A Local Favorite from The Past Is Still Fondly Remembered

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A Local Favorite from The Past Is Still Fondly Remembered

Journeys into Oradell

If one were to look among the list of notables associated with Oradell (Wikipedia) the name is not present. Nor is there much written about him and his connection to town.

But in his time, Fred Kelly was a local legend.

For a couple generations, Mr. Kelly was as much Oradell as Hagler’s, Schrieber’s or the old Grand Union.

To many he was known as the brother of actor-dancer Gene Kelly. But to many others he was Fred Kelly - THE Fred Kelly - of the Fred Kelly Dance Studio.

Fred Kelly, Gene Kelly and three other siblings grew up in Pittsburgh. Their father, James Patrick Kelly, was a sales executive with the Columbia Phonograph Company. According to Fred's reminiscences, his father, as the personal representative of Thomas Edison, sent hundreds of rail cars to the Midwest with the first phonographs and records to reach that part of the country. His mother, Harriet, performed as a hobby with a local stock company and insisted that all her children take music and dance lessons. Fred began performing at the age of 4.

The children began performing around 1921 as the Five Dancing Kellys, and they filled in in Pittsburgh for the Seven Little Foys, the popular dancing children of the vaudevillian Eddie Foy, when the Foys were trapped in Ohio by a snowstorm. Not only was Fred perceived as the family "cutie pie," but he was also the family's natural tap dancer. By the time he was 8 he was earning as much as $50 a month as a performer, good money even for an adult in 1924. It was Fred who taught Gene tap so Gene could earn extra money for college.

Fred graduated from the University of Pittsburgh, where he became the first member of the family to appear in films, as the panther mascot to Pitt's football team. He then joined Gene in New York. When Gene had to give up his part in the Theater Guild's production of "The Time of Your Life" to take the title role in the Broadway stage production of "Pal Joey," he recommended that Fred replace him. With the permission of the play's author, William Saroyan, Fred increased his character's dance scenes to 11 from 6. His performance earned three Donaldson Awards, precursors of the Tony. One was presented by Helen Hayes, one by Charlie Chaplin and one by Antoinette Perry, for whom the Tony was named.

Fred Kelly got a screen test with MGM in 1941 but they were not impressed much. During World War II he performed in Irving Berlin's "This Is the Army," which began on Broadway with a cast of 300 American servicemen and toured the world. When the show played Washington, President Franklin D. Roosevelt invited the whole company to dinner at the White House. Fred ended up staying late into the evening to talk with the president and his wife, Eleanor, according to a biography prepared by Andy McGowan for the Lamb's Club, a theatrical club in which Fred was active. When the show played the Mariana Islands in the Pacific, Fred joined other entertainers standing at attention as the Enola Gay took off to drop an atomic bomb on Japan.

After the war Mr. Kelly was hired by NBC to direct television shows, including "The Steve Allen Show" and "The Colgate Comedy Hour." Fred was hired by NBC to direct the Lanny Ross Show, a pioneering musical variety program. Ross decided to stop doing the show and Fred was assigned to another, the Kay Kyser Kollege of Musical Knowledge. Later, he directed more than a thousand hours of The Steve Allen Show and the first 26 United Cerebral Palsy telethons. He directed commercials with the likes of Tallulah Bankhead, Jimmy Durante, and Olsen and Johnson for use in the shows they starred in.

Meanwhile Fred also choreographed and directed three years of Ice Capades. That show was owned by John H. Harris, owner of the Warner theaters in Pittsburgh and a big piece of Republic Pictures. When the show played Los Angeles, tickets were given to movie studios, who passed them on to their big names. Metro-Golden-Mayer tickets went to such people as Ethel and Lionel Barrymore, Clark Gable and Louis B. Mayer, but not their new actor-dancer, Gene Kelly. Fred arranged for Gene and his wife to sit in the Republic central box, next to MGM's, leading Mayer to ask why someone didn't tell him that Gene had such an influential brother.

He also taught Queen Elizabeth and her sister Margaret how to dance when they were both still young princesses.

In the 1950s, his wife, Dottie, persuaded him to open the dance studio in Oradell, where he taught a young John Travolta to dance. He also taught at Pace University for 24 years.

Fred continued to run his dance school as well until he sold it in 1983, and then he and his wife Dottie retired to Tucson. His wife died from lung cancer in 1995. Fred died in 2000 at age 83.

To this day generations still recall their experience as students at the Fred Kelly Dance School.

Today there is a Fred Astaire Dance School location at the site of the old A&P on Kinderkamack. So, the tradition of Dance continues.

Every time I pass the Fred Astaire location I think of Fred Kelly.

Michael Kelly, Fred’s son, once said of Fred, who spent his whole life in Gene's shadows. "Everybody knew who Gene was, but everybody knew Fred".

Those shadows did not extend to Oradell. Even today Fred is still fondly remembered here, almost 40 years since he was last in town.

Acknowledgement for source materials and image : A Trip Down Memory Lane from which the background on Fred Kelly was taken. http://greatentertainersarchives.blogspot.com/2013/06/fred-kelly-dancing-in-shadows.html