20 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Gene Kelly

This weekend marks the eighteenth anniversary of Gene Kelly’s death. Here are 20 things you may not know about the Hollywood song-and-dance man.


  1. The scar on his left cheek is a result of a childhood tricycle accident.
  2. His initial goal in life was to play shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
  3. Kelly left the Broadway stage and his family’s successful dance school in Pittsburgh to make a name for himself in Hollywood. (Boy, did he.)
  4. His film Anchors Aweigh (1945) was the first musical to mix live-action and animation. Kelly wanted to dance with Mickey Mouse, but Walt Disney wouldn’t allow it, so he danced with Jerry the Mouse instead.
  5. For his role in The Pirate (1948), he invented “the Ubangi” (now called a “camera offset”), a mechanism to get low-angle shots that were virtually impossible because of the large size of Technicolor cameras.
  6. Olympic swimmer Esther Williams, Kelly’s costar in Take Me Out to the Ballgame (1949), apparently detested him. In her memoir, she recalls that while Kelly was “one of the most winning and likable of men onscreen, he was nothing less than a tyrant behind the camera.” He was “merciless” and “his words dripped sarcasm with every step.”
  7. He never won an Academy Award, but he was given an Honorary Oscar in 1952 “in appreciation of his versatility as an actor, singer, director and dancer, and specifically for his brilliant achievements in the art of choreography on film.”
  8. He created an experimental film called Invitation to the Dance (1956). There is no dialogue in the film; all narratives are told through only dance and mime.
  9. On television, he danced alongside Sugar Ray Robinson and Mickey Mantle in Dancing: A Man’s Game (1958), released on DVD last month.
  10. He may have had a fling with Gloria Vanderbilt.
  11. In 1960, the Paris Opera House commissioned Kelly to choose his own material and create a modern ballet for the company. The result was Pas De Dieux, “the first jazz ballet ever staged by the stately old Paris Opera.” Kelly received a fifteen-minute ovation and twenty-seven curtain calls, and a few days later he was made a Knight of the Legion D’Honneur by the Director-General of the Opera [Photos from LIFE.]
  12. He performed at JFK’s inauguration in 1961.
  13. He directed Barbra Streisand in Hello Dolly! (1969), and he almost directed Liza Minnelli in Cabaret (1972).
  14. He danced with Hollywood’s other famous star/dancer Fred Astaire only twice onscreen: in Ziegfield Follies (1945) and That’s Entertainment 2 (1976).
  15. His character is drugged, shoved into a sanitarium, and goes mad in Viva Knievel! (1977).
  16. His dancing inspired Carl Sandberg to create the poem “Lines Written for Gene Kelly to Dance To.”
  17. He was fluent in French, and he loved France.
  18. Each year the Pittsburgh Civic Lights Opera doles out awards and scholarships to high school seniors who excel in musical theatre. The Gene Kelly Awards for Excellence in High School Musical Theatre were founded in 1991.
  19. Gene Kelly’s papers (i.e., his memos, essays, contracts, telegraphs, etc.) are housed at the Boston University Library. (There are boxes and boxes of them.)
  20. On his death in February 1996, the lights of Broadway were dimmed in his honor.
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