Gene Kelly's widow Patricia chats about her late husband and 'Singin' in the Rain'

Gene Kelly does his iconic rain dance from

Gene Kelly does his iconic rain dance from the 1952 musical "Singin' in the Rain." (Credit: Warner Bros.)

When Patricia Kelly (then Patricia Ward) first met dancer Gene Kelly in 1985 while working as a writer on a documentary about the Smithsonian Institution, even she can't believe that she had no idea who he was. "I had never heard of Gene Kelly. I didn't know if it was a man or a woman," she said.

Mrs. Kelly can be forgiven since she was in her 20s at the time and wasn't much of a movie buff. But just as Gene Kelly did in his dance numbers with Cyd Charisse and Leslie Caron, he swept Patricia off her feet. She was then asked to write his memoirs and then asked to be his wife in 1990 (Kelly was 77 at the time).

Mrs. Kelly, who will be doing shows on her husband at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theatre July 20 and 21, recently spoke to Newsday about the 60th-anniversary rerelease of her husband's iconic 1952 musical, "Singin' in the Rain" (in theaters on Thursday and on Blu-ray July 17), and his influence on dance.

Why do you think "Singin' in the Rain" has held up so well?

The dance is so contemporary. It isn't attached to any particular time. . . . You see such a broad range of style of dance and it is so contemporary. You see a lot of gymnastics and things that have influenced hip-hop and break-dancing. People don't look at it and say, "Oh that's really old and tired." They look at it and say, "Oh I'd really like to do that" or "I can do that."

Gene's whole point was that the dance had to be part of the story. That was Gene's whole thing. Before him, the story would stop and it was usually a bunch of performers and they would do a dance number on a stage and they could always cut that out because it didn't further the story. Gene's whole notion was that the dance needed to perpetuate the story. And he really began to get a sense of that when he did Bill Saroyan's "The Time of Your Life" on Broadway. He was playing a nondancer and was surprised at how what he did had to propel the story. So that was a really conscious thing on his part to make sure that the numbers were woven into the structure and advanced the plot.

How long did it take them to shoot the "Rain" dance?

Two and a half days. It is true that he had a fever of about 103 and he had been sick the days before. They would shoot the scenes.

Is it true that milk was put in the water so the raindrops would show up better on film?

There was no milk. That's another of those myths associated with the movie. It was such an extraordinary challenge to light the raindrops. Gene always used the analogy that it was like watching a football game. You're looking at the players on the ground, you don't see the rain. If you tilt your head up, you'll see the raindrops with lighting in the back with the stadium lights. They couldn't do that in "Singin' in the Rain" because he's dancing in front of these storefronts, so they couldn't backlight it without the light showing up in the glass in the storefronts. So they had a real challenge to light the rain and to light Gene. If he's dancing they had to light from the front and not show that reflection.

And it is true that the Culver City supply of water was diminished, and when people came home from work they had to hang extra rigging.

Debbie Reynolds in interviews has said Gene was very demanding of her, especially since she wasn't a trained dancer. And Gene once said "I wasn't very nice to Debbie. I'm surprised she still speaks to me." Was that really the case?

Another of the myths was that Gene didn't want her in the picture and he absolutely wanted her. It was actually [producer] Arthur Freed who brought Gene and [director] Stanley Donen up to the office and looked at "Abba Dabba Honeymoon," her number with Carleton Carpenter , and he thought she was the right one for that role and they agreed. Stanley asked, "Can she dance?" and she was not a trained dancer, but that didn't threaten Gene at all. Frank Sinatra was not a trained dancer, and he had taught so many young people how to dance, so he basically applied the same techniques. You hear Gene was a perfectionist, and he was absolutely demanding, but he demanded the same thing of everything and of himself. And I think trained dancers are used to that type of discipline.

. . . Debbie was transformed. I think [dance assistants] Carol Haney and Jeannie Coyne, working with her day in and day out in a lot of the rehearsals, helped her to advance. And Gene always said, "You choreograph to the woman," so he choreographed to Debbie's capabilities. You don't outchoreograph and outdance her, you make her look great. And it was the same thing with Sinatra, you choreograph to him. He choreographed to Olivia Newton-John in "Xanadu." You want your partner to look the best he or she can possibly look. And that was always his intent with Debbie, and she worked like a trouper and became a big star.

How did he enjoy working with Donald O'Connor?

Donald O'Connor was extraordinary. Gene always thought that he was one of the great unsung heroes and one of the greatest improvisational comedians of all time. On the "Make 'Em Laugh" number, between takes Donald would sit there and pick up whatever was on the set and he would get all of the assistants laughing. He would pick up a dummy and start doing things. It was Gene's idea to put together all of those different segments in the number, so he would ask Carol and Jeanne to write down whatever Donald was doing, because he'd say to Donald do that again and he wouldn't remember what he did. It just came out of him so spontaneously. So Carol and Jeanne recorded it and Gene strung it into the number and it became "Make 'Em Laugh." They brought in Donald's brother to help with the back flip and some of those very dangerous things, because he had done those things as kids.

