Did You Really Smoke Cigarettes? An Interview with Gene Kelly

Over the summer I received an unexpected and very exciting email from a fellow admirer and personal friend of Gene Kelly. Cynthia Millen Roberts, a Toledo native (who lives only 20 minutes from me!), dropped me a note after stumbling upon one of my blog posts on Gene. Among other things, she shared with me the following:

Our family and I were personal friends of Gene Kelly, and my kids “interviewed” him in 1991 during one of our visits to his home. He was a brilliant, tender-hearted, wonderful man who had no patience with fools and was never afraid to argue his point. He was always thinking of new ideas. If I can ever add anything to any of your classes about Gene, I would be honored to visit. He deserves the recognition he is clearly receiving in your class.

After my heart stopped palpitating and I gathered my thoughts, I replied to Cindy, asking her if she’d be willing to get together to talk about her experience(s) with the dancer/singer/choreographer/director extraordinaire. To my delight, she agreed. So a couple of weeks ago, we met for an hour and discussed Gene Kelly:

  • how she came to know him (and ultimately his three children and first wife, Betsy Blair),
  • her interpretation of his offscreen persona (interestingly, virtually none of their conversations centered on the film industry),
  • their lengthy conversations about his love for Ireland and the Irish, and on a lighter note,
  • Gene’s immense dislike of vegetables (no asparagus, please!).

In brief, Cindy and her family became acquainted with Gene Kelly via the Make a Wish Foundation. More specifically, in the early 1990s, the young family opened their home to Darren Walsh, a boy from Belfast, Ireland, who was in desperate need of a kidney transplant. According to Cindy, Darren and his host family spent summers watching “old Shirley Temple movies” and “classic film musicals, specifically those featuring Gene Kelly.” So when Darren received a call from the Make a Wish Foundation asking him whom, if anyone, he’d especially like to meet, his answer was “Gene Kelly.”

Phone calls began, travel arrangements were made, and before long, the family including young Darren was on its way to Gene Kelly’s home on Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles. What follows is the (precious) transcript and a couple of pictures from that visit. Special thanks to Cindy, Darren, and her family for allowing me to post them below.

Interview with Gene Kelly, July 1991

Darren Walsh (age 11) of Belfast, interviews Gene Kelly at his home in Beverly Hills. The questions were prepared by Darren and his American host family, Kerry, Kiki and Meaghan Roberts.

GK: So how is school, Darren? What are you studying?

DW: It’s fine. I want to be an actor and I’m in a play about Scrooge at school. I got two parts in it.

GK: I’m proud of you. You’ll make a good actor if you can get two parts in a show.

DW: Thank you, Mr. Kelly. That was nice of you.

GK: I might be going to Ireland next year. Did you ever see County Tipperary and the lake there?

DW: No. I’d love to see it.

GK: It’s the most beautiful place. You’ve got to see it sometime.

DW: I know how you got that scar on your face (pointing to it).

GK: How do you know?

DW: Cindy told me. You fell off of a bicycle.

GK: (laughed) The very first time I tried to ride a two-wheeler.

DW: Did you grow your own mustache and grow your hair long for Three Musketeers?

GK: No, that was just a wig and make-up.

DW: Were the swords real?

GK: Yes, but they had a blunt cover over the tip.

DW: Did you practice sword-fighting a lot?

GK: Yes.

DW: Our favorite part is when you wiggle your bottom during a sword fight. That is SO funny!

GK: (Stands up and demonstrates the wiggle for Darren.)

DW: Did you ever dance with Mary Martin? Kiki wanted to know.

GK: Yes, the first time I was on Broadway, I was in a show with her.

DW: Did you ever see her in Peter Pan? That’s Kiki’s favorite.

GK: Oh, yes.

DW: How come we can’t see the taps on your tap shoes when you’re dancing? We even stop the video and look at the bottom of your shoes and can’t see taps.

GK: Because there are no taps. I danced most of the time on the street and you don’t wear tap shoes on the street. We add the sound of the taps afterward. I do the dance all over again in a studio and they record the taps for the film.

DW: How can you be the director, singer, dancer, actor and choreographer all at the same time in Singin’ in the Rain? That’s amazing to me. Was it very hard to do? Was it hard to be thinking of so many things at the same time?

GK: Yes, it was very, very hard. I had a man behind the camera who helped me. His name was Stanley Donen. We directed many movies together.

DW: When you danced, were there marks on the floor to tell you where you were supposed to be?

GK: Yes, there were little lights on the floor to tell me where I was supposed to go. Everywhere the cameras would go, I had to go, too.

DW: Who taught you Irish dancing? I love how you dance in Take Me Out to the Ballgame.

GK: I learned in Ireland.

DW: How long did it take you to teach Frank Sinatra to dance in that movie?

GK: Not long at all, because Frank and I had been in so many dances together. It took about a month.

DW: I like the part where he knocks you out with the baseball. How did they do it without hurting you?

GK: It was a fake baseball. It was soft.

DW: Also, I love the ‘clamping’.

GK: What’s ‘clamping’?

DW: You don’t remember? In Take Me Out to the Ballgame, you sang (Darren sings) “The Hat Me Dear Old Father Wore.”

GK: (Laughing) Oh, yes. But I call that Irish step dancing. I’m surprised that you know that song.

DW: We Irishmen have to remember these things. (GK laughs loudly.) Could you see Jerry the Mouse when you danced with him in Anchor’s Aweigh?

GK: No.

DW: How did you know where your hands were supposed to be when you held him?

GK: I imagined that there was a little guy about up to my knee who was standing there, and I had to imagine I was dancing with him.

DW: Did you like growing up in a big family?

GK: Yes.

DW: Did your Mom make you do chores?

GK: Yes. Everybody had their turn. One day, someone did the dishes, and the next day, someone made the beds.

DW: Did you have to share with your brothers and sisters?

GK: Yes.

DW: (Quoting Kerry’s note) “Sometimes I don’t like having to share and do work around the house, and having my brothers mess up my room. Did you ever want to be an only child? Sometimes I do.”

GK: No.

DW: Were you the oldest?

GK: No. I was right in the middle.

DW: Oh, I’m the youngest.

GK: (Laughing) Well, I suppose you get off easier than I did!

DW: Did you really smoke cigarettes or was that just pretend? Do you anymore?

GK: Yes, I really smoked.

DW: I’m surprised you did that because you were so fit and healthy.

GK: Well, we really didn’t know what cigarettes would cause in those days. I’m lucky now because I stopped twenty years ago.

According to Cindy, after the interview ended, pictures were taken of Darren and Gene. It took so long at one point that Gene joked, “I could have made a movie by now!” Afterwards, everyone walked into the living room and made their goodbyes.

Darren and Gene hugged one another, and Darren said. “I’ll write to you.” Darren (who is healthy and still lives in Ireland) would write many times and would get many letters in return.

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