Gene Kelly’s widow: ‘He used song to reveal intimate parts of his life’

Patricia Kelly at Edinburgh Castle
Patricia Kelly posing at Edinburgh Castle in the stunning violet dress she will wear to host Warner Bros. presents Gene Kelly: A Life in Music

Patricia Kelly, the wife and biographer of legendary dancer, choreographer and director, Gene Kelly, is surrounded by tourists at Edinburgh Castle as she poses in a stunning violet ball gown.

It has been specially crafted by her personal designer Ali Rahimi from Mon Atelier for her new symphonic cinema production honouring the work of her late husband, which is set to premiere in Edinburgh on 13 April and Glasgow on 14 April, with Patricia as host.

People in the crowd whisper ‘Who is she?’ and Patricia admits she has in the past been asked to sign autographs as Annie Lennox.

However, she is quick to set the record straight, striding over to groups of Americans to shake hands with them and ask if they’ve ever heard of Gene Kelly. ‘Oh you have? I’m his wife. I’m in town for a new show about his life’.

Gene Kelly and Patricia Kelly

Gene and Patricia Kelly at the Carousel of Hope Ball in Beverly Hills, 1990.

When people think of Gene Kelly, dancing springs to mind but for Patricia, music is just as important to his legacy. ‘He would use song lyrics to reveal the most intimate parts of his life; he would sing to me at night and that was how he would tell some of his stories,’ says Patricia, who first met Gene in 1985 when he was 73 and she, aged 26, had no idea who he was.

Music is exactly what the new show is about. RSNO at the Movies: Warner Bros. Presents Gene Kelly – A Life in Music tells the stories of Gene as revealed to Patricia over the last ten years of his life, accompanied by The Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

It will feature songs from his classic films such as Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris, Brigadoon and Les Girls as well as songs that were important to him on a personal level.

Gene Kelly with Vincente Minnelli behind the three-strip Technicolor camera shooting the American in Paris Ballet

Gene Kelly with Vincente Minnelli behind the three-strip Technicolor camera shooting the American in Paris Ballet

‘The show promises to offer a sense not just of Gene Kelly the performer, but Gene Kelly the man,’ says Patricia, who has been touring her previous show Gene Kelly: The Legacy, featuring purely film snippets, for the past six years.

Since most of the musical arrangements to MGM’s classic films were destroyed in the 60s, a lot of work had to be done to create the new show.

The music was recrafted by John Wilson, a London-based composer and conductor, and Gene’s voice and tap dancing had to be ‘surgically removed’ to reconstitute the songs. And since most orchestras don’t have saxophonists, new instrumentalists had to be brought in.

Having the show’s premiere in Scotland is fitting given Gene’s own connections with the country. He first visited in 1953 to scout out locations for Brigadoon, staying at Edinburgh’s Caledonian Hotel and Glasgow’s Principal Grand Central Hotel before travelling throughout the Highlands with producer Arthur Freed.

Unfortunately, the film musical genre was beginning to feel the pressures from television, and MGM cut the budget for the film, forcing Gene to make it in a studio instead of on location.

Gene Kelly choreographing dance number in Brigadoon (1954)

Gene Kelly choreographing dance number in Brigadoon (1954)

Gene returned to Scotland in 1956 for the screening of Invitation to the Dance at the Edinburgh Festival, the only film Queen Elizabeth, Princess Margaret and Prince Philip attended.

And interestingly, one of the last projects of Gene’s life was a tribute to Scotland. He had worked closely with American actor Anthony Perkins on a musical about Robert Burns, for which Michael Jackson and David Gest were to produce the music. However, it never came to fruition due to budgetary issues.

‘Gene really regretted it because he really wanted the clans over the hills in a really dramatic dance sequence and he had choreographed the entire picture and had a sword dance planned,’ says Patricia. ‘Gene read all the works of Robert Burns and digested it and had beautiful ideas. It was the literature, the language, the dance.’

Having studied Scottish dance, Gene incorporated elements of this into a number of his films, including the iconic Singin’ in the Rain and this is something that Patricia highlights during the new show.

Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

‘Gene took from everything and he was a classically trained ballet dancer. You’ll see classical ballet, tap dancing, tap dancing on roller skates, you’ll see jazz, and you’ll see combinations. He pulled in whatever he needed to tell a story.’

For Patricia, Gene’s biggest achievement was ‘changing the look of dance on film’ and this is something she continues to promote to honour his memory.

As well as championing dance education in the US, Patricia often hosts dancers and other artists from around the world at her Los Angeles home, where she shares insights about the life and work of her late husband through an intimate tour of the Gene Kelly Archives.

Patricia Ward at the screening of An American in Paris

Patricia Kelly at the screening of An American in Paris at the Turner Classic Film Festival in Los Angeles.

Delighted to see the revival of the musical film genre in recent years with the likes of Hairspray (2007), Mamma Mia! (2008) and Pitch Perfect (2012), Patricia is keen to pass on Gene’s knowledge to today’s stars.

In the run up to the filming of Oscar-winning La La Land (2016), she hosted the film’s lead actors Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone and director Damien Chazelle at her home where she showed them Gene’s original choreography for Singin’ in the Rain.

‘I feel like he’s been sitting on my shoulder and that this is the responsibility he gave me. It’s a real privilege to go around and meet new people and connect with them – it’s pretty phenomenal,’ says Patricia.

‘Gene has been gone 22 years now but he’s still the hottest thing around.’

RSNO at the Movies: Warner Bros. Presents Gene Kelly – A Life in Music will premiere at Usher Hall, Edinburgh on Friday 13 April and on Saturday 14 April at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. For more information, go to www.rsno.org.uk