And the "Moses Supposes" number, Gene thought that was the best tap dance that he ever did on screen.

He seemed to work well with Cyd Charisse. How did they get along?

Cyd was brought in to do "Broadway Melody" because Donald had an obligation to do the "Colgate Comedy Hour" that he couldn't break. Debbie's dancing was not up to doing "Broadway Melody," so they brought in Cyd Charisse, and Gene always wanted Cyd, so there's a bit of mythology about that. She was a classically trained ballerina from the Ballet Russe to Monte Carlo. Unlike today, when the ballet dancers are also studying jazz, she had no experience in that. So what she does in "Broadway Melody" was extraordinary. And Gene said it was very difficult to get her off pointe to dance jazz, but once she accomplished that it was sublime. . . . He modeled her after Louise Brooks.

And the green dress was a good example of Gene beating the censors with that number by slitting the skirt so you can always maintain the longest line of Cyd Charisse's legs. You could never have something like that, but he knew you had to have that kind of extension to show the beauty of the dance, and those legs that went on for miles.

Gene said choreographing a number like that was much easier than choreographing a number like "You. Wonderful You" in "Summer Stock," where he takes Judy Garland, who is to appear like a nondancer, to make that convincing. It's much more difficult to choreograph that quiet number than the slam-bang number. That is much harder because you have to make it convincing that Judy didn't know how to dance and that she's standing up and doing that. And he thought the one with Judy was one of the classiest things he ever did with it simplicity.

Did they expect that the movie would gain this reputation as the greatest movie musical of all time?

Gene always said that when "An American in Paris" came out and won so many Academy Awards that it was the sine qua non of the movie musical. And [screenwriter] Adolph Green was the sole person who thought that "Singin' in the Rain" was going to hold up. It's hard to ratchet back to a time where there were no DVDs and VHS, you never really dreamed that people would be watching these movies all around the world almost every single day somewhere. It was just not on anybody's horizon, and that it would last for 60 years -- unimaginable. Gene used to say to me, "I wish I could come back in 100 years and see what people are watching." You look and it's made 60 years and I don't see it declining in any manner. Audiences are still responding. And I would wager that if you did come back in 100 years, I really wouldn't be surprised if "Singin' in the Rain" isn't still on screens.

I think there's a sense that movie musicals weren't as serious as a real movie, and I think early on "Singin' in the Rain" may have suffered from that a bit in the sense that it's singing and dancing, it's not real acting. It may have suffered initially, but over time it's definitely had legs.

The screenwriters did a lot of research and spoke to a lot of the people at MGM who were there for the transition of sound and incorporated those stories into the script. Is that correct?

That's definitely true. Betty [Comden] and Adolph did a lot of research and also used things in their own experience. Arthur Freed is the character who yanks the cord [during the scene in which a character is wired for sound]. He had a nickname, "The Tank," and he would often come onto the set and he was like a bull in a china shop, so they wrote those kinds of things in because he would do that. Much of that was very accurate about what the different recording devices would pick up. They did their homework. So you do have an interesting historical record of all of that.

How was the "Broadway Melody Ballet" conceived?

It was originally conceived to be Donald and Gene. . . . One of my favorite segments is the scarf number with Cyd. Look at how modern that is, look at Gene's costume, which is solid black -- the black polo shirt, the tightfitting black pants, the black moccasins that are made specifically to fit his feet and molded so he can point them like a ballet slipper. It looks so simple, but the difficulty in creating that was getting three airplane motors. They were actually Ritter fans, but their origin was airplane motors.

. . . You have to think about the magnitude [of that number]. Gene is lifting Cyd Charisse, she was not a small woman, and just the torque on his body. He has to lift her and there's the powerful wind of three wind machines and then there's this scarf that has to hit just right on this musical beat. I think it's phenomenal and it's lovemaking. It's one of the most romantic pieces that he does and it was actually censored in several countries because those censors understood that it was lovemaking. It was too explicit, so they took it out. They also cut out much of the ballet scene with Leslie Caron at the fountain because they recognized that it was lovemaking. I show that [scarf] scene to kids and they think of the stuff that they see on the screen now versus the simple romantic thing.

Kids will ask me, "Was Gene romantic?" and to me he was the epitome of romance. He always said that things are a little too real now, and I think that's part of the problem with movies now -- you see sex, and it's not very erotic, it's not very interesting. I'm old-fashioned, I guess, but to me the suggestiveness of the romance and the love and sexuality in the numbers Gene choreographed is more compelling.

