Monday, July 16, 2012

What a Glorious Feelin'...

Hi Everyone,

I've been a fan of Gene Kelly since seeing his 1954 film, Brigadoon, on TV. I can't remember how old I was exactly--my early teens, maybe. But, after that, I read and saw everything I could get my hands on about Gene Kelly. I still do. I'm thorough like that.

Damaged from years of sun exposure and
an accidental water spill, I still treasure my autographed
photo of Gene Kelly! It reads, "Good Luck Gene Kelly"
He always makes the stem of the "y" into an "x" for a kiss,
but my autograph also has a little shamrock after his name. Joy!
When I was 15 or 16, I drew a Melissa's Kitties birthday card for Gene Kelly and included a note highlighting his greatness--which I'm sure he already knew--and declaring my unwavering devotion (which he probably didn't know).  Weeks later, I received an 5" x 7" photograph of him, looking dapper in a tuxedo. Amid jumping around and squealing at this most excellent piece of mail, I noticed a mark on his white shirt! Did delivery damage my new treasure? I stopped in my tracks and discovered that he actually autographed it with a blue ball-point pen. You can see the impression if you flip it over! Well, I jumped and squealed even more--until my parents came home and I could tell them all about it. Gene Kelly and I were pals for life!

Every year since, I made a birthday card for Gene and sent it off to the Beverly Hills address I had. Even though I didn't received another response from him, I was just glad to know he'd receive them. When he died in February of 1996, I was working an internship in New York City, where they dimmed the lights of Broadway in his honor. When I got back to Ohio, I had another piece a mail from Beverly Hills waiting for me: a printed card from Gene Kelly's wife, Patricia Ward Kelly, thanking me for being a loyal fan and letting me know that Gene appreciated it.

So imagine my glee when I got the e-mail announcement that the Smithsonian was hosting a screening of Gene's 1952 classic, Singin' in the Rain, at the new Warner Brothers Theater in the Museum of American History.  (Yes, I've seen it a zillion times, but once more is always a treat.) As if that weren't enough, co-star Rita Moreno and Gene Kelly's wife, Patricia, were scheduled to be there to participate in a question-answer session after the film.

I snatched up a ticket in 2 seconds! Read on to hear what happened!

The One Night People Were Disappointed That It Didn't Rain

As usual, I arrived too early. I joined a few other early birds who stood in the space between the museum's double-doors to enjoy the air conditioning. In the event description, we were invited to wear our raincoats and Wellies, but most of us couldn't imagine doing so in this heat. However, I did see a couple of good sports.

Although the museum closed at 5:30, and they weren't reopening for the event until 6:30, the nice security guards let us stay cool in our spots. A glass partition divided the four sets of doors into two and two, and we lined both sides of our partitioned space. While I was fiddling with the contents of my evening bag, I began to hear a whispered wave of excitement: "Oh, it's Mrs. Kelly!" "It's Mrs. Kelly!" "Mrs. Kelly!" "It's Mrs. Kelly!" By the time I realized what they were saying, Mrs. Kelly was making her way down the right-side line of bystanders, saying hello  and shaking hands with each of them. Why did I stand to the left?! I only saw the back of her head as she went through and watched as she greeted the event organizers inside. My luck.

Mingling with the Next of Kin to Greatness

The food tables were decorated with umbrellas and flowers.
Once allowed inside, I was pleasantly surprised: Finger foods, desserts, and cocktails were offered during a 1-hour reception prior to the film. I was happy about this, since--in my excitement--I'd forgotten about dinner. I stood at a round cocktail table with my drink and snacks, surveying the crowd.  I wasn't the youngest person here, but I was definitely in the minority. A couple joined me with their plates of salad, crackers, cheese, and bite-size cakes. They were surprised I was attending this event alone, which hadn't really occurred to me as odd. "I'm a big Gene Kelly fan," I explained. They told me that Mrs. Kelly planned to be here, which I confirmed, saying that I saw her when she arrived.

A little while later, I saw her again! She was mingling among us, just like a regular person! I pointed her out to my table companions, who didn't know what she looked like. Eventually, we all wandered our separate ways, and I began to lurk near Mrs. Kelly as she talked to others around the room. I am ridiculously shy and nervous in these rare situations, and I was trying to psyche myself up to talk to her.  (I was also waiting for an opening, which was hard to get.) I ran into the husband of my table-sharing couple, who reported that he had already greeted Mrs. Kelly. He laughed when I said I was building up my nerve to do so. But he doesn't realize what a dorky fan I am, which will soon be revealed!

