Twenty years before he revived the movie musical with An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain, Gene Kelly was working his way through an economics degree at the University of Pittsburgh. It was 1931. His father had recently lost his job as a traveling salesman for the Columbia Phonograph Company. The family was living in a heavily mortgaged house in Point Breeze and surviving on savings and whatever the five children earned from odd jobs. Gene worked at a construction site and a gas station, and picked up shifts as a soda jerk for the Reymer’s Candy Company and as an assembly worker at the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company. He also made money as a dancer.
Gene (1912-1996) had started dancing, reluctantly, at the age of seven. His mother, Harriet Kelly, had a love of show business. She required all five of her children to take music and dance lessons and even organized them into an amateur act called The Five Kellys. While the youngest, Fred Kelly, was a natural showman who enjoyed dancing at honkytonks from an early age and hosted variety shows for neighborhood kids, Gene initially disliked performing. He and his two brothers were the only boys in the dance classes. They were often teased and sometimes attacked on their way to the studio. At sycuan casino jobs, however, Gene discovered that performing was an asset. “Normally those girls wouldn’t have given me a second look if I hadn’t been such a hit in the school shows,” he said. “But the fact that I was made all the difference.” His senior yearbook listed him in a three-way tie for “Best Dancer.” Soon, Gene and Fred Kelly were touring seedy clubs in the area with a show they called “The Kelly Brothers.”
In 1930, Harriet Kelly had started a dancing school in Johnstown, Pa., in partnership with Lou Bolton, a dancing instructor from Pittsburgh who had produced shows at the Irene Kaufmann Settlement and at Poale Zedeck. She had been volunteering as Bolton’s receptionist for several years in return for free classes for her children and had learned the business well enough to believe she could manage a branch of his operations. When Bolton tired of the trips to Johnstown, Gene took over as the main instructor. By 1931, the family was running the school independently, as their primary source of income. “If someone had left us a grocery store, we would probably have all become grocers,” Gene said, “that’s how desperate things had become.” Their association with Bolton brought the Kelly family to the attention of the dance committee of the Beth Shalom Sisterhood, which hired Gene to produce its annual springtime Kirmiss dance festival in 1932.
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By World War I, many of the Jewish families who had been living to the Hill District were moving to more comfortable neighborhoods of the East End. A small group settled in Squirrel Hill. In September 1917, 35 families held High Holiday services in a room above the Orpheum Theater on Forbes Avenue. They formed a Ladies Auxiliary and a Hebrew School. By 1919, they had grown to 60 families. Originally known as the “Squirrel Hill Congregation,” they applied for a charter in September 1919 under the name Beth Shalom, or House of Peace, to honor of the end of World War I. In 1922, the congregation commissioned the architect Alexander Sharove to design a synagogue at the corner of Beacon Street and Shady Avenue. By the end of the decade, Beth Shalom was the second-largest congregation in the city and broke ground on a major addition to accommodate its growing membership. “As with every other forward movement some said this and some said that and some said the other thing. Was it a good thing at this time to go into a larger building operation and so on and so forth,” Charles H. Joseph wrote an editorial praising the congregation in the Jewish Criterion in December 1930. “But the optimists won.”
Construction began as the Great Depression was gaining momentum, placing added importance on fundraising activities, such as the annual “lawn fete” held in an empty lot where the Squirrel Hill Post Office now stands. “To a 12-year-old city boy it was an exciting few days of lights, sounds and smells that are associated with country fairs,” Sanford Baskind recalled in a 1992 memoir of the neighborhood during the 1930s. The Beth Shalom Sisterhood had also been hosting a Kirmess for children as early as 1927. By 1930, sisterhood member Anne Unger Greenberg was the “dancing chairman” responsible for organizing this fundraiser. She hired the Kelly family after having worked with the Lou Bolton studio. The congregation paid Gene $15 a week to teach dance classes for children on Sunday afternoons, from 2 to 4 p.m., and to produce the Revue of Revues, which was the name chosen for the upcoming Kirmess. The show was held at nearby Taylor Allderdice High School on the evening of April 13, 1932. It featured some 200 children between the ages of three and 13 and raised $1,100. “You could tell at a glance he was a star,” Greenberg later recalled. “He had this incredible magnetism, and he could somehow get children to do anything he wanted them to do. And the Kirmesses he staged were fantastic. Children who didn’t really have much talent would shine under his guidance. And whenever Gene himself was dancing, our audience would just break into applause. He was that good.”
