The film curator of New York’s Museum of Modern Art once wrote: “Gene Kelly, a superb specimen of manly beauty, doomed, you’d say, to matinee idolatry, has neatly escaped from the trap by dancing and miming in such a way that you would never mistake him for anybody but an ordinary Joe.” It is that ordinary Joe—actor, dancer, singer, choreographer, director and producer—who emerges as the preeminent star of That’s Entertainment, a razzle-dazzle compendium of 30 years of MGM musical history. Now that Judy Garland has gone, Fred Astaire confines himself to straight acting roles, Esther Williams swims only in her backyard pool, and Eleanor Powell hasn’t tapped in public for a decade, it seemed logical for Kelly to hang up his dancing shoes. But not so.
Modestly Kelly says, “If I were 20 years younger I would love to do a dancing role, but to do any serious dancing right now, forget it.” Nonetheless, at 61, Kelly has kicked off a summer revival of the stage musical Take Me Along, which will take him to a half-dozen cities in seven weeks. The show, which opened to standing ovations in Dallas, marks the first time Kelly has appeared as a song-and-dance man in a legitimate show since producer David O. Selznick shanghaied him to Hollywood after his 1940-41 Broadway smash, Pal Joey.
Why is Kelly returning? “I am working for pleasure, not for financial reasons,” he says. “Every week or so I have a chance to do something for more money than I am making from this show. But to put it succinctly, this came up at a good time, and in a weak moment I said I would do it.” The real weakness is for his two younger kids. The license plate on Kelly’s Chrysler sedan reads “DADDY” and the plate on the station wagon says “MOMMY.” But Kelly’s second wife Jeanne died a year ago of leukemia. He now shares his unpretentious Beverly Hills home with his son Timothy, 12, his daughter Bridget, 10, and a housekeeper. (His daughter Kerry, 31, by his first marriage to actress Betsy Blair, is a psychiatrist at Anna Freud’s clinic in London, and she and her Canadian psychiatrist husband will present Kelly with his second grandchild this fall.)
Not only was Take Me Along a chance to hoof and sing again, it offered Pop Kelly a see-America vacation with his children. “The kids should get out of Beverly Hills,” he says. “We got a cabin in the Black Hills of South Dakota over Easter for ten days. We split logs for the fire and had to use an outhouse. In four hours they had adapted and wanted to live there forever. That trip made me see they can do a lot of things,” beams Kelly. “They’re so protected in Beverly Hills—it isn’t the way it was in the Pittsburgh neighborhood I came from. We fought our way to and from school every day.”
His children show no signs of show business precocity nor, as yet, any interest in show-biz careers. Kelly is relaxed about them and about his own future as well. He admits with that ordinary-Joe grin: “I’ve never had a plan in my whole life.”