I started to worry that my golden opportunity would slip away as Mrs. Kelly nearly finished working the room. I think that's when Gene Kelly smiled down on me and stepped in to give me a moment!

His wife turned a full 180, looked right at me, and began walking toward me. I smiled and inhaled to say something, but she beat me to it. She extended her hand to shake, and said, "Hello, I'm Patricia Ward Kelly. How are you enjoying this evening?"  I grasped her hand with both of mine, which I don't think I've ever done to anyone in my life. Then, I kind of went into blurt-it-out mode:
"Mrs. Kelly, I'm so happy to meet you! I am such a huge Gene Kelly fan!"
"Oh, how wonderful!"
"I used to send him handmade birthday cards."
"I probably still have them in my files." [What???]
"When he died, you sent me a printed note, thanking me for being a fan, and I just want to tell you that it really meant so much to me!"
"Oh, how wonderful!"
"I wanted to ask you, are you still working on his autobiography?" [Gene Kelly was working on an autobiography for the last 20 years of his life. One of the drafts was lost in 1983 when he had a house fire, and he had to start over. He met Patricia in 1985 and soon hired her to help him finish the book. They got married 5 years into this project. I planned to ask this question during the question-and-answer session, but I was so much happier to have this chance one-on one! I would have been much more nervous than I was now.]
She nodded, "Yes, it's turned into more of my own memoirs now, but I'm really focused this year on Gene's birthday."
"Oh, yes!"
"It's his centennial, you know, so I'm planning all sorts of events for that."
"Oh, that's wonderful! I have a blog and would love to go and write about all of them!"
"Oh, that would be wonderful!"
I love that everything is wonderful between us.

She asked me if I was on Facebook. I was, I nodded, but I began to panic at the realization that I had forgotten to bring any sort of business cards with me to give to her. It didn't matter, though, because--amazingly--she gave me one of hers! She said, "Please e-mail me and remind me of the story you told me, won't you?"
"Yes, thank you so much!"
"Enjoy yourself tonight!"
"I will, thank you!"
As she walked away, I realized that I never told her my name or ask to have my picture taken with her (as other people did). But I was already in the clouds, and at least I didn't faint.

Showtime at the Smithsonian's Museum of American History

The new Warner Brothers Theater opened earlier this year with a Humphrey Bogart film festival attended by Lauren Bacall and their son Stephen! (Can you believe I missed getting a ticket for that one?!) I imagined it to be a grand Art Deco MGM-glory-days sort of theater, but there's nothing fancy about it. In fact, it's pretty plain and small, which was just fine and actually preferred, as it makes for an intimate event. As we watched the film, Patricia Ward Kelly and Rita Moreno sat in the audience with us--not together and not even in the front rows--just in some random middle-of-the-room seats!

"I'm laughin' at clouds, so dark up above,
the sun's in my heart, and I'm ready for love."
Singin' in the Rain is Gene Kelly's signature film, the one he'll be remembered for most because of his iconic dance to the title song. Even if you don't like musicals or old movies, or whatever, you're bound to enjoy Singin' in the Rain because it's pretty fantastic in every way. Betty Comden and Adolph Green were hired by producer Arthur Freed to write the story and screenplay. Also a composer, Freed told the writers to take a catalog of his songs and build a story around it. "Call it Singin' in the Rain," was one of his few instructions.

Well, they came up with something great! The story takes place during the 1920s when movie studios were converting from the silent era to Talkies. During this time, some stars made the transition to sound smoothly. Others saw their careers dwindle because they couldn't handle the new technology and processes, had horrible speaking voices, or just couldn't memorize their lines. Most of the stories in this film are based on those of real people in movie history.

Gene Kelly co-directed (with Stanley Donen), choreographed, and starred in Singin' in the Rain. In it, he plays Don Lockwood, Monumental Pictures's biggest star, along side Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen). Rita Moreno plays an ambitious up-and-coming star named Zelda Zanders, who is under contract at Monumental Pictures. But, the story revolves around another contract player named Kathy Seldon (Debbie Reynolds). According to the gossip columnists, Don and Lina are an item on and off the screen, but trouble stirs when Don and Kathy meet and fall in love. If that weren't a big enough problem, dealing with the addition of sound to the movie business proves more difficult than anyone imagined and threatens to ruin all of their careers.

