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Me Brudder and Udders
(When I first began to assemble materials on Fred Kelly, brother of Gene, I had no idea of the vastness of that undertaking. Fred was my sponsor to The Lambs over twenty years ago, and I wanted this article to reflect the affection I have for him. A good friend of Fred, Andrew McGowan, had just completed an article on Fred for the magazine of the Phi Kappa Theta National Fraternity which expressed the warmth I wished to attain. Andrew was kind enough to allow us to reprint his article. Andrew, who is a producer-distributor of public service announcements and president of the Phi Kappa Theta of N.Y. which Fred and Gene also belonged to, at different schools and different times. Fred Kelly was a member of The Lambs since 1959 The Lambs is America's first professional theatrical club in America, established in 1874. Fred twisted my arm until I finally joined that New York Club in late 1980, where I am now an officer and featured performer. The biography that follows was published in The Lambs' Script, it's quarterly newsletter, in the fall of 1999. Fred was my college dance instructor, then my friend and mentor. He was always encouraging and ready to help where he could. No matter how difficult the moment, you could always count on the Kelly smile. His children Michael and Colleen extended the Kelly friendship to me and we remain in touch.--Marc Baron)
For five days
in 1942, a marquee in Pittsburgh said the theater was playing "Fred Kelly
and Judy Garland in For Me and My Gal." This was because the worker
who put up the letters assumed the Kelly better known to him must be the
one in the picture. This was the reverse of what usually happened in the
two careers: Fred's significant achievements were much less known and occasionally
were attributed to Gene.
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.
The Five Kelly's (l-r) Joan 'J', James, Gene, Louis and Fred
of five children, Fred began performing at the age of four. "I played Baby
New Year," he says; "When everybody started hollering and throwing confetti,
I thought it was for me."
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, 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 ("Can't you see I'm singing," said the male singer when Fred started to hammer a nail into a plank; "That's all right, it won't bother me," said Fred) He also played a jug in Pop Brownlee's Hickville Follies hillbilly band, and danced.
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. Many biographies say the school started in the Kelly basement, "but that's ridiculous," says Fred; "the floor was so slanted I once took a spill when I leaned back in a chair."
Later, when Gene joined the school, he and Fred gave lessons at the Temple Beth Shalom in the Squirrel Hill area of Pittsburgh. Together, with shows they staged featuring the students, they raised money that helped the struggling temple to hire a rabbi. "A lot of people claim to have studied with Gene Kelly," says Fred; "and they're probably telling the truth, because he and I taught hundreds and hundreds of people ... some of them in twenty-minute assembly-line lessons that cost fifty cents."
Gene went off to Penn State in 1929, but after freshman year, he transferred to the University of Pittsburgh, so he could help out with the dance school. He graduated from Pitt in 1933 and Fred entered the following year. Fred was mascot for the football team (in a panther costume, he was the first member of the family to appear in films - newsreels of the football games).
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 and Gene were absolutely delightful, and I'm sorry I didn't get to know them better," said Celeste Holm; "I was fascinated by how well they danced."
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. To give her more to do, he took her around the corner and introduced her to the company of Best Foot Forward, for which Gene had been dance director and Fred assistant dance director. The show's writers, Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine, quizzed her on how they met: was she a dancer, a student of Fred's? No, she said, "I just adored the boy next door," explaining that they were neighbors on Kensington Street in Pittsburgh.
The House next door
That conversation is immortalized in the Martin and Blaine
song, "The Boy Next Door," which Judy Garland sings in the film Meet
Me in St. Louis. The lyrics include fictional addresses, but their real
addresses were 7514 and 7520 Kensington St., Pittsburgh.
When the show played Washington, President Roosevelt attended the third performance and invited the whole company to dinner at the White House. Fred was invited to stay behind for a long evening of conversation with the President and aide, Harry Hopkins. Mrs. Roosevelt joined them briefly and talked about Gene being her favorite dancer, and how she'd gone back to see some of his shows many times. FDR described Gene as "my favorite dancer," but then admitted seeing only two Broadway shows with dancing, both featuring Fred.
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. This is another story Fred loves to tell for its reverse of the usual situation.
This is the Army played the Pacific Mariana Islands at the same time as a USO show starring Eddie Bracken and Peggy Ryan [Sean Penn's mother]. Fred and Eddie began a lifelong friendship. The three performers stood together at attention as the Enola Gay took off on its historic mission. The pilot later wrote that the last thing he saw before take off was "two Hollywood people and a Marine" standing on the runway. Fred and other This is the Army performers dressed in Marine fatigues so that the enemy would think they were a large group of fighting troops.
While on the island of Biak in the Pacific, Fred picked up an old copy of Time magazine, where he read an article about the new medium of television, by Anthony Minor, vice president of the fledgling CBS network. Fred wrote to Minor, telling about his theatrical experience and saying he'd be interested in getting into television after the war. He got a response from Minor, saying he could "show this letter" to get a job at CBS. Fred did that and was hired to direct a show being adapted from radio, Casey, Crime Photographer. Shortly before the first show was to air, the star walked off and Fred took his place for the first episodes, assigning directing duties to another crew member. With so little time to remember his lines, Fred sent out for art cards and had the first few words of each of his lines put onto them. This may have been the introduction of cue cards to television, says Fred.
