by Cleveland Amory
“I myself have always equated dancing with sports. YA Tittle throwing a forward pass is a dancer. And one of the most beautiful dances I’ve ever seen is a man sliding into second while the shortstop and second baseman try for the double play.”
A star high-school halfback before he was a dancer, Eugene Curran Kelly was born in Pittsburgh, of a first-generation Irish father and a mother who had been on stage as a girl. She made him go to dancing school, which he hated; now he blesses her for it. By the time he was a senior in high school, he wasn’t afraid of being called “sissy.”
“If anyone called me that, I’d punch him in the nose.”
Then came the University of Pittsburgh — he worked his way through, partly as a ditch digger, partly by dancing.
Meanwhile, back home, the Kelly cellar was turned into a dancing school — with Mamma Kelly as director and Gene teaching tap and ballet.
He went to New York to be a choreographer, but instead got a job in the chorus of Cole Porter’s Leave It to Me, the 1938 show in which Mary Martin sang “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.” “I was the boy beside her,” recalls Kelly, “ogling her in an Eskimo suit.”
Three shows later, however, came his own starring role, in Pal Joey. Kelly, as the heel-and-toe hero, was sensational in what is still regarded as possibly the most physically difficult role ever performed — he had 80 “sides” and no fewer than 11 acrobatic numbers.
From then to his forthcoming movie, What a Way To Go, with Shirley MacLaine, Kelly has been going strong.
Twice married, Gene has a daughter, Kerry, 21, and a son, Timothy, 2.
He is known in Hollywood for his love of political activity, his hatred of gossip, and his youthful spirit. “To get a kick out of being in this business,” he emphasizes, “you have to be touched with a streak of perennial adolescence.”