Comden and Green won a Writers Guild Award for "Best Written Musical." Donald O'Connor, who plays Don's best friend Cosmo Brown, won a Golden Globe for his performance, and Jean Hagen was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Singin' in the Rain is #1 on the AFI's list of 100 Years of Musicals, and it ranks at #5 on the AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies list. If you haven't already, see it!

It was a special experience to see Singin' in the Rain among fellow fans of the film. Everyone laughed at all the jokes and clapped and cheered after every dance. I half-expected the stars to come out afterward to take their bows, just as they do in the movie after their premieres. But we had different guests.

Time for Some Girl Talk

After the film, our host, Dwight Blocker Bowers (director of the Warner Brothers festivals of classic Hollywood films and curator of entertainment collections at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History) introduced our guests. He began with Patricia, who interrupted him when he was telling too much of a story she wanted to tell herself. "Don't tell that story," she yelled from her seat in the audience. Instead, he mentioned snippets of it, which she approved with an "okay" here and an "okay" there. Then, she was interrupted by Rita Moreno, who sat  a few rows ahead of her. She stood up, pointed dramatically, and exclaimed, "Who is this woman?! Why does she get to tell you what you can and cannot say?!"
"Oh, sit down, Zelda!" Patricia responded. Our laughter erupted as the two ladies made their way to the stage.

The real stars of the night: Patricia Ward Kelly and Rita Moreno
It didn't occur to me to look for Rita Moreno during the reception. She was probably wandering around just as Patricia was. I wish I had had a chance to speak to her because I think we might be kindred spirits.

She spoke to us first, "I can't tell you how often [watching the film] I wanted to cry--and they're tears of joy! What a legacy this man has left. Do you know what made him unique, special, and one-of-a-kind? He introduced a new dance vocabulary. This is dance in Gene's DNA. It's American Dance."

It turns out that she's just as big a fan of Gene Kelly as I am! "From the time I was a little girl, he was my Dancing God," she said. She was under contract at MGM and still up-and-coming herself when she was hired to play Zelda. "I went to the studio every single day to watch--every single day. People say you go there to watch and learn. That's true but, really, the reason I was there was to see my idol. I just wanted to be there."

She described Gene switching hats as actor, choreographer, and director throughout the day, leaping out of and over chairs or cameras--whatever was in his way: "Really. Gene would jump. This man never just walked somewhere."

Gene asked her to cut her long hair into a bob for the part of Zelda, which she reflexively refused, thinking her family would be horrified. "Gene gave me a look, like, 'You're telling me, Gene Kelly, that you're not going to do what I'm telling you to do?!'" I immediately thought, 'Shit!' But he let me keep my hair and gave me that red wig you see in the movie."

Throughout the evening, when Patricia was talking, Rita kept interrupt to remind her to tell this story or that story. At one point, she exclaimed to us, "Oh, I'm so glad I met her yesterday!"

One of my favorite moments was when Rita talked about Gene Kelly's strong dance style, with punctuated, precise movements. When she first started, she didn't dance that way, and she said, "He really straighten me out! I mean, boy, did he let me have it!" Patricia thought she was talking about Gene, but she was referring to choreographer Jerome Robbins. Rita clarified, cocking her head to the side and collapsing in her seat with a smitten look, "Oh, nooo! Jerome. Not Geeene....Never Geeeene...." She sighed, paused, and shrugged, "I wouldn't have minded."

Patricia had equally entertaining stories. I was especially happy to hear how she first met Gene. I knew that she was hired as a writer for a documentary he was narrating. I didn't know that the documentary was filmed here at the Smithsonian, in the Air and Space Museum! She said that, at the time, she was a nerdy grad student and Herman Melville scholar from Colorado with long brown hair parted in the middle so that only her nose peeked through. She dressed as if she were still in Colorado--in a man's shirt, corduroys, thermal socks, and clogs. Gene Kelly was a last-minute replacement, filling in for Gregory Peck, as narrator of a Smithsonian documentary about writers. Patricia, who was hired for her Herman Melville expertise, knew who Gregory Peck was because she had seen To Kill a Mockingbird. She had no idea who Gene Kelly was or whether this person was a man or a woman (Gene or Jean). She'd never seen Singin' in the Rain.

