Gene Kelly’s dance with immortality started here

by George Flynn

Think of Gene Kelly and you might envision flawless dance skills paired with an impeccable singing voice. Kelly perfectly symbolizes the Golden Age of Hollywood. His iconic umbrella scene from Singin’ in the Rain has become a touchstone of American culture. But Gene Kelly was not always a Hollywood hotshot. He was born right here in Pittsburgh in 1912. As a boy, Kelly danced while his peers played sports. He eventually taught dancing lessons in several locations, including Johnstown.

Photo credit: Kards Unlimited

Photo credit: Kards Unlimited

Pittsburgh resident Florence Dancha was one of his students in the mid-1930s. “He was such a happy and energetic man. All the girls in the room fed off his energy. He was one of the nicest men I had ever met,”she says. Kelly operated a dance studio on Munhall Road while attending the University of Pittsburgh. After teaching at the school for four years, he lit out for New York – and stardom – in 1937. “I missed him dearly. I stopped dancing once he left,”Dancha says. “I was happy for him, though. By the time I was a teenager, he was becoming a very successful dancer and actor in Hollywood. It was neat seeing him on screen.” After starring on Broadway, Kelly made his film debut in 1942 in For Me and My Gal opposite Judy Garland. He sang and danced in various films with Frank Sinatra, Cyd Charisse and Leslie Caron and starred in – and choreographed – iconic films such as On the Town, Summer Stock and, his most popular, Singin’ in the Rain. Kelly had dramatic chops, too, and portrayed a cynical journalist modeled after H.L. Mencken in the drama Inherit the Wind, based on the Scopes Monkey Trial.

As the popularity of musicals declined in the late 1950s and age inhibited his muscular, acrobatic dance style, Kelly appeared mostly on television, but he did team up with Olivia Newton-John in the ill-fated big-budget musical Xanadu in 1980. He retired from acting in the mid-1980s and died on February 2, 1996.