The success of the Kirmess was the beginning of a six-year working relationship between Gene Kelly and the Jewish community of Squirrel Hill. He offered private classes in the basement of Beth Shalom while teaching regular weekly classes and hosting the annual Kirmess every April from 1932 until he left Pittsburgh in 1938. He performed at a “combination stag, smoker and jamboree” hosted by the Men’s Club in January 1934 and at a supper club for Beth Shalom members who were “paid up” on their dues in February 1935. His reputation brought him to the attention of other Jewish groups in the community. He produced a children’s dance festival for the Ladies’ Hospital Aid Society in December 1933 and a Purim Dance Masquerade for the Century Court, No. 100, Order of the Amaranth, in March 1936. Building on the success of their Johnstown studio, the Kelly family opened the Gene Kelly Studio of the Dance in Squirrel Hill, first at 5826 Forbes and later up the block at 5858 Forbes, in an office building built by the Jewish developer Herman Kamin. They later moved to larger facilities in the Beacon Apartments on Munhall Road. By 1939, 150 children were taking part in the school’s annual revue at the Nixon Theater, with about 75 percent coming from Squirrel Hill. The studio continued advertising in the Jewish Criterion and the American Jewish Outlook into the early 1950s. As Gene Kelly honed his unique blend of tap dancing and ballet, he was asked to stage musical numbers in shows at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, which Richard S. and Helen Wayne Rauh had helped establish in 1936. While at the Playhouse, he met his first serious girlfriend, a Jewish dancer named Helene Marlowe.
“He was very friendly, very personable. The whole family, I would say, were very friendly with the Jewish community,” his former student Gloria Elbling Gottlieb recalled in 1990, in a National Council of Jewish Women, Pittsburgh Section, oral history. “The relationship was something that was quite unusual. It would be unusual even today, probably more so than it was then. Maybe because we were all living through a Depression and living in this particular community we each depended on each other and complemented each other.” Gene had friends among the sizeable Jewish population at Peabody High School. He also made Jewish friends during his freshman year at Penn State University, brought together by a mutual exclusion from Protestant fraternities. “The prejudice I encountered at college made a terrific impression on me, probably because I’d come from a family where the word prejudice was never mentioned,” he said.
After earning an economics degree in 1933, Gene Kelly enrolled in law school, but he dropped out after one semester to devote all his energies to dancing. With that decisive action, his career advanced quickly. In August 1938, he bought a one-way ticket to New York. He made his Broadway debut that November. By 1942, he was under contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. By the early 1950s, he was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.
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Gene Kelly maintained many of the friendships he had made in Squirrel Hill, and the Squirrel Hill community followed his career. In November 1938, while performing in Cole Porter’s Leave It To Me at the Imperial Theater in New York, Kelly sent a telegram to Robert Lazar, congratulating the young man on his recent bar mitzvah. The telegram also offered words of encouragement for Robert’s sister, Racelle Lazar, who had been one of the stars of the Gene Kelly Studio. Gene continued corresponding with the Lazars for decades. He wrote Robert Lazar a thank you note on MGM letterhead in 1944 and sent holiday cards to the family into the early 1980s.
As a young girl, Marjorie Spector performed the “Rhythm Tap” in one of the Gene Kelly Studio annual revues. She followed his career for the rest of her life. In her high school diary, she made note of a sighting of Gene Kelly and his family dining at Kahn’s Restaurant on Murray Avenue in February 1943, and, a month later, she penned an entry explaining away his nervous performance in a WJAS radio production of Me and My Gal with Judy Garland and Dick Powell. When a section of East Liberty renamed “Gene Kelly Square” in April 1987, Spector attended the ceremony and took a photograph of her former teacher from the back of the crowd. She also regularly encountered Fred Kelly, who taught dance classes and lectured on the history of dance at the Young Men and Women’s Hebrew Association, in addition to running the family dance studio with his mother and his sister Louise.
Once Kelly became a star, he crossed paths with Pittsburgh Post-Gazette drama and film critic Harold V. Cohen, who was one of the first writers to praise Kelly for his acting, in addition to his singing and dancing. “The movies haven’t given him too much of an opportunity to practice his gifts over and above the specialty for which he is most celebrated,” Cohen wrote in a 1949 review of Take Me Out to the Ballgame, “but anybody who had the good fortune to see him on Broadway in the Saroyan ‘Time of Your Life’ and the O’Hara ‘Pal Joey’ knows that Mr. and Mrs. Kelly’s boy can hang up his dancing shoes any time he likes and still remain steadily employed in Hollywood.”
Gene Kelly also never forgot his earliest patron. When the Civic Light Opera honored Kelly in June 1981 with a noontime rally in Mellon Square, he told promoters beforehand that he wouldn’t dance during the event. But Kelly voluntarily broke his rule to briefly sashay with a “slight, white-haired woman,” as the Pittsburgh Press reported. It was Anne Unger Greenberg, holding a program from the first Kirmess. “The lady I was dancing with gave me my first job at Beth Shalom shul where I taught kids,” Kelly explained to the crowd. It wasn’t a stunt; they had been in touch for years. “He sent her a birthday card every year and he also wrote a beautiful letter on her 90th birthday when her daughter gave her a big party at the Hilton,” Roz Litman told the Post-Gazette.