Because Gene Kelly was such an enticing eligible bachelor who had every girl at the Smithsonian swooning, his handlers kept him away from them by sticking Patricia on him for the week. Of their first meeting, Gene said, "You looked like you just got off a horse. You walked like you just got off a horse. And, you talked like you just got off a horse." But, during that week, locked away in a room away from everyone else, they bonded playing word games and reciting poetry to each other. It wasn't until after he left for the airport when the week was up that someone told her, "You know, that guy's really famous," and recommended she ask for his movies at the video store. Sweet!

Patricia also read some great fan letters: "Dear Mr. Kelly, My mother never lets me jump off the furniture. Why did your mother let you?"

One letter was a bad review from a fourth grader who had to watch Singin' in the Rain in class: It was addressed to Patricia and said something like, "I did not like your husband's movie. Your husband's movie is short if you cut out all the songs and dances. Why didn't your husband cut out the dances and get to the point? Does he always just think about dance all the time?" I think the answer to that is yes. Patricia wrote a more elaborate reply to the fourth grader and will be meeting with the now 19-year-old sometime soon.

I even learned some new trivia! (Can you believe it?) Did you know:
  • Gene kept production notes of every minute of the day. I don't know if everyone does production notes, but Patricia read from some of his, and they were precise, like: 2:47 to 2:56 p.m. - Test camera with back lighting. 2:57 to 3:10 p.m. - Test camera without filter. Crazy-awesome details! 
  • All the taps are dubbed once the dances are filmed, and Gene always dubbed his own. He also dubbed Debbie Reynolds's dances for Singin' in the Rain
  • Gene's costumes were always form fitted one-piece outfits that showed off the dancer's body and emphasized the line of the leg. Patricia explained, "That's why his pants were specially cut to show off his thighs, which I'm sure we're all grateful for." Rita nodded enthusiastically. He also wore custom-made shoes that were loafers flexible enough to be pointed like ballet shoes.
Cyd Charisse got noticed in Singin' in the Rain. See why?
  • All women's skirts were monitored by the censors, who required that they be of a specific length. Gene followed this rule but designed slits up the skirts to show off more leg. Patricia pointed out Cyd Charisse's green dress as an example. It has slits all around it to show off her famous long legs. 
  • Gene was obsessed with Louise Brooks and originally wanted Rita Moreno to wear the bob wig fashioned after Louise Brooks's own style. (Rita expressed her distaste for it to us with a "Blaaach! Can you imagine--on me?!") Cyd Charisse ended up wearing it during her dance in the green dress. 
  • Rita's Spanish Dance teacher was Rita Hayworth's uncle and also the person who taught Gene Kelly Spanish Dance. (Rita exclaimed another, "Can you imagine!? My idol, and we had the same teacher!"
  • Donald O'Connor's "Make 'Em Laugh" dance was based on how he'd pass the time between takes. He kept everyone laughing by dancing with whatever happened to be around the studio at the time. This dance is one of the highlights of Singin' in the Rain. Although we ran out of time, Patricia and Rita both mentioned Donald O'Connor and Jean Hagen (Lina Lamont) as gems in the cast. They are! 
As a treat for reading (nearly) this entire post, here's a video of Donald O'Connor's performance of "Make 'Em Laugh."  It'll make you laugh, especially my favorite part--the big finish!

I could go on (and have). I think our guests would have too. Our host came to the edge of the stage to stop the conversation so that questions from the audience could be addressed, but Rita stopped him: "Are you serious? What are you doing there!" He sat back down.

They did eventually stop talking. "I think we have to," Patricia said. "Otherwise, the Smithsonian will kick us out, and I'll never be invited again." 
"But we'll get in the papers," Rita countered. "Imagine what the papers will say!"

Right on, Sister! 

Image/Video copyright credits: Images from the Smithsonian event: photographer Stephanie Green/Bloomberg; Singin' in the Rain poster, images, and video: MGM. 


Melinda P said...

Amazing! What a fantastic evening.

Melissa Connolly said...

I know, isn't it??? :-) Thanks, Melinda!