A Birthday Present for RFK

October 14, 2012 § 1 Comment

With the release of the new HBO documentary “Ethel,” there has been much in the press lately about Gene being a birthday present for Ethel Kennedy.

Lou Lumenick reported the episode in a January 19, 2012 article for the NY Post, titled “Ethel Kennedy’s starry birthday surprise from RFK,” and quoted son Joseph Kennedy from the film: “At one point, Daddy and Uncle Steve [Smith] went outside to a car, and they pulled out a guy who was wearing a tuxedo and wrapped up all in ribbons with a big pink bow. They laid the guy down at Mom’s feet.’’ According to Kennedy and Lumenick, when Ethel Kennedy unwrapped him, it was legendary dancer Gene Kelly. “He grabbed Mommy and danced her around the floor,’’ Joseph Kennedy continued. “It was a birthday present she would never forget.’’

According to Gene, he was a present for Robert Kennedy not for Ethel. As Gene told me in an interview I recorded back in 1988, “It was Robert Kennedy’s birthday and Ethel, his wife, knew that he and I had become fast friends. He didn’t know I was in the east—in New York City, to be exact. She called me there and asked if I would come down to his birthday party. She said, “What kind of gag can we do?” because it would be a big surprise for him. We figured out together—I don’t know whose idea it was—that I would come as his ‘present.’ We bought a huge amount of cellophane and a lot of red ribbon and she sent the car up with their big, black chauffeur, who’d been with the group for years and was strong. He was like a football tackle or guard. He could lift a car if he needed to. And just as we got about fifty feet away from the turn-off into the house at the end of the gates, he came back and we wrapped that whole cellophane around me and he tied me up like a bundle and drove up to the front door. And then he picked me up in his arms and walked me in. There were all these people: Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and David Brinkley. He brought me into the center and he said, “Happy Birthday to you,” and he set me down on Bobby Kennedy’s lap. Of course Bobby was not only breaking up with laughter, but he ripped off the cellophane to be sure I didn’t smother. I stood up then and I did a little quick dance and hugged him and that was his birthday present. We just did silly things like that.”

The date was November 20, 1963. Gene spent the night at “Hickory Hill,” the Kennedy’s residence at 4700 Chain Bridge Road in McLean, Virginia. He and the Attorney General stayed up late, talking into the early hours of the morning. Gene returned to New York on November 21. The next day, he was rehearsing a number he was to perform at a surprise party for Jackie Gleason that night when he learned the news that his friend President John F. Kennedy had been shot. He caught a flight home to California hours later. As he said to the author Sam Summerlin, “All we did was watch television and mourn.”


Gene and Popular Music

September 21, 2012 § 1 Comment

Several people on Gene Kelly The Legacy Facebook site have asked me to comment about Gene and popular music, so I thought I would do it here.

Gene wanted to break with European tradition and create a particularly American form of dance. He studied with the modern dancers Martha Graham, Charles Weidman & Doris Humphrey in NY. He appreciated that they, too, were breaking with the past, but they were dancing to percussive beats and he wanted to dance to the music of his youth: Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart. And to find the movement that fit the American male, he turned to the broad, open steps of sports, like hockey and baseball. Gene liked little more than to sit in a piano bar late at night, listening to songs like “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “Stardust,” “Autumn Leaves.” He revered the songwriters and the songs provided a kind of playbook for many important moments in his life. On the stereo at night, we would listen to the Nat King Cole Trio, Frank Sinatra (especially the Capital Years), Lee Wiley, and Gene would describe the phrasing, the arrangements, why the sounds were so exceptional. It was an amazing experience and I was fortunate that it was my “job” to write it all down.

Gene was very interested in all types of music and actively kept abreast of what was new and “hot.” Whenever the LA Times critic Robert Heilburn published his list of the most popular recordings, Gene cut it from the paper and sent me to Tower Records to buy copies of each album (actually cassette tapes back then!). I remember in particular picking up copies of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Prince’s Purple Rain, Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, Janet Jackson’s Control, Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run and Born in the U.S.A. He would listen to them all. Gene always said that dance followed music, so he wanted to know what would be influencing the new styles of dance. He said, “Styles change, things change. When Elvis and the Beatles came in, Astaire and I went out. They had a whole new kind of music and a whole new kind of youth following. Television was in and the first mass media was not the motion pictures. It changed to television.”

Gene often wondered if succeeding generations would experience what he did with the popular songs of his youth. Would people, for example, hear “Purple Rain” and think back to a particular moment in their lives. He felt that things like Sgt. Pepper’s would resonate, as would Dylan and Presley. But he thought much would be unmemorable. “Because of the fantastic telecommunications of the present day, the mind is over crowded,” he said. Things don’t—cannot—stand up the way they did. You cannot have these isolated moments—being out on a boat on a lake late at night and hearing a song played on a ukulele—badly—way off on the shore and getting very misty-eyed.”

