Gene Kelly and Patricia Ward Kelly
Gene Kelly and Patricia Ward Kelly Supplied

Rare look at the life of Hollywood icon

A DINNER invitation to Patricia Ward Kelly's house is not one you want to turn down.

Not only will you hear fascinating stories about her late husband Gene Kelly and get a glimpse at some of the cinematic history documented in his archives, but you'll get the best meal you've ever tasted from a toaster oven.

"Basically what my townhouse consists of is 85 filing cabinets (of Gene's archives). I don't even have a couch or an oven. I cook everything in a toaster oven and a hotplate. It's become legendary," she says.

"My friends tease me. I go to see performances, then I go backstage to meet the performers and inevitably I invite them to come over for dinner. They say 'There's quite a few of us' and I say 'Oh that's fine, no problem'.

"Choreographer Matthew Bourne and his cast of Swan Lake were in town so I invited them over. I had 50 people and I did a salmon dinner I cooked in my toaster oven. People ask me 'Why don't you get an oven?' and I say 'Well, then it wouldn't be as funny'."

Some of her other famous guests include the Australian Ballet and Damien Chazelle, the director of the Oscar-winning film La La Land.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in a scene from La La Land.
Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in a scene from La La Land.

"Damien is a friend and obviously Gene was a huge inspiration for him," she says. "He said he was just working on this little dance film and he said 'Do you mind if I bring a friend?'. He asked if he could bring Emma Stone and the choreographer Mandy Moore, and then he rang again and said 'Do you mind if I bring Ryan Gosling?'.

"They all came and they just geeked out at seeing Gene's things. It's very powerful seeing his handwritten choreography to Singin' in the Rain. It makes it all so much more meaningful."

Patricia is currently touring her one-woman presentation Gene Kelly: The Legacy in Australia.

The event combines rare and familiar film clips, previously unreleased recordings, personal memorabilia and insights from hours of interviews and conversations with her husband. Patricia was only 26 when she was hired to work alongside legendary performer, director and choreographer in 1985. She had no idea who he was and had never even seen his most iconic film Singin' in the Rain.

Debbie Reynolds with Gene Kelly in Singing in the Rain.Source:News Limited
Debbie Reynolds with Gene Kelly in Singing in the Rain.Source:News Limited

But she was smitten by the 73-year-old and the couple married five years later.

"I didn't know the movies, I didn't have the same fantasies other people had. I stumbled into it," she says.

"So many people were gushing over him when I first met him, but I didn't have that sense of rapture and he was amused by that. We bonded over things we both loved - words, poetry.

"People assume I'm a dancer, but I'm far from that. I did go to the Gene Kelly school of standing and walking. Gene just walking across the floor is beautiful. You see that in Xanadu in the number he choreographed. He talked to me about how you enter a room, how you stand for a photograph."

Patricia became Gene's biographer, recording their daily conversations for nearly a decade before his death in 1996 at age 83.

Patricia Ward Kelly and her husband Gene Kelly. Supplied for Elizabeth Fortescue
Patricia Ward Kelly and her husband Gene Kelly. Supplied for Elizabeth Fortescue

"I was trained as an archivist and I think Gene knew I would take care of the things," she says. "I'm only just doing the preliminary work to get things out of boxes and into archival sleeves, trying to catalogue everything. I'll pull out a photograph and you start to look at who are the people in this picture? What is the event? If it's not documented then I go exploring to figure things out. It's so interesting. I'll pull out a letter from Laurence Olivier and ask 'What film is he talking about?' If I didn't have an emotional connection to the person and wasn't that fascinated by the life it then would be faster and easier."

Gene Kelly: The Legacy was conceived in 2012 during the anniversary of Gene's 100th birthday. Since launching the show two years ago, Patricia has met fans around the world. This will be her first ever visit to Australia.

"Gene was very specific about how he wanted to be remembered - not for being a movie star but for his work behind the camera as a choreographer so people don't lose sight that he conceived what you're watching," she says.

 

Patricia Ward Kelly is touring the country with her show Gene Kelly: The Legacy.
Patricia Ward Kelly is touring the country with her show Gene Kelly: The Legacy. Supplied

"I wrote the show in one night, but it was 20-plus years in the making. It stemmed from the decade I recorded him and the decade after he died. I was constantly mulling over these things and I knew exactly the clips I wanted to use. I wanted people to see the side they don't know about him; to walk away with a much fuller sense of who he was and what kind of man he was.

"It's different every night. I change the stories depending on the audience. It's a very fluid experience we're having. It really starts as people come in the door. I greet them and stay after the show. Often people have their own story of how they were touched by his work. It's a really reciprocal relationship."

Patricia hopes to one day make Gene's extensive archives available to the public.

"I always say when I kick the bucket I would like the archives to go on in perpetuity. I want to create a virtual collection so people around the world can access it and new generations will be able to hear Gene talking about the connection between classical ballet and baseball, or poetry and Singin' in the Rain," she says.

"If they went into a collection they might never be seen.

"Right now I'm making sure the basics are laid in. Everything will have to be digitised - that's my dream and my goal."

Gene Kelly: The Legacy plays the QPAC Concert Hall on Sunday at 2pm. For more information go to qpac.com.au.