You two met at the Smithsonian. What was your first meeting like?

I certainly had no idea he was famous, I was just this exceedingly nerdy Herman Melville scholar, and I had just been hired to write documentaries about American writers, including Herman Melville. So I was asked to do this documentary about the Smithsonian. First Gregory Peck came on, then Gene Kelly, and I was originally hired as a researcher, then as a writer, so I spent a week with him.

He gave me his phone number and the girl next to me said, "That guy is really famous. You should go down to the video store and check it out." I did and I was just astonished that I had missed a significant portion of the 20th century, but again I wasn't born when most of the movies came out, I wasn't a movie buff, nor were my parents. But I really think I got to know him in a lovely way. My pet study in graduate school was word origins. It was etymology. And Gene's pet study was poetry, so we sat in this room together and played word games and quote poetry back and forth, and I tell you, there was nothing more romantic than that. So I really fell in love with his language and his use of words and his respect for words.

I really became enchanted with this erudite gentleman and this Pittsburgh street kid and the blend of the two. Then he called me about six months later to see if I would write his memoirs and I said yes and got married five years into it. I had the great privilege of recording him in some format for over a decade and I think he deserves a lot of credit for his willingness to tell me the story and to share that story -- he didn't have to -- and for letting down his guard and to think about why he did things and to reassess.

When will the memoir on Gene be coming out?

I'm still working on it. I suspended the writing temporarily just to focus on the centenary [he would have turned 100 on Aug. 23]. . . . I'm still going through so many boxes of things and notes. What was so interesting was to have this dual role of spouse and journalist. Most spouses don't write down everything their spouse does, and that was my job. I would sit there at dinner and he'd say, "Why aren't you writing anything down?" and I would say, "Because I'm eating." And the great fortune is that I did write everything down, so I have this play-by-play or a daily record of our lives, never dreaming that would become the focus of the book and it will be because it's a much more personal look and it's also a record of the end of his life. He had a massive stroke 19 months before he died and lost the use of his left side. His brain was intact, so I recorded everything he said during that time. Months in the hospital, and how he coped with the monumental loss of control of his body and movement, and for me it was a way of coping with the time as well. If I could write it down, it was still happening and he was still alive.

What would he think of this resurgence of dance in shows like "So You Think You Can Dance?" or "Dancing With the Stars"?

He would always encourage any form of movement. I think he might be a little bit amused by things like "Dancing With the Stars," where Emmitt Smith would win and they'd say he's just legitimized dance for men. I think Gene would say, "Back in 1958 I did an 'Omnibus' show called 'Dancing Man's Game' specifically about the relationship between sports and dance." I think he'd smile a bit, but anything that gets people moving and to appreciate dance as an art form, I think he'd endorse.

Do you ever think we'll have musicals like "Singin' in the Rain," one that's a true MGM-style, Hollywood original, not just a screen version of a Broadway musical, again?

Gene kept hoping for that. He wanted to create more. Part of the problem is economics. They're very, very expensive. The difference between now and then was that you had companies like MGM that basically worked as repertory companies. You had everybody in house. You had the costume designers, the choreographers, the singers, the composers, the film editors. Everybody was working to create these things. And now to gather that kind of talent -- if that talent even still exists -- is difficult. And to get a studio now to take a risk on making a musical is asking quite a bit. I keep pushing the young people when they roll their eyes at some of the things they see, say, "Vote with your feet. Don't go." Or make something, create something.

I was encouraged by this Warner Bros. DVD. I want to talk to some of these people I saw in this special feature and say create something. Don't redo "Singin' in the Rain" or "An American in Paris." Create something new, but take what you learned and make something monumental that people will still be watching in 60 years, not necessarily something that's going to have the biggest box office. A lot of people don't know how to shoot dance. I think there is a misconception that you have to chop it all up and make it very frenetic for people to digest it. I've been on panels where people say young people don't have any attention span, so you have to make it like this spastic MTV video, and I'm not buying that. I show them the movies and they're glued to them. They're just not being presented with that. "The Artist," that slows it down and shows the dance full form without all the massive cuts, people definitely responded to that, and I would hope that would give some new directors and choreographers encouragement to follow that and begin to understand how to use the camera.

WHAT "An Evening of Gene Kelly," hosted by Patricia Kelly

WHEN | WHERE 7 p.m. July 20 at the Walter Reade Theatre, 165 W. 65th St., Manhattan

INFO $8-$13, filmlinc.com

WHAT "Gene Kelly: Changing the Look of Dance on Film," hosted by Patricia Kelly

WHEN | WHERE 6:30 p.m. July 21 at the Walter Reade Theatre, 165 W. 65th St., Manhattan

INFO $8-$13, filmlinc.com

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