The Moon

August 26, 2012 § 1 Comment

 Just one of those fabulous flights
A trip to the moon on gossamer wings

Cole Porter, Jubilee 1935

Unlike most people, Gene was not happy that men walked on the moon. Even though his buddy John Kennedy had spearheaded the remarkable campaign, it didn’t appeal to Gene. In his mind, “the moon was a thing of romance that you could point out to your girl.” As he said to me one night back in 1987: “I was the saddest guy in the world when they landed on the moon. There went years of romance—not just with girls but moonlight walks and nights alone in the desert.”

People often ask me if Gene was romantic and it surprises me because to me he was the epitome of romance. And the moon figured in this with us as well. Gene frequently had trouble sleeping and would stay up much of the night. On evenings when the moon was full, he would wake me and take me out onto the balcony so we could enjoy the moon together as it hung in the sky over the palm trees next door.

Editing in the Can

August 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

I have appeared on several panels over the years and I am always amazed when I hear participants say that young people don’t have any attention span and that you need to “dumb” things down for them and make the images hyper-kinetic. I speak in a lot of schools and that has never been my experience. When I show clips from Gene’s movies, the students are glued to the screen and rarely miss even some of the most subtle details. In Glasgow, for example, a group of film students were amazed, thinking that there were no cuts in the dance numbers. I explained that, in fact, there are cuts, but very few and that whenever possible Gene cut on a turn. We then reran the film and they had a new appreciation for his use of the camera in capturing dance and the way that he “edited in the can,” as he described it.

When I asked him how long it took to edit the American in Paris Ballet, he said, “It was practically edited in the camera, so there wasn’t much editing….two weeks in all. I didn’t shoot the stuff and then give it to an editor to piece together or pick things out….Each section was fitted in where it was supposed to go and the editor had no choice of which takes to use or which angles. They were all fitted together in the shooting.” Gene usually shot with one camera and crafted the numbers so the editing was based upon musical beats. It was his way of controlling the end result. As he said, “If you do one take and it ended on a certain musical beat, it only fits with a certain piece of music. The music was the big guiding light…”

When I received the following note from a woman named Jeannine Gibson yesterday, it confirmed my own experience and made me smile. She gave me permission to share her post, so I thought I would do just that:

“After viewing several seasons of So You Think You Can Dance, and then seeing you on this week’s broadcast when the TOP 10 dancers paid tribute to Gene, I was reminded that my 13 year old daughter had asked to watch An American in Paris a while ago.  So, I borrowed the DVD from the library and just last night my three children and I sat down to watch it, them for the very first time.  My eight-year-old daughter said frequently through the film, “I just can’t stop smiling Mommy” (nor could I!) and my typically hyper 11-year-old son sat still for the entire length of the movie—quite an accomplishment for the “Wii-Xbox” generation he represents.  They laughed again and again and were thoroughly entertained throughout.   I was re-mesmerized by Gene Kelly’s flawless execution and they were able to see why no one to this day approaches his level of talent and how many current and past entertainers get their inspiration from him.  They asked to see Singin’ in the Rain next.  Can’t wait for our follow-up musical movie night!  Just wanted you to know how pleased I am that they are being exposed to Gene’s genius and their very positive reaction of their first foray into his body of work.”




August 25, 2012 § 2 Comments

I found myself thinking of the word tristesse several times yesterday, as I moved from the glorious outpouring from people celebrating Gene and his centenary all around the world to an absence that I felt inside. Gene frequently used the French noun to describe a particular way that he was feeling. More than just sadness, it revealed a deeper kind of sorrow; a melancholy, really. It reflected his precision and his determination to find just the right word or phrase to express himself as fluidly and artfully as possible. Gene had a tremendous facility with language. With great adeptness, he could swing from Latin to Yiddish to French, even to the street slang of his young. It was a colorful mix, but never gratuitous. It was simply the way he thought and spoke, the way he saw the world. I realized that with tristesse I had looped back to our beginnings, to our early shared love of words. Perhaps not so unconsciously I had found a way to connect with him after all.

Happy Birthday Gene!

August 23, 2012 § 4 Comments

Though Gene would have considered 100 “just another round number” and would have “run for the hills” to avoid all of the hoopla, as we did, in his words, when he turned eighty back in 1992, I must say that I have been serially impressed by the many fine assessments of his career that have been written over the past few months and by the very moving and insightful commentary from those inspired and touched by his work. I have heard from people of all ages—young dancers just starting out and older folks who took class at The Gene Kelly Studio of the Dance in Pittsburgh. I have heard from people seeing Singin’ in the Rain on the big screen for the first time and from those who have lost count. I never tire of reading and hearing these personal accounts. I watched the taping of Jakob Karr performing a silhouette number on “So You Think You Can Dance” last night and could not stop thinking about Gene. The nuances of Jakob’s movement—the perfect balletic pointing of his toes, the graceful athleticism and his wit and charm reminded me of Gene in so many ways and so many numbers, including “Nina” in The Pirate. It was nice to see the resonance, but there was also a kind of bittersweet quality to it. As the number progressed, I kept wanting to turn to Gene to get his reaction. And that’s the way I feel much of the time. I wish he were here to share so many things. But since he isn’t, the next best thing is to be able to share so much with you. Thank you all for your graciousness and for your feelings of celebration on this day, August 23, 2012. I am most appreciative. Gene would be as well.