Through Two Peepers in Tune with the Times

A Dancing Man

One winter during the war, Gene Kelly's brother taught Eisenhower to dance. A novelist conjures the scene.

- Fred Kelly, 83, a Dancer in a Shadow, Dies (March 17, 2000) during the winter of 1944, the company of "This Is the Army" returned to London to perform for General Eisenhower. Except for Irving Berlin, who had conceived and written the music and who sang his World War I hit "Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning" at the end of the second act, all of the singers, dancers and musicians who performed in the show, as well as the stagehands and technical crew, were soldiers. Before the war, they had been hoofers and chorus boys and set-builders and radio stars; now they were a commissioned company of the United States Army.

As they toured the theaters of the war, boosting Allied morale, they traveled like soldiers, on troop trains and in the cold bellies of C-47's. They were housed in barracks and tents. Nevertheless, theirs was, militarily and theatrically, a pretty unusual unit. It was integrated -- the only integrated company in the Army. And all of the gal parts in the show were played, with considerable gusto and art, by men. One of the star dancers was a young man from Pittsburgh. His name was Fred Kelly, and in 1944 he was, by all accounts, one of the best white tap dancers in the world. He was a big kid, taller than his older brother Gene and every bit as agile, manly and deft, if not as handsome.

He had the same city-kid style: forceful, a little showy. But there was an insouciance to Fred Kelly's dancing, a reckless nonchalance. He had taught it to his brother, who made it famous, but it came naturally to Fred, whereas in Gene it had to be painstakingly learned. Fred was the first Kelly to fall in love with dancing and brought the other Kellys -- there were five in all, three brothers and two sisters -- along. Fred was the baby and as is often the case with last children, effortlessly likable, popular with both women and men. Inevitably some measure of this inherent amiability came through when he danced.

This quality, perhaps, led to the events of the night of Feb. 8, 1944. Fred Kelly was lying in his bunk -- or so I imagine it -- in a barracks in the northern suburbs of London. The building once served as a jailhouse from which, in 1906, Harry Houdini successfully escaped, under the very noses of the local constabulary. Kelly, whose teenage vaudeville act at the Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh included a program of stage magic, had just started a letter to his brother in Hollywood, informing him of this interesting tidbit of magical lore, when the man in the next bunk told him to look out. Two very large M.P.'s, their faces as expressionless and pale as a couple of peeled onions, had stepped into the room. One of them informed the dance corps of "This Is the Army" that they were looking for Sergeant Kelly. He was to come with them immediately, for reasons they could not possibly divulge. Michael Chabon is the author, most recently, of "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay."

The M.P.'s hustled him out of bed, into his boots and out into the dank night. You could not see a foot in front of your face. The air stank of coal and burst bombs and the cheap cologne of the M.P.'s. They climbed into a jeep with Kelly in the back and took off. The dimmed headlights of the jeep illuminated a flat panel of jaundiced gray fog, two and half inches thick and infinitely broad and tall. The driver could not possibly see where he was going. Sergeant Kelly began to worry not only about where he was being taken but also about the likelihood that they would never arrive. He tried to think if he had done something that might have gotten him into trouble, but since arriving in London a few days earlier after a nauseous journey from Belfast, he had had time only to sleep, to eat and to dance. He made another attempt to quiz the policemen.

"Can you tell me now?" he said.

The M.P.'s looked at each other. It was too dark to be sure about the expression on their faces, but Kelly thought he saw an amused wrinkle of malice crease the driver's upper lip.

"Sure," said the other one. "We can tell you now."

"It's General Eisenhower," the driver said. "He wants to talk to you."

Kelly saw that they were jerking his chain. He sat back in disgust.

"That's right," said the first M.P. "He wants you to give him dancing lessons."

At this point a horse cart laden with the rubble of some house loomed abruptly from the fog, and they very nearly collided with it. Kelly gave up trying to understand what was happening to him and concentrated on watching where they were going. He had two older brothers, and thus he could feel, in the speed with which the driver flew blindly along the dark streets of London, a heartfelt brotherly attempt being made to scare the bejesus out of him. He sat back and lit a cigarette to show that he was not scared, although naturally he was terrified.

At some point they crossed the river, and then they drove along for what might in the starless dark have been 10 minutes or an hour. The fog lifted some, and as they pulled up to a gate festooned with razor wire he caught an impression of tall, bare trees and a hum that might have been generators or 2,000 men in tents. They were stopped more times, driving from the gate to the tidy little wooden cottage at which they finally disembarked, than in the entire first part of their journey across London. The two M.P.'s walked him to the door, which opened as they reached it, and a dapper-looking lieutenant asked Kelly to come in and have a drink. He said that his name was Lieutenant Mason and that he was General Eisenhower's aide-de-camp. The M.P.'s noted carefully the look on Kelly's face. They went away with their chins clenched in an effort to suppress belly laughter.

