Patricia Ward Kelly starts her one-woman show, “Gene Kelly: The Legacy,” by addressing a few pertinent questions about her late husband: he was 5′ 8″; he got his distinctive facial scar from a tricycle accident as a kid; and they met while filming a TV documentary series about the Smithsonian. She also candidly addresses the question perhaps most on the mind of curious audience members expecting to see a frail, 90-year-old woman, instead of the vibrant young speaker before them: when they met, she was 26 and Gene was 73.
By tackling those questions first, Patricia is able to move the discussion away from the intimacies of their personal relationship (though she doesn’t shy away from that), and focus more on the part of his life the audience is likely more familiar with: Gene’s movies. It’s an affectionate discussion, and her casual storytelling style feels like you’ve engaged her in conversation at a cocktail party. The bulk of the show features clips from many of Gene’s greatest performances, introduced by Patricia and interspersed with her renditions of his stories and memories about the production of the films.
A few of my favorite moments: Patricia describing Gene’s recollection of Orson Welles meeting Rita Hayworth at the stage door of Cover Girl with a bottle of champagne every night; Gene feigning a bad leg at parties so he wouldn’t have to dance with the whole room; and the enormous stack of newspapers needed for Summer Stock since only one year’s editions would rip correctly for the number. I also enjoyed the stories about the measures they had to go through filming On the Town on location with a huge star like Frank Sinatra—including stuffing him on the floor of the back of a taxi.
Towards the end of the show, Patricia literally began to unpack some boxes on stage (before I realized their significance, I was thinking, “Gosh, couldn’t they have cleaned up the stage a bit before her show?”). In there, she finds a collection of memorabilia to discuss, including the green Irish hat from Take Me Out to the Ballgame, and Gene’s handwritten choreography notes for Singin’ in the Rain (“Put umbrella on left shoulder”). She also shared some personal, heartwarming notes, including a Valentine message that said “I’m glad you’re my wife,” and was signed, “Guess Who.”
Some of the stories about his films may be familiar to hardcore fans, but much of it was new to me, as I hadn’t sought out much about his personal life or anything behind the scenes. I was proud to have seen (and recognized) almost all of the movies featured in the opening montage: I just need to bump up The Three Musketeers, Words and Music, and Brigadoon to the top of my queue for completion’s sake. I didn’t do quite as well on the main section, but it will be interesting to visit films like Thousands Cheer, Cover Girl, and Living in a Big Way now that I have some background on them. Other films discussed included: Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris, It’s Always Fair Weather, Anchors Aweigh, The Pirate, and Invitation to the Dance.
Patricia was a great guide to the evening. She personally greeted audience members entering the sold-out, 500-person auditorium, and stuck around long after the show had ended to answer questions. Those approaching her included many women who wanted to declare their love for her husband, fellow Peabody High grads, and former neighbors. For a Gene Kelly fan, it was a great experience to be in the company of those with a similar mindset.
Patricia is still traveling with the show, though sticking much closer to her home in Los Angeles for the next few dates. The show moves to the Pasadena Playhouse on March 1 and 2, and then to the McCallum Theatre in Palm Desert on March 5.
The show ended with a rare recording of a late-in-life Gene singing “If I Could Be With You (One Hour Tonight),” which made for an emotional and heartfelt ending to an emotional and heartfelt evening.