Last night I had the pleasure of attending a presentation at the Detroit Opera House on the life and career of Gene Kelly. The event was a part of a series on dance in film. But this wasn’t just any ordinary presentation; it was given by someone very near and dear to Gene — his eldest daughter, Kerry Kelly Novick. For about two hours, Kerry shared memories and stories about her father, showed clips from some of his movies, and took questions from an enthusiastic audience.
The patrons came up with excellent questions about Gene Kelly, from his height — 5 feet, 8¾ inches and “he was serious about those three quarters of an inch” — to his political activism and how it influenced his work (e.g., he refused to make The Pirate (1948) unless the Nicholas Brothers could be in it). And there was the expected question of whether or not Gene had a favorite dance partner. From my research, Gene was always very tactful about answering that question. Kerry was as well, saying that he always picked his dance partners based on the style of dance the scene called for. And although she did mention that he particularly enjoyed working with highly trained dancers, she said that even they came with their own set of challenges.
Ever wonder what Gene did to stay in shape when he was in between movies? Surprisingly, he didn’t have a set exercise routine. He would play various sports, but that was pretty much it. According to Kerry, “He was blessed with the best metabolism in the world.” He would gain a little bit of weight when he wasn’t working on a movie, but as soon as he went into rehearsals, it dropped right off again.
When asked about her father’s friendship with Fred Astaire, she pointed out something that I didn’t know about Easter Parade (1948). Like many fans, I knew Gene was originally supposed to star in the musical with Judy Garland but because he broke his ankle, the part went to Astaire. What I didn’t know is that before Gene broke his ankle, he had choreographed the first dance number and they kept his choreography for that scene. So in Easter Parade, you can see Fred Astaire doing Gene Kelly’s choreography, which is something I’m going to have to watch for next time I see that movie.
Kerry also had plenty of childhood memories to discuss. She talked about how after dinner every night, she would choose a topic and she and her father would read about it together in the encyclopedia. When asked if she ever considered getting into the film industry, she mentioned briefly wanting to be a set designer, but she knew pretty early on that she was interested in psychology. Earlier in the evening, while introducing “The Mexican Hat Dance” number from Anchors Aweigh (1945), she said that she really wanted to play the little girl but wasn’t allowed to because she couldn’t pass as a Mexican.
One person asked if Kerry had a favorite memory of visiting her father’s sets and she said that during the production of Singin’ in the Rain (1952), she found it interesting to see adults learning new things. “When you’re a kid, you tend to think that adults just know everything,” she informed us. So by going to the set and seeing Debbie Reynolds working so hard to learn the dances, it showed her that nobody ever just knows everything and that it’s important to keep learning new things.
Overall, the evening was truly wonderful. Kerry was nice, approachable, and witty, and I’m thrilled to have had the opportunity to hear more about Gene from someone who was so close to him. (Image at right: Kerry Kelly Novick with her husband, Jack Novick. More about them, their books on child psychology, and their Ann Arbor preschool here.)