to New York City to become a choreographer. Unable to find work on Broadway, he returned to Pittsburgh to be the choreographer of the musical revue “Hold Your Hats” at the Pittsburgh Playhouse in the spring 1938. He also danced in the production.  At the Playhouse, Gene was seen by Broadway choreographed Robert Alton.  Alton brought Gene to Broadway making him a star.

On August 5, 1938 just before his 26th birthday, Gene packed one small suitcase and returned to New York for his first role.  Alton hired Gene for a Cole Porter musical giving him his first dancing role on Broadway in November of 1938 as a chorus boy in "Leave It to Me".  Alton gave Gene a feature singing and dancing role in his next production “One for the Money”.  In 1939 Gene choreographed and danced in in the Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Time of Your Life".  Also in 1939 he choreographed Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe. He danced his way into the heart of cast member Betsy Blair, whom he married in 1941.  Gene became a major star in 1940 with his leading role in Rodgers and Hart's Pal Joey choreographed by Robert Alton.

Movie Musical Superstar

With his rise to stardom, Hollywood called.  His role in Pal Joey captured the interest of Louis B. Mayer and Judy Garland. Gene signed with MGM's David O’Selznick in 1941.  He was cast as Garland's romantic lead in his first movie For Me and My Gal (1942),  His breakout move role was in Anchors Aweigh in 1945.

After a long career as one of the world’s most beloved musical performers Gene Kelly died in 1996.

Singin' In The Rain
The Five Kelly's
The Kelly Brothers
Cap and Gown Club Production 1938
Pal Joey