Last night I had the absolute pleasure of attending a presentation on the life and career of Gene Kelly at the Detroit Opera House as part of a series they’re hosting about dance in film. But this wasn’t just any ordinary presentation, it was given by someone very near and dear to Gene — his daughter Kerry Kelly Novick. For about two hours, Kerry shared memories and stories about Gene, showed clips from some of his movies, and took questions from an enthusiastic audience.
The people in the audience came up with some excellent questions about Gene. Questions ranged from how tall he was (5 feet, 8¾ inches, and he was serious about those three-quarters of an inch) to how his political activism influenced his work (the best example being how he refused to make The Pirate unless The Nicholas Brothers could be in it). And then there was the eternal question of whether or not Gene had a favorite dance partner. Gene was always very tactful about answering that question and 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 for fun, 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 interesting that I didn’t know about the movie Easter Parade. I knew that Gene was originally supposed to star in Easter Parade but then he broke his ankle so the part went to Fred instead. What I didn’t know is that before Gene broke his ankle, he had choreographed the first dance number, “Drum Crazy”, 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 Gene 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 wanted to get into psychology. Earlier in the evening, while introducing “The Mexican Hat Dance” scene from Anchors Aweigh, she said that she really wanted to play the little girl in that scene, but wasn’t allowed to because she couldn’t pass as a Mexican. One person asked if she had a favorite memory of visiting her father’s sets and she said that during the production of Singin’ in the Rain, it was interesting for her to go to the set and see adults learning new things. When you’re a kid, you tend to think that adults just know everything. 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 how important it is to keep learning new things.
If you were wondering what Kerry herself is up to these days, she is a psychoanalyst and has lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan since the 1970s. Together with her husband, they have written several books about child psychology and have founded the Allen Creek Preschool.
Overall, the evening was truly wonderful. Kerry was very nice, approachable, and witty and I’m thrilled to have had the opportunity to hear so much about Gene from someone who was so close to him.