When she first met him in 1985, she had no idea who he was – but Patricia Ward Kelly was soon to develop a special insight into Hollywood legend Gene Kelly both as an artist and a person.
Patricia, then 26, was working on a documentary about the Smithsonian museum when she was introduced to the then-73-year-old Gene, who was tapped as the television special’s host. After she was made aware of his fame, Patricia took out videos from the store and carried out a marathon viewing. What she watched – from Singin’ in the Rain to Brigadoon – left her mouth “agape”.
The two soon became closer and bonded over the poetry of William Butler Yeats. Before long, Gene invited her to California to become his biographer, and their working relationship turned into a romance.
Gene and Patricia tied the knot in 1990. Throughout the decade they spent together, Patricia documented her partner’s words – be it in writing or tape recording – nearly every day, and in the process, grew a greater appreciation of the seemingly “two-dimensional” man that the audience knew and loved.
“People have no idea of the magnitude of him,” she told Over60. “He looks great up on-screen dancing, [but] many people don’t realise he created what you’re seeing, that he directed and choreographed it, and that’s really what he wanted to be known for … for being behind the camera, and for changing the look of dance on film.”
Gene, she said, had some personal favourites from his impressive filmography. The first and most widely known was the 1949 musical On the Town, which Gene took part in co-directing and choreographing.
“He would often say that because it broke new ground by shooting the opening number on location,” she said. “That just had not been done in that way, and that really influenced the French New Wave filmmakers like François Truffaut.”
Gene died in 1996 at the age of 83 following a series of strokes – but Patricia has been determined to keep his legacy and memory alive. In 2012, Patricia launched Gene Kelly: The Legacy and has since toured with it around the world.
Patricia said a “show” is not quite the right word to describe the program. “I often refer to it as a kind of an experience. It begins the minute the door is open,” she said.
In the “one-woman presentation”, set to tour Australia next year, Patricia is set to share some stories, film clips, previously unreleased recordings, personal memorabilia, and insights culled from hours of interviews and conversations with her husband.
“It’s like we’re sitting in the living room having a chat, and I’m bringing these things out,” she said. “Even though it’s a very large venue, people [will] just feel like we’re in this very intimate setting.”
Gene Kelly: The Legacy is coming to Australia in February 2020.