Gene Kelly: A Pittsburgher in Hollywood
Before he brought a muscular new dancing style to Hollywood musicals, Gene Kelly was a Pitt economics major who supported himself by pumping gas, digging ditches, and teaching at his family’s dance studios.
After graduating with a BA from Pitt in 1933, Kelly continued teaching and performing, and he choreographed musicals at Oakland’s Pittsburgh Playhouse and downtown Pittsburgh’s Nixon Theater. He also enrolled in Pitt’s law school for a couple of months before dropping out to focus on his dance career.
He landed his first Broadway job in 1938 as a dancer in Leave It to Me and his first Hollywood acting role in 1942’s For Me and My Gal with Judy Garland.
In 1951 Kelly starred in An American in Paris, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture plus six other Oscars, including an honorary one for Kelly’s “extreme versatility as an actor, singer, director, and dancer, but specifically for his brilliant achievement in the art of choreography.” The following year he starred in, co-directed, and choreographed Singin' in the Rain, widely considered the best musical film ever made.
A highly innovative perfectionist, Kelly successfully experimented with lighting, camera movement, and special effects. With his athletic moves and regular-guy looks, he was able to simultaneously democratize dance and introduce the previously elitist ballet form to mainstream musicals.
Unlike the elegant Fred Astaire, whom he revered and with whom he teamed in 1946’s Ziegfield Follies, Kelly eschewed top hat and tails. “As a Depression kid who went to school in very bad years, I didn’t want to move or act like a rich man,” he once said. “I wanted to dress in a pair of jeans. I wanted to dance like the man in the streets.”
In 1961, Pitt awarded Kelly an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree; 2012 marks the centennial of his birth in Pittsburgh’s Highland Park neighborhood.