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.
During this period, Fred also was choreographing at the Latin Quarter, for the Four Aces, the Four Lads, the Four Diamonds (he staged their big hit "Little Darling"), the DeCastro Sisters, the Honey Dreamers and many Latin acts. This led to his getting hired to stage numbers at the World's Fair of 1948 in the Dominican Republic. The country's dictatorial president, Rafael Trujillo, took a personal interest in the show and its cast (he wanted the female dancers to be blond). Fred staged a number representing the arrival of Columbus, with replicas of the three ships sailing into the harbor. He hired the island's two dance teachers as assistants, and tried to leave the show under their command when the staging was complete. But Trujillo commanded him to remain. Fred "escaped" on a mail plane to Havana, and had to sit in a movie theater there for two days before he could get a flight home.
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 was the last producer of stage shows at the Roxy Theater in Times Square. He did tributes to Alaska and Hawaii when they became states - "It wasn't easy to find music related to Alaska," he says. And he gave one of their first breaks to Hines, Hines and Dad, featuring Gregory Hines.
Over the years, Fred collaborated with Gene on three movies. In Thousands Cheer (released in 1943), Gene was to play a soldier and asked Fred about the kind of dances he was doing in Army shows. The result, says Fred: "He danced in a soda fountain, which I had done at Camp Stewart; he danced with a mop, which I had done at Camp Upton; he danced with soda bottles...." (below, Fred "Swimmin with Wimmen")
Thanks to Fred, the women who danced behind Gene and Rita Hayworth in Cover Girl (1944) were the wives of soldiers appearing with Fred in This is the Army. "A soldier's income wasn't enough for living in Los Angeles," says Fred. He says he worked with Gene on the famous "alter ego" number-where Gene dances with his reflection - "...but just a bit, the number was Gene's idea."
Fred was cast to dance with Gene in Deep in My Heart (1956). Gene's colleague Stanley Donen was director of this biography of Sigmund Romberg (played by José Ferrer), and selected Gene as one of the many guest stars. They would dance to a Romberg song, "I Love to Go Swimmin' With Wimmen." They conferred on the phone and when Fred arrived in Hollywood, they compared the ideas each had listed for steps. "Gene's ideas included all I had jotted down," says Fred; "our minds were completely in synch."
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.
The longest Fred ever was unemployed was the summer of 1955, he says. Most television production had moved to the West Coast, and he didn't want to follow it there. Dottie persuaded him to open a dance school near home. And he took a position as professor of dance at Pace University in Manhattan, which he held for 24 years. Later he also taught in the musical comedy program at the New School, where Harry Belafonte was among his students, and at Princeton and West Point.
His dance school became the largest in New Jersey. Among the students: John Travolta, whose mother enrolled him for Saturday morning classes while he was in kindergarten. The following year, Travolta took jazz and tap lessons after school, telling his mother the class ran later than it actually did. "John liked to watch the older boys' class," says Fred; "he loved to sit with Dottie at the reception desk and answer the phone." Many afternoons callers would be greeted with "Fred Kelly Dance Studio in Oradell, New Jersey; if you wait a moment Mrs. Kelly will speak to you personally." Years later, Fred sent some of his Pace students to audition for the Travolta movie Saturday Night Fever, with a note saying they were referred by Dorothy Kelly's husband. A handful of them appear in background roles in the movie.
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, Gene and families in 1965
Fred sold the dance studio in 1983, and he and Dottie retired to Tucson (The Lambs gave him a send-off on September 12, 1985). Dottie's death from lung cancer in 1995 was a great loss for Fred, and he has fought medical battles of his own. His Lambs' nickname, "Fearless Fred"- given by Lamb Bob Considine in recognition of his willingness to appear anywhere on a bill - could apply to all of his life. He has seemingly endless energy. Spending a long weekend with him at his home in Tucson, to collect the information in this article and put his stories on videotape, I interviewed him on camera for five hours and off for many more. We stayed up to the wee hours watching Gene's movies and visited his grandchildren. Even though I'm decades younger than Fred, he was always up before me and still full of energy when I was fading. He traveled about 25,000 miles a year: in the two years he accepted awards in New York and Las Vegas from the Dance Educators' Association, attended a reunion of 45 surviving This is the Army cast members, and spoke at the Smithsonian Institution and conducted Master Classes in Washington.
In 1987 a couple of teenagers randomly chose his backyard shed to test a homemade bomb, destroying his collection of scrapbooks and recordings of TV shows. Undaunted, he filled hours of audiotape with his memories, preparing a book on his life, which he plans to begin writing in earnest this fall. He has threatened to title it with a line from a confrontation he, Gene and James had with some older boys in a tough mill town: "Me Brudder and Udders."
Sadly, Fred passed away on March 15, 2000. In honor of Fred, his family has 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. A donation of $20 or more will qualify the donor to receive a free video on the life of Fred Kelly.
[Another Web Page on Fred and Gene Kelly]
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