Gene Kelly loved to work with children, and his scenes with kids were truly joyous and magic to watch. He had a saying: “If you can get kids to love you, they’ll do anything for you.” Indeed, when you watch the many scenes with children in Kelly’s movies and television productions, it is easy to see why the kids loved him like the Pied Piper.
One of Gene Kelly’s television specials was the 1967 remake of the fairy tale Jack and The Beanstalk. Kelly wrote his own character into the story, but needed a young actor to play the part of Jack. Bobby Riha, a relative newcomer, won the role (below).
In a phone interview from his house in Long Beach, CA, Bobby relayed to me several anecdotes and memories of his time with Gene Kelly. While he had heard of Kelly from his mother, the 8-year-old Riha could not possibly appreciate the star power and legend he would work with for three months.
Bobby was a child actor who worked mostly in the mid-1960s until about 1976. He appeared in numerous television shows and specials including Bewitched, Gunsmoke, Quincy, and Bonanza. He also worked with Debbie Reynolds, Kurt Russell, and other actors of the time.
Bobby starred with Gene in this hour-long special that debuted on NBC Sunday, February 26, 1967. This new version of the old English folktale “Jack the Giant Killer” (1809) was rewritten with Gene Kelly playing a new character, Jeremy Keen, a peddler. Gene Kelly directed, produced, and choreographed this new version that featured a mix of live-action and animation. The animation sequences were produced and directed by William Hannah and Joseph Barbera, with whom Kelly and his frequent co-director Stanley Donen had worked on the Jerry the Mouse sequence in Anchors Aweigh. The music was provided by Jimmy Van Husen and Sammy Cahn with voiceovers by Dick Beals for Bobby Riha and Marni Nixon as Princess Serena.
Bobby or as he is now known Bob Riha Jr., was born in 1958 and lived in New York just prior to his role as Jack. Gene Kelly was casting for the lead in 1966 and had heard of Bobby’s work with Soupy Sales. Just when Gene got to New York to find Bobby, his family had already moved to Los Angeles. Gene looked over hundreds of kids for the role and narrowed it down to a few.
Obviously, the part of Jack had to go to someone able to dance. If he could sing also, that would be a plus. Bobby got the part and met Gene Kelly for the first time. Kelly asked the then 8-year-old actor to enroll in ballet lessons. He also wanted Bobby to wear tights to enable free movement during the dancing rehearsals. Children being children, Bobby shot back at Gene and said, “Only sissies wear tights and take ballet.” Anyone who knows Gene Kelly’s stance on dancing’s being something “for sissies” doesn’t know the anger a statement like this would bring on. But Gene loved kids.
Gene was a staunch proponent of the idea that dancing equated to sports (similar movements, discipline, etc.). Dancing was not, he reiterated throughout his career, an effeminate undertaking. Kelly’s own childhood was the same as Bobby’s as he also wanted to quit dancing after being beaten up and harassed by other boys in his Pittsburgh suburbs. I’m sure he had to take a breath after hearing this brash young man make similar statements while standing up for himself. As Bobby tells it, after their exchange Kelly made a reference to sports being similar to dancing and told Bobby that he would bring in a trampoline to help with working on the various movements that would be needed for some of the animation sequences.
Moreover, Gene told Bobby he would not have to take ballet or wear tights, but he did ask him to find some loose fitting pants to rehearse in. According to Riha, the two used the better part of three months to rehearse the dances, dialogue, and complex aerobatic sequences that would have to be shot in front of a blue screen and later filled in with the animation portions of the show.
Bobby recounted the deep passion Gene had for staging the scenes. Since much of the show was shot with only Gene and Bobby in front of a blue screen, Gene had to get Bobby to envision the yet-to-be-created animated characters and backgrounds. They had to imagine, act, and pretend to look at things that were not there. The prop men would hold objects off camera for them to fix their eyes on giving them a target. They both had to be in sync or the final production would not seem real.
These two separate productions had to be seamless when combined at a later date in post-production, not unlike Gene’s brilliant work (also with Hanna-Barbera) in Anchors Aweigh and later in Invitation to the Dance (1956). Anchors Aweigh had Gene dancing alone on an empty stage, and later, Jerry the Mouse was added frame by frame. The task was groundbreaking in 1948, not much easier for Invitation to the Dance, and still not yet any easier in 1966 with Jack and the Beanstalk. The digitization of movies and special effects was a long way off.
As part of the sequences, both Gene and Bobby had to be fitted with a harness and two wires connected at the hips. They would both have to be hoisted into the air and again filmed in front of a blue screen. According to Bobby, Gene did not like these scenes. While he was a great athlete, acrobat, and dancer, he had his limits. The trampoline work helped Bobby handle these scenes and the crew would even hoist Bobby in the air so that he could have lunch 20ft over the stage. Gene ate lunch on the ground.
It could be said that Gene was vain and enjoyed displaying his athleticism and well-maintained physique. He was able to wear tightly fitted clothing throughout his career. According to his daughter, Kerry, he used his dancing to maintain his physical appearance and stay in shape without a dedicated workout regimen. He’d gain a few pounds between movies and then quickly lose it when another movie started. The one thing he could not change was his genetic make-up: he began to lose his hair in his early 30s.
But MGM could make dreams come true, and its make-up department was able to keep the moviegoing public from noticing Kelly’s (as well as many other male stars’) thinning hair throughout his stint at the studio. Later in life, he maintained three hair pieces depending on the occasion. Bobby got to see Gene without his hairpiece between takes, and the little boy almost made a comment about it in front of Gene. Luckily, the crew warned him not to say a word. In this case, silence was golden.
When the filming was finished and handed over to the animators and post-production folks, Bobby got a very special gift from Gene: a fully optioned Schwinn bicycle. It was this grounded person that Bobby came to know and revere in Gene Kelly.
Jack and the Beanstalk won an Emmy for Kelly and while Bobby did not get a mention or nomination as virtually the only other actor in the production, his time with Gene was the highlight of his acting career and was a springboard to work all over Hollywood in the 1960s and 1970. Years later, Bobby saw Gene at a ceremony where they shared an embrace and fond memories of their award-winning production.
Bobby was able to move from child actor to adult and then went on to get a degree from Cal State. He became a successful photographer and works for USA Today. According to Bobby, most of his co-workers don’t know about his past. Still, he is sometimes recognized by TV buffs, still thinks about those days working with the legendary Gene Kelly, and is contacted on occasion by people (like me) to reminisce.
There are other child actors and performers out there still to be interviewed who worked with Gene. While not having the perspective of an adult professional, they nevertheless have some interesting memories and anecdotes to share about the unique and amazing talent that was Gene Kelly.