Friends share warm memories of Kelly

GOOD MORNING: Only last week, Quincy Jones called Gene Kelly’s longtime agent and friend Mort Viner to ask for Kelly’s phone number, to discuss an idea Quincy had to tribute Gene on this year’s Oscarcast. Viner had to tell him sadly that Gene was not able to talk — and that the end was near. Jones almost broke down. He had known Kelly from early days, when they’d visit at he Arizona ranch of Arthur Loew Jr. (Kelly’s longtime pal) and Gene would talk for hours to the young, talented Jones about music for movie musicals. Jones says, “He was a dear friend and genius in his field. I will miss him very much as an artist and as a masterpiece of humanity.” The fact Jones didn’t know how ill Kelly was shows it was the way Kelly wanted it. He didn’t wish anyone to know or see him in his failing days (months) — only the way he was. One of the last times I saw Gene was April 28, 1994, when I m.c.’d the premiere of “That’s Entertainment! III” at the National Theater in Westwood. He became seriously ill shortly thereafter. But he came to the premiere, using a cane and supported by wife Pat. I walked down from my stand to interview him, Cyd Charisse, who arrived simultaneously, and, sadly, Ginger Rogers — in a wheelchair. It was an emotional moment … MGM/UA’s George Feltenstein, executive in charge of “T.E. III,” revealed that Gene, despite his infirmity, had insisted on walking, without a cane, across Stage 5 at MGM (now Sony) to do his narration for the movie and how he also tirelessly worked the press junkets before the opening. The fact Gene Kelly remains alive with fans — young and old — is evident in the stacks of fan mail sent to him at MGM (and forwarded to his house). They know him as the image they continue to see on screen and tape. But I remember that vibrant Kelly who would permit this young reporter to visit his sets on the giant MGM stages as he meticulously shot the classic numbers. Or as I watched him rehearse for hours in the famous MGM Rehearsal Halls A, B and C, on the Washington Boulevard side of the lot, the birthplace of so many magical musical numbers for every MGM movie … Jack Haley Jr., godfather to Kelly’s daughter Bridget (along with Ethel Kennedy as godmother), had met Kelly, at first, through his father, who knew him on Broadway. Haley said, “There would have been no ‘That’s Entertainment!’ (part one, two or three or “That’s Dancing”) without Kelly.” He did the entire (first narration) and got others like Fred Astaire, Elizabeth Taylor, etc., to create the hit history of the MGM musicals. “He gave that ‘machismo’ to the dance,” said pal Haley. “He had legs like oak trees!”

“IT BROKE MY HEART,” Donald O’Connor told me, “when I spoke to him about a month ago. It was difficult for him to talk, and I couldn’t bear to picture him in a wheelchair. I called him whenever I was in town (from his new home in Sedona). I was sorry to just see him — all of us — get old.” But Donald is in fine shape — 70 and spry, in the gym three times a week. Recalling working on “Singin’ in the Rain,” O’Connor said, “It was instant camaraderie between Gene, Debbie (Reynolds) and me. I always regretted we never worked together again. Although I did a TV special with Gene. We had so many laughs. I’d show up in the morning and ask him how he was and we’d both start to laugh. I watched him do his ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ number where his suits would shrink immediately in the ‘rain.’ And he watched my ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’ (classic number). And when the three of us did our ‘Good Morning’ number (tumbling over couches, etc.), we just kept wondering which one of us would get killed! Gene and I had a relationship like George Burns and Jack Benny. We’d just look at each other and start to laugh. He could do anything — he had a style of his own. I tried to get Fred (Astaire) to do a movie with us, but Fred said, ‘I’m getting too old to convince people girls were falling for me!’ It was a big disappointment in my life that the three of us didn’t do a movie together.” Donald admitted, “When we were doing the ‘Moses Supposes’ number, we completed it in three-quarters of a day. It was very physical. When we went into ‘Fit as a Fiddle,’ the same day, Gene’s bow slipped under the strings. ‘Your bow is two inches shorter than mine,’ he shouted and threw the fiddle down and went into his dressing room. I thought he went bananas but when I knocked on his door and he let me in, he laughed. ‘I’m exhausted,’ he said, but he didn’t want anyone (else) around the set to know it”… And Debbie Reynolds reminds, “He (Kelly) made me a star in ‘Singin’ in the Rain,’ he taught me how to dance and how to work hard, to be dedicated and yet still loving as he was to his family and friends.”

“HIS CONTRIBUTIONS WILL always be remembered,” Stanley Donen told me from his N.Y. home. They became pals in 1940 on B’way in “Pal Joey”–“even though he was 12 years older than I.” They teamed onscreen in “Singin’ in the Rain,” “On the Town,” “It’s Always Fair Weather.” Donen was too broken up to talk much more about his old friend … Barbra Streisand, who starred for director Kelly in “Hello Dolly!,” said she first saw him “in ‘Marjorie Morningstar’ and fell in love — that crooked smile. He leaves his legacy of great talent for us to enjoy forever”… Walter Matthau, directed by Kelly in “Hello, Dolly!” and in “A Guide for the Married Man,” was a regular at the Kelly home for dinners, but recalls, “He was a very quiet man — very unassuming.” Walter, you will be happy to know, is feeling great, working out, walking a lot and ready to work with Jack Lemmon again in July in “Out to Sea,” which 20th plans for Christmas. “‘Lemmon and Matthau are good for Christmas,’ they tell me.” … Frank Sinatra learned of Gene’s death as he was driving to Palm Springs Friday morning to launch his golf tourney. He had known Gene for 50 years and was always amazed when he saw how Gene got him to dance on screen. “He was a perfectionist — I should know, I practiced for days (when barely 30 years old) and then couldn’t believe what I saw! I loved him very much. Barbara and I will miss him. He was one of a kind.” … Betty Comden was one of the last to see Gene. They had worked together and were friends for 35 years … Nancy Reagan recalled “there wasn’t anything he couldn’t do and do well. He made you believe Hollywood was a magical place! Ronnie and I enjoyed every movie Gene made, but one of our all-time favorites has to be ‘An American in Paris.’ The song ‘Our Love Is Here to Stay’ has always had special meaning to us — we’ve sung it at our anniversary celebration for years.” … One of Kelly’s closest friends was Warren Cowan, who with wife Barbara attended Kelly’s wedding to Pat in Santa Barbara — only the four of them in the wedding party. Warren recalls Kelly was “a modest man. We’d share a car to go to premieres — not a limo, but a town car. He lived in his same Beverly Hills home for over 30 years — and when it burned down, he rebuilt it exactly the way it was”– minus the priceless mementos of an incomparable career. … And writer Harry Crane said, “I’m throwing away my phone book.” But the memories linger on.