As an actor, dancer, director and choreographer, Gene Kelly excelled on the Broadway stage, the movie screen and behind the lens of a movie camera.
The Pittsburgh native moved with muscular grace and his innovative approaches pushed the boundaries of the movie musical. “On the Town,” a 1949 film in which Kelly played a sailor on leave, was the first movie musical to be shot on location. Filming men dancing on the streets of New York City presented many challenges for cast and crew. Whether he danced with a mop, a mouse or Leslie Caron, Kelly thrilled his audiences with a singular, sensational ebullience. In the memorable “Singin’ in the Rain,” his partner was an umbrella as he splashed, skipped and strolled his way into movie history.
He was born Eugene Curran Kelly in East Liberty on Aug. 23, 1912. His mother, Harriet, insisted that all five of her children take music and dance lessons. In the 1930s, during the Depression, he taught at the successful Kelly School of Dance with his brother, Fred.
His big break came in 1940, the year he was cast to play the unscrupulous central character in the Broadway production of “Pal Joey.” A critic for The New York Times observed that Kelly was not only “glib-footed, but he has a feeling for comment and content that give his dancing personal distinction and raise it several notches as a dancing art.”
He arrived in Hollywood in 1941, where David O. Selznick had signed him to an exclusive contract. A 1944 film called “Cover Girl” showed Kelly dancing with an ectoplasmic version of himself that represented his character’s conscience. Kelly received sole star billing for “An American in Paris.” In 1951, the movie won eight Academy Awards, including best picture. Kelly received a special Oscar for his contributions to screen choreography.
On Saturday night, the name of this multitalented Pittsburgh native will be invoked often as talented students from 29 schools in Allegheny County take to the stage of the Benedum Center in Downtown’s Cultural District. That’s when the Pittsburgh CLO presents the 23rd annual Gene Kelly Awards, which honors the best in local high school musical theater. Thousands will cheer as exuberant students sing and dance memorable numbers. More than 20 cash and university scholarships will be awarded. Winners of the best actor and best actress award will head to New York on July 1 to represent the Kellys in the National High School Musical Theater Awards.
For those who attend, the Gene Kelly Awards are part high school prom and part pep rally for musical theater. We like to think that Gene Kelly, who died in 1996 at age 83, is there in spirit, tapping his dancing feet and singing joyously, somewhere off stage or even in the rain.