An Evening With Kerry Kelly Novick

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.)

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  • Thank you so much!!! A wonderful story!

  • Jennifer Welsh

    I’m not sure how I missed this story when it was initially posted, but it was an enjoyable little read. I too had never heard that for the first dance number, Fred is doing Gene’s choreography. Do you know exactly which number that is? The “first dance number” could mean the first one to appear in the film, or it could simply be the first one they filmed. If it’s the latter and not the former, there is really no way to know which one is Gene’s… unless somehow we can tell from the movements themselves. Seems possible, except that Fred’s style is so different that it may not be obvious.

    Also, I’m just throwing this out here in case anyone knows: do we know for sure exactly how the ankle was broken? I have read many different accounts over the years. The one most often cited now was that he stamped his foot during a volleyball game. The tvtropes.org site goes so far as to say he was frustrated with some of his fellow players for not taking the game seriously enough. I’ve read a lot of Kelly bios over the years, but it has been a while, so if this is specifically mentioned somewhere I’ve forgotten. I’d be interested in seeing the original source for this version of the story.

    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/GeneKelly

    • Hi, Jennifer. The dance number in question was the Drum Crazy number. I’m sorry, I should have clarified that better.

  • Very interesting, indeed. However, I have to say I can’t see anything at all of Gene’s choreography in the ‘Drum Crazy’ number, and I’ve watched it a thousand times over the years. The twirling of the drumsticks; banging the drum with his head and bouncing the drumsticks off the floor; the little jumps from side to side… It’s all just so quintessentially Fred. Gene incorporated surrounding props into his routines, as Fred does here, but there’s a goofiness to the number and, true, Gene could be goofy, too, but not in his numbers with kids. I know the two men had enormous respect for each other, but I find it somewhat incredulous that Fred would have retained Gene’s choreography, given how completely different their styles and general approach to dancing were.

    You have to give credence to the story, naturally, but I defy anybody to find anything of Gene’s in that number.

    I attended an evening with Patricia Ward Kelly some years ago, but I found that rather cold and uninspired. This sounds like it was a lovely and warm evening.

  • I’ve also heard that about “Drum Crazy,” but I cannot remember from where. I thought Gene said it in a recorded interview. Will have to do some searching…

    Re: the broken ankle, Kerry mentions it in her interview on Icons Radio, which you can download from iTunes. I’m guessing her story is accurate?

  • Sue

    I met Kerry when I went to London to hear Betsy and to see an outdoor showing of SITR a few years ago. Kerry was a surprise addition to the session. She told us that some of the choreography for Easter Parade had
    already been set, I remember her talking about the drum number with the little boy (forgive me, I only saw Easter Parade once so my knowledge is sketchy.)She said Fred hadto do that number as it was because it would have taken too long to reset it. The numbers which had not yet been done were of course choreogarphed by Hermes Pan. She commented that the film is an ideal showcase demonstrating how different Gene and Fred were. She suggested that Fred dancing to Gene’s choreogaraphy did not really work.

    • Ah, so maybe I also heard that story via Kerry on Icons Radio (and not via an interview with Gene)–sounds like the exact same tale to me. Thanks, Sue! 🙂

  • I’d love to know if anybody else can find evidence of Gene’s choreography in ‘Easter Parade?’ It’s not in the numbers with Fred and Ann Miller, of that I am quite sure. So, what? ‘Couple of Swells?’ ‘I Love a Piano?’ ‘Steppin’ Out With My Baby?’

    It would be great to hear a convincing case.

    Anyone?

    • From I what I recall, only “Drum Crazy” had been choreographed for Gene (it was to be shot first, I think). All the other numbers in the film were Fred’s et al. Make sense?

      • Not really. Can you see anything of Gene in the choreography for that number?

        • Just watched on YouTube: http://youtu.be/wTiEJqZMW7E

          Actually, yes, I see Gene in there. With the exception of the last minute — where Astaire’s feet are lighter (his usual gliding across the floor, as it were) — most of the routine is heavy on the lower body, which is Kelly’s style. Watch him with those bass drums and the bits right around that, for example. At least that’s what I see. 🙂

          • And the twirling of the drum sticks? The little leaps? The banging of the drum with his head? The kicking of the counter and pretending the foot is hurt? Classic Fred. No offence to Mrs Kelly Novick, but I don’t buy any of it.

        • Jennifer Welsh

          I have seen it before, of course, but it had been some years, so I looked at it as well. I agree that the choreography seems to have more of Fred than Gene in it, but I think, given that Fred is doing the steps, that it’s really difficult to distill the steps down to their essence and separate them from the dancer. If we believe Kerry Kelly Novick, as I am inclined to do, then it seems that we have here is a case of Fred interpreting the choreography and putting his own stamp on it. I don’t think that is too great a leap. Why couldn’t Fred have just added in a few little riffs of his own? The movement is Kellyesque in some spots, too, as Kelli has pointed out (at 2:12, 3:34, 3:46…). And let’s not forget the times Gene did play with props (the “Mexican Hat Dance” number from ANCHORS AWEIGH comes to mind).

          Fred’s body is so different from Gene’s that even when they are doing the exact same steps (cf. “The Babbitt and the Bromide”) though don’t really look like they are. I think that’s what’s happening here. Gene pretty much always looks low and earthy when he dances, and Fred light and airy.

          I also think that this is a perfect vehicle for Fred, because he had a greater sense of rhythm – or at least his sense of rhythm outwardly manifests itself to a greater degree. He really accentuated a song with the sounds of his feet. Gene was more interested in developing the character than in the song and the rhythm.

  • Kathy Grenfell

    I am watching Singin in the Rain and enjoying every minute of it. I love Gene Kelly movies. And loved his style of Dance. My favorite is when he is dancing with Jerry the Mouse. love it. There is no one like him and never will be.

  • Sweet Sue

    Marc Orr, have you seen Gene Kelly’s Mexican Hat Dance in “Anchors Aweigh?”
    Kelly plays with all kinds of props, including candles using them as a violin and makes use of masks, too.
    He also juggles clay pottery with his feet!
    Did you ever catch his choreography for Prehistoric Man in “On The Town?”
    I’m not buying that you have actually watched any of his movies.