Monday, November 29, 2010

Fred Kelly: Gene's Younger Brother

Although everyone knows who Gene Kelly is, many aren't aware of his equally talented brother, Fred. Fred won four awards for Broadway work and helped with some of Gene's famous film dances. He popularized the Mambo and helped create the Cha-Cha; directed pioneering television shows; became one of America's leading dance teachers; was a magician and a chapter president of the Society of American Magicians; and served as police and fire commissioners and acting mayor of Closter, New Jersey.

Fred's Canadian-born father, James Patrick Kelly, was a sales executive with the Columbia Phonograph Company. His mother, Harriet (Curran) Kelly, as a hobby, performed with a Pittsburgh stock company. At her insistence, all of the children took music and dance lessons. Fred,the youngest child, brothers Gene and James, and sisters Harriet Joan (called J) and Louise began appearing as The Five Dancing Kellys. They filled in for The Seven Little Foys when the latter were stuck in Ohio during a snowstorm in 1921 and at numerous charity events around Pittsburgh. While the others showed some resistance to lessons and performing, Fred took to them immediately. The baby and "cutie pie" of the family, and a natural tap dancer, he was considered by his parents to be the most likely to have a professional dance career. By the time he was eight, Fred was earning as much as $50 a month as a performer, quite an income for even an adult in 1924. And it was Fred who taught Gene tap so they could earn extra money for college, and so Gene could impress the girls.


Fred starred in a show for children at Warner theaters in Pittsburgh while he was in the seventh through twelfth grades. He emceed, danced and did magic in the shows - which became known as Kelly's Kiddy Kabaret. Dick Powell, a young man just out of college, joined the company as a vocalist and bandleader. He had young Fred give him dance lessons after the shows, and Fred's mother helped him use his hands more effectively while performing. From the eighth through twelfth grades, Fred spent part of every summer performing on the Goldenrod Showboat which played Mississippi and Ohio River ports from Pittsburgh to New Orleans. In the shows, emceed by Fred's booking agent from Pittsburgh, Eddie Miller, Fred did rube comedy for other acts

Mrs. Kelly worked as receptionist in a Pittsburgh dance studio and when the owner skipped town in 1927, leaving a pile of unpaid bills, she decided to keep the school going. She paid the bills and renamed it the Kelly Studio of Dance. Soon the family was involved, with the children giving lessons, the mother managing the business and the father handling the books. Radio had hurt the phonograph business, on top of the Depression, putting the senior Kelly out of work. But the debut of little Shirley Temple in movies brought legions of girls, their hair in curls, seeking dancing lessons. Another Kelly Dance Studio objected to the name, and she renamed it for one of her offspring - The Gene Kelly School of Dance - even though Gene wasn't involved in the school yet. The school grew and moved through five locations in Pittsburgh and two branches in Johnstown.

The dance school was becoming one of the most successful in the U.S., but Gene struck out for New York in 1937. The Big Apple wasn't ready for the kid from Pittsburgh yet. Gene tried again the following year and quickly won a part in Leave It to Me starring Sophie Tucker (Mary Martin sang "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" to Gene), then a dancing and singing role in One for the Money, which opened in February 1939. Gene went back to direct Pitt's annual Cap and Gown Show in 1939 in which Fred was the star dancer.

After graduation, Fred joined Gene in New York. At the Theater Guild's summer stock theater in Westport, Connecticut, Gene directed and Fred choreographed Lynn Rigg's play Green Grow the Lilacs, the vehicle Rodgers and Hammerstein three years later turned into Oklahoma!. Gene won a dancing and acting part in the Theater Guild's production of The Time of Your Life. Then Gene won the lead in Pal Joey and recommended Fred to replace him in Time of Your Life. With permission from the author, William Saroyan, who won the Pulitzer for it, and other creators, Fred increased his character's dance numbers from five to eleven. He and Dorothy Maguire (who had replaced Celeste Holm) played together for the show's entire national run, which was much longer than originally expected, thanks to the awards. When the Donaldson Awards were instituted in 1940, Fred got one for his acting, presented by Helen Hayes, one for comedy (from Charlie Chaplin) and one for dance (from Antoinette Perry).

Fred did a screen test for MGM that was successful, but the studio didn't offer him much of a deal. While holding out for a better offer from another studio, he was drafted in December 1941. His friend Ezra Stone (radio's "Henry Aldrich"), who was attached to an entertainment unit, suggested that Fred contact him after basic training. Fred was assigned to the Medical Corps and sent to Camp Stewart in Georgia, where he and other corpsmen wrote and performed in a show called The General's Daughter. When Fred contacted Ezra Stone, he was asked to be the choreographer for a show by Irving Berlin that was being put together at Camp Upton on New York's Long Island. Stone and Berlin hand-picked 310 men-mostly performers, musicians, stage hands and other show people in civilian life-for the first racially integrated company in the U.S. Army. While doing the casting they added six other choreographers, and only the opening, "Mandy" (a minstrel number) remained Fred's. That summer, This is the Army opened with a cast of 300- the largest ever in a Broadway show.



After New York, the show toured 13 cities, ending in Hollywood, where it was made into a film featuring Ronald Reagan. Fred appears in the minstrel number. Then a smaller cast, Fred and only 149 others, went overseas to perform the show in most of the world's war theaters. By the time it closed in Honolulu, October 22, 1945, This is the Army had raised almost $15 million for the Army Relief Emergency Fund to aid spouses and parents of servicemen.

