Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
Women reminisce about Gene Kelly, the teacher
BY CODY McDEVITT firstname.lastname@example.org
Alice Jean Krope remembers Gene Kelly. She remembers him putting her on his shoulders as they walked up the stairs to their dance class in Johnstown. She remembers Kelly affectionately calling her “Alice Jean, the village queen.” “He was a wonderful teacher,” Krope said. “He could make a kid with two left feet dance. I never forgot that. Because there were some kids who were kind of clumsy, but after a while, they could dance.”
Krope, 88, of Johnstown, is one of the few remaining people in the area who learned to dance from Kelly. She was 8 years old when she first met him. Kelly danced into the hearts of American women with his turn in “Singin’ in the Rain” and a number of other Hollywood musicals. He spent a significant portion of his youth in Johnstown, where he taught at and ran a dance studio from 1930 throughout the Great Depression. The Johnstown studio was the second opened by Lou Bolton, a dancing studio manager in Pittsburgh. The Kelly family members were hired as instructors at the studio. Harriet Kelly, Gene’s mother, convinced Bolton to expand his school into the area, according to “Gene Kelly: A Life of Dance and Dreams” by Alvin Yudkoff.
Johnstown already had a dance studio at the time, but the owner, according to Gene Kelly, “Gave his pupils a little heel-and-toe and, after one lesson, convinced their parents their little geniuses were dancing. We taught them properly. We taught our kids to dance like professionals. We got them working at the barre and though it would take a month before they mastered a step, it remained with them for the rest of their lives.”
The American Legion Hall housed the first Kelly studio. Kelly passed out flyers on Johnstown sidewalks to attract pupils. About a dozen came. They picked up a secondhand piano and an elderly lady in Johnstown to play it. The lady could not read music, but she could manage a few standard tunes. Since many families lacked money to pay for lessons during the Great Depression, the Kellys often traded dance lessons for potatoes, home-baked bread, vegetables and other bartered items.
For Me and My Gal (1942)
On Saturday during his college years at Penn State, Kelly would drive to Johnstown to be in the studio before 8 a.m. Then he would teach for 14 consecutive hours before driving to Pittsburgh. There were eight basic routines of gradually increasing complexity the students had to learn. Kelly encouraged them to take the dance layouts home to practice. And his brother, Fred Kelly, worked individually with people if they missed a class.
Since Bolton didn’t want to drive to Johnstown, he deputized Kelly to run the studio. Eventually he sold both the Pittsburgh and Johnstown locations to the Kelly family. The studio was moved to a bigger location along Main Street in 1932.
Summer Stock (1950)
Though he was a popular man in town, Kelly had to be savvy at self-promotion to make the business profitable. He arranged trade agreements with the town’s newspaper and radio station. He gave free lessons for the owner’s children in return for ad space and spot time. He put together brochures. He hired high school students to place a flyer in every mailbox in town. Kelly announced a children’s show that would have free admission. It became such a popular show that it was repeated seven times.
Some of the productions the studio put on were “Johnstown on Parade,” “Gene Kelly’s Kiddies Vodvil,” and “The Talk of the Town Revue.” There were a number of revues staged by the Kellys during the studio’s run. The main purpose of the shows was always the same: to make the children better at dancing. The inside of the program for the June 30, 1943, show read, “Childhood is the age to commence the training that will lead to poise. Poise is not usually a natural attribute. No other exercise can develop ease of carriage and poise, nor eliminate awkwardness due to abnormal development, as can dancing. Every normal child will dance if given the opportunity, for dancing is a natural form of exercise for the child; it develops a normal body and an alert mind.”
Footage found on Youtube titled “Gene Kelly Dance School”
Janet Rowland, 83, of Johnstown, participated in the revues for many years. It took weeks to learn the choreography and production for the shows, she said. “I remember working hard to prepare and being excited,” she said. “There were quick changes of clothing and costumes. There was a lot of preparation. It was fun. There was always satisfaction (at the end) that you were able to do it. “When you were done with your number, you felt glad if it went well and upset if you made a mistake.”
The entertainment varied from the simple ballet pieces to full-stage military tap routines. There were also teamwork kick routines modeled on the Radio City Rockettes. Kelly cast people based on their physical strengths. Gymnasts were given acrobatic parts. He would often incorporate the fad dance of the year — the Black Bottom, the Turkey Trot or the Big Apple — into the routine if a student wanted to do it. By 1933, 150 students attended the school.
An American in Paris (1951)
Kelly organized the Johnstown Youth Orchestra, which became one of the town’s most popular attractions. He took the youths on tour through Cresson, Portage, Grove City and Slippery Rock. His group always found audiences. “He became a breakout star quickly after they planted the school here,” said Richard Burkert, president of the Johnstown Area Heritage Association. “These were children of middle-class people who came and danced. I think he caught on because kids love to dance and their parents loved to watch them. As a parent and grandparent, I know I went to everything my grandkids went to. It’s human nature.”
As time went by, Kelly’s show business career began to take off. His trips to Johnstown became infrequent, according to “Johnstown, Pennsylvania: A History” by Randy Whittle.
The Gene Kelly School of Dance continued for more than 20 years after its namesake became a star. Later, Louise Kelly, his sister, headed the school, which was then called the Kelly Dance Studio. The Kellys became inactive with the school after 1953, and it closed in 1963.
Krope, who looks a decade younger than she actually is, said the lessons have stuck with her. She remembers the moves, like Kelly said she would, and she credits her youthful vigor to her experience as his pupil. “I can still do some of them,” she said. “I give the dancing credit for having pretty good health all these years.”