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What most becomes a legend

By Charlene Baldridge

Gene Kelly’s wife and biographer keeps his legend alive

In 1985, a young writer named Patricia Ward went to work on a TV special about the Smithsonian Institution. Her avid interest in author Herman Melville had previously landed her work on a film on Melville’s life and works, something she thought would also be her future.

That all changed when Ward met the host of the Smithsonian show, a man who took over her life. He was kind and attractive and persuaded her to move to Los Angeles to help him write his memoirs. He happened to be the legendary dancer, director and choreographer Gene Kelly.

Patricia Ward Kelly and Gene Kelly (Courtesy of Patricia Ward Kelly)

“The grand irony,” Patricia said by phone from her home in Los Angeles, “was that I had no idea who Gene Kelly was. It stuns me now because I can’t quite comprehend that. In retrospect, it really was the way to meet him, because he was a completely blank slate, and so I fell in love with his use of language, his brightness, his real charm and gentlemanly qualities before I had any idea he was famous.

“He was incredibly handsome — here’s a guy quoting Yeats and the other romantic poets and using a wonderful blend of language that was my background. I must say I was enchanted but that was before I knew he was a legend.”

Gene Kelly in “Singin’ in the Rain” (Courtesy of Patricia Ward Kelly)

From the moment she became Gene Kelly’s official biographer, Patricia Ward recorded Gene’s words daily. They were wed in 1990 and she became Patricia Ward Kelly. He died in 1996 and she’s been talking about him and living with him ever since.

To celebrate his 100th birthday in 2012 she wrote a one-woman show about his life, his influence on dance in film and his legacy as an actor/choreographer and a unique human being.

Kelly’s films include “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952) and “An American in Paris” (1951) and they continued on and on, right up to the cult favorite, “Xanadu” (1980).

Under the auspices of San Diego Theatres, Patricia Ward Kelly presents “Gene Kelly: The Legacy, an Afternoon with Patricia Ward Kelly” on Saturday, April 15 at 2 p.m. in the Balboa Theatre. The show consists of stories, video, and tales of magical days in Hollywood, presented with great love and intimacy.

On Sunday, April 2, Kelly provides a preamble, personally introducing the screening of her late husband’s films, “Singin’ in the Rain,” at 1 p.m. and “An American in Paris” at 5 p.m.

Patricia Ward Kelly continues to spread husband Gene’s legacy through appearances. (Courtesy of Patricia Ward Kelly)

Asked if she expects to continue devoting her life to Gene Kelly, his archives, and his legacy, Patricia said, “Well, I hope so, because I’m having such a good time, and it’s a privilege. If I kick the bucket, I could say I’ve had an extraordinary run.

“It’s a joy to share Gene’s work,” she continued. “We’re part of a wonderful community. In a sense, he doesn’t need me — he’ll continue — but I am able to introduce him to younger generations and to people who love him very much but aren’t aware of the many dimensions of him. For instance the artists involved in the film ‘La La Land’ came to study Gene’s work. To the degree I can provide Gene’s heart and process to the world, I want to keep doing that.”

Treat yourself to a Gene Kelly fest at the Balboa Theatre in April. The combination of seeing the films introduced by Patricia Ward Kelly and then seeing her show makes for a rich experience.

Tickets are on sale now at Balboa Theatre, 868 Fourth Ave. at E Street, adjacent to Horton Plaza, and online at bit.ly/2mcYCOj and bit.ly/2mcIoEE or 619-570-1100.

—Charlene Baldridge has been writing about the arts since 1979. You can follow her blog at charlenecriticism.blogspot.com or reach her at charb81@gmail.com.

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