While This is the Army was in rehearsal for Broadway, Fred got permission to marry the girl who had been his date at Pitt fraternity parties, Dorothy Greenwalt, known to all as Dottie. With no time for a honeymoon (he did two shows that day and had to help Dottie's family navigate the city), she accompanied him to rehearsals.

While the show was playing London, Fred was summoned to General Dwight D. Eisenhower's office. He was told that he might be asked to give tap dancing lessons to the commander of the Allied war effort, who was in need of exercise and release from stress. Ike decided on painting lessons instead - he preferred a quiet activity that didn't tip off his staff as to whether he was working - but he did dispatch Fred to Buckingham Palace to give Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, and other royal children, ballroom dancing lessons. The mischievous teenagers decided that they also wanted to learn the Can-Can, and later performed for adults in costumes that seemed too revealing. This almost resulted in Sgt. Kelly being busted to private. The princesses also sneaked into performances of This is the Army disguised in caps and jackets borrowed from Fred and a buddy.

Years later, after Elizabeth became Queen, Gene was invited to give a command screening of his film An American in Paris. He had to arrive in England well before, for drilling in how to conduct himself with royalty. When the big moment of meeting came, the Queen jumped a long receiving line and rushed up to Gene. "Is it true that you are Fred Kelly's brother?" she asked.


Fred was hired by NBC to direct the Lanny Ross Show, a pioneering musical variety program. Ross decided to stop doing the show and Fred was assigned to another, the Kay Kyser Kollege of Musical Knowledge. He also choreographed for NBC's popular Colgate Comedy Hour, working with such stars as a Danny Thomas, Red Skelton, Betty Hutton and Martha Raye. Later, he directed more than a thousand hours of The Steve Allen Show and the first 26 United Cerebral Palsy telethons. He directed commercials with the likes of Tallulah Bankhead, Jimmy Durante, and Olsen and Johnson for use in the shows they starred in.

Meanwhile Fred also choreographed and directed three years of Ice Capades. That show was owned by John H. Harris, owner of the Warner theaters in Pittsburgh and a big piece of Republic Pictures. When the show played Los Angeles, tickets were given to movie studios, who passed them on to their big names. Metro-Golden-Mayer tickets went to such people as Ethel and Lionel Barrymore, Clark Gable and Louis B. Mayer, but not their new actor-dancer, Gene Kelly. Fred arranged for Gene and his wife to sit in the Republic central box, next to MGM's, leading Mayer to ask why someone didn't tell him that Gene had such an influential brother.

Back in New York, Fred continued to work for the Latin Quarter, and was asked by a competitor, the Havana Madrid club, to stage a show with the flamenco dancer José Greco. One morning, a Mexican couple Fred and Dottie had met on a cruise to Havana - they danced in the stage show and the Kellys said "If you're ever in Closter, New Jersey..." - showed up at the Kelly house. Greco's run had just ended, so Fred arranged for the husband, Tommy Gomez, to be booked into the Havana Madrid (Mrs. Gomez was too young to perform legally in a cabaret). With Prez Prado as the bandleader, and Gomez and Maryann Drake as dancers, Fred prepared a mambo number that opened June 29, 1948. The audience, including many Latin diplomats, got up and joined the dance. The evening was a big hit with the many critics present who, at Fred's request, identified the choreographer as Frederico Calais (Gaelic for Kelly) so he wouldn't get in trouble with the Latin Quarter.

The wife of the Havana Madrid owner, Angel Lopez, complained about the mambo show - how the loud brass disturbed her at her cashier station near the band, and how customers were dancing instead of ordering food and drinks. Lopez asked Fred to create a new one. The bandleader was now Tito Puente, who, with Fred, put together a number based on the Lindy, except that the dancers moved sideways. They threw in a cry for the orchestra: "cha cha cha!" The show opened August 2, 1948. Years later, Fred got a call from the Smithsonian Institution, asking if he could help locate the Frederico Calais who had introduced these dances to the U.S.!

Fred performed only one onscreen dance with Gene, "I Love to Go Swimmin With Wimmen." from Deep in My Heart (1956) Fred and Gene modified a step created by the Irish-born step dancer who standardized tap dancing, Maximillian Ford. The original step is the "Maxi Ford;" the revised one is called the "Kelly Maxi Ford," both terms that are still used today.

Fred and Dottie had three children. The first, Barry, was born in 1943. A bout of brain fever at 14 months left him mentally impaired, and one of the reasons Fred worked two and three jobs at a time was to keep him in special schools until he died in 1968. Another son, Michael, was born in 1949; he, his wife Diane, and four children live in California, where Michael is a unit production manager and occasional director of Brooke Shields' Suddenly Susan television series, and stage manager of many televison show. Daughter Colleen, born in 1953, lives in Tucson with her husband Jim Beaman and four children and is a high school drama teacher, and dance instructor as well.

Fred sold the dance studio in 1983, and he and Dottie retired to Tucson. Dottie's death from lung cancer in 1995 was a great loss for Fred, who passed away on March 15, 2000. In honor of Fred, his family created a foundation for college students interested in a career in musical theatre with a strong emphasis on tap dancing. Persons interested in making a donation may send checks (payable to: The Fred Kelly Foundation) to: The Fred Kelly Foundation, c/o Dallas Dance Council, 3630 Hines Blvd., Dallas, TX 75219.

Fred and Gene Daning to I Love to Go Swimmin With Wimmin

2 comments:

  1. Is the comment about the "Five Dancing Kellys true? because you list 6 children.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for calling my attention to an error. Harriet's middle name was Joan, and she was nicknamed "J"

    ReplyDelete

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