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Kamloops News

THOMPSON: Gene Kelly became more famous but his brother Fred got the last laugh

January 08, 2018 - 12:00 PM



I’ve always been a night owl. I write late at night…usually from 11 o’clock until about two in the morning. While writing… I often have the television on and tuned to music or more likely an old movie.

Such was the case a couple weeks ago. As I wrote, I heard the inimitable voice of Gene Kelly and looked up at the screen. The movie was “Deep in My Heart,” a 1954 flick about Hungarian Sigmund Romberg, a composer of Broadway’s biggest musical hits in the “Roaring 20s.” Jose Ferrer played Romberg in the movie… so unless you’re an old movie buff or just old… you likely neither heard of Romberg nor Ferrer.

But, before I get lost in old movie trivia… my column today is a tribute to one of the greatest male dancers of all time. His last name was Kelly…but no…it’s not Gene. It is his younger brother, Fred. The movie - “Deep in My Heart” - is the only film where brothers Gene and Fred danced together… singing and dancing to “I Love to Go Swimmin’ with Wimmen,” a clever and well-choreographed number.

As my wife, Bonnie, could testify, I have seen nearly every Hollywood musical ever made… and those with my two favourite dancers - Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly - more times than you can count on your fingers and toes.

Today, most people don’t recognize Fred Kelly. After all, brother Gene starred in some of the greatest musicals of all time… ”Singin’ in the Rain,” “An American in Paris,” “Cover Girl,” “It’s Always Fair Weather,” “Brigadoon,” “Anchors Aweigh” and “On the Town,” among others.

But, early on it was younger Fred who taught big brother Gene to tap dance so he could earn extra cash teaching tap to other students at college. Later, when Gene moved to Hollywood, Fred stayed home, preferring the stage and television, and traditional family life in Closter, NJ. Gene was talented and ambitious… and Hollywood would become his home. Fred loved the stage - whether it was Broadway or his kids’ high school -  and he loved his hometown maybe even more.

By all rights, Gene became the more famous dancer and choreographer… millions worldwide saw his handiwork and footwork. And Fred was okay with that… though he did get the last laugh of sorts. After a special screening of “An American in Paris” in London for Queen Elizabeth II in 1951, newspapers reported that the Queen eagerly approached Gene at the reception before the screening with, “Oh, Mr. Kelly, is it true you are the brother of Fred Kelly?”

It turned out that Fred - as a Sergeant in a travelling U.S. Army dance troupe - had given princesses Elizabeth and Margaret ballroom dance lessons near the end of World War II. Fred would tease brother Gene for decades about his Royal notoriety.

But make no mistake… Fred made his own way just fine… on stage and on television. Fred replaced brother Gene in the Broadway production of “The Time of Your Life,” re-choreographing his dance numbers and increasing them from six to 11. He won three Donaldson Awards, the precursor of today’s Tony Awards.

Fred also starred in Irving Berlin’s “You’re in the Army,” during the war years on Broadway, which toured with a 300-member cast throughout the United States. When the war ended, Fred worked for NBC, where he directed early television shows, including "The Steve Allen Show" and "The Colgate Comedy Hour." Also, he choreographed and directed the Ice Capades for three years, as well as dancing and choreographing productions at leading night clubs in New York.

When I worked in New York City in the late-1970s and early-1980s, I remember going to Roseland Ballroom on West 52nd Street from time to time. You could still go there and dance…even find a partner if you were a single. With Disco it made a tragic turn… and even became a dangerous place…before it finally closed. But its quarter-acre dance floor in the middle of Manhattan was special back in the day…they even had live big bands.

On an early visit there - probably 1978 - I perused the photographs and shoes of famous dancers on Roseland’s Wall of Fame. Fred’s dance shoes were there…where he was credited with introducing the cha-cha to America, as well as making the mambo the rage in the 1930s. He still taught individual and group dance lessons there when I worked in Manhattan… I regret not taking lessons from him.

Back then - even today - I romanticized about living in New York in an earlier time. Band leaders like Harry James, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Count Basie, Chick Webb, among others, all played Roseland. Big Band singers like Ella Fitzgerald and artists like Louis Armstrong were there, too. I would have loved it.

But mostly, I could have seen those great dancers… like Fred Kelly. So, that night a couple weeks ago, I kept rewinding the movie and watching Fred’s and Gene’s steps to “I Love to Go Swimmin’ with Wimmen.” I had a smile on my face the entire time. Thanks, Fred… oh, and you, too, Gene.

– Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines.  His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.

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