Kelly sat down in an old Victorian armchair into which pineapples had been carved and declined the kind offer of a drink. Actually, he would have liked the drink, but he was inclined now to believe everything that the policemen had said. He was soon to be called upon to instruct the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in the Peabody. And he never drank when he was working. In a soft and tender voice, Lieutenant Mason began to explain that the general had been under a lot of pressure lately, getting ready for the invasion of Europe, and was looking for a way to blow off a little steam. He had greatly enjoyed "This Is the Army" the other night and had been particularly taken by Sergeant Kelly's strenuous workout during "Mandy." Few people knew it, but the general was a very good dancer. A football star in his youth, he was proficient in all the classic ballroom steps, but until the other night it had never occurred to him that dancing could be as much of a sport, of a manly physical pursuit, as it was in the hands, or rather in the feet, of Fred Kelly of Pittsburgh.

At this point a door opened and Dwight Eisenhower stepped into the small living room of his temporary home on this side of the English Channel. He was surprisingly big, a bruiser, broad across the chest. He wore a bright white undershirt and khaki trousers without a belt.

"Sergeant," he said. His voice was rich and resonant. His smile allayed all of Kelly's anxieties with the abrupt efficiency of a shot of whiskey. "Can you teach an old man how to do what you do?"

At 27, Frederic Kelly had been a teacher of dance for more than half his life. His first, and in some ways his greatest, pupil was his brother Eugene, whose eventual pas de deux with an umbrella would prove to be one of the pinnacles of American civilization in the 20th century.

During most of the 1930's, at the dance school that his family owned in Pittsburgh, Fred Kelly had patiently and authoritatively instructed a thousand people in the rudiments of the fox-trot, the waltz and the two-step, in 20-minute sessions that cost 50 cents apiece. In later years, after the war, he would teach the entire country a little number that he and Tito Puente cooked up one night, a sideways variation on the Lindy that they decided, for no particular reason, to call the Cha-Cha-Cha. And after he opened the Fred Kelly Dance Studio, in Oradell, N.J., he would eventually find himself entrusted with the considerable inchoate gifts of a boy named John Travolta. Fred Kelly was one of the great dance teachers of his era, but only his students ever knew it.

"Well," he said, "I can sure give it a try, General, sir."

They went into the general's office and pushed back the desk. They shoved the chairs to the sides of the room, rolled up the rug and stood it in a corner.

"Have we got any music, sir?"

"I had Mason dig up a gramophone," the general said. "And a few records.

I don't know if they will do."

There were three records: Presbyterian hymns sung by a Scottish contralto, a phonograph course in Portuguese and something called "Bird Calls of Shropshire and Wales." Kelly chose the church music and set the needle down at "Amazing Grace."

"That will do nicely," he said. "Now let's warm you up a little."

The general hesitated, and smiled a little shyly. "I haven't got the shoes," he said.

Kelly looked down at his own regulation boots. "Neither have I," he said. "But I'll tell you something, General. The shoes really don't make any difference. You don't even need the shoes. It has a lot more to do with what's in here." He pointed at his skull, in the general vicinity of his ear. "You just have to listen to what your feet want to do."

Kelly got General Eisenhower up on the balls of his feet and showed him, to the stately rhythms of Margaret MacTavish, the basic elements of the shuffle and the flap.

They reached for the ceiling, bent double, touched their toes. The general was not overly limber, but he seemed to enjoy the stretching. He said it put him in mind of his gridiron days. Then Kelly got General Eisenhower up on the balls of his feet and showed him, to the stately rhythms of Miss Margaret MacTavish and her harmonium, the basic elements of the shuffle and the flap.

Eisenhower kept interrupting the lesson to ask Kelly questions. He was as curious and attentive as a talented salesman. At first Kelly was bemused by the questioning, but then he understood that the general was lonely.

"I hear your brother is a movie star," the general said.

"Not quite," Kelly said. "They have him pretty much cooling his heels at MGM right now."

"He a better dancer than you?"

"I taught him everything he knows, sir."

The general was moving around a lot and his great serene brow shone with sweat. But he was not really picking up the music at all. As he asked Kelly questions, he seemed to be listening to something else, some ceaseless enterprise, an enormous act of tallying going on inside his mind. Beside it, the count of a shuffle step must seem, Kelly thought, a foolish and insignificant number. Still he persisted in guiding the scrape of the general's steps across the dusty floor. Again and again, Kelly set the needle at the beginning of the hymn, counting one and two and one and two and one. And gradually, Eisenhower picked up the moves.

Before long they were verging on the Maxie Ford.

"Tell me, son," the general said, pausing to catch his breath. He smoked four packs of Camels a day. "You planning to go out to Hollywood like your brother after the war?"

"The thought had crossed my mind, sir. However, I'm not sure I have the stomach for it."

"I don't know." Eisenhower shook his glistening head. "You seem like a born teacher to me."

When "Amazing Grace" had ended for the seventh time and Miss MacTavish began to sing "Leaning on the Everlasting Arm," Kelly went over and lifted the tone arm of the record player. In that first moment of musicless expectation they heard a faint whine, at once mournful and irritating, a distant rush of air, then a low deep boom, and then the walls rattled and the ice in the general's drink shook like dice in a glass fist.

"Can you dance to that tune, Sergeant?" the general said.

"I don't think I care to," Sergeant Kelly said.

The general walked Kelly to the front door of his hut and they shook hands.

"You keep your head down, Sergeant Kelly," the general said.

The lesson, for some reason, was never repeated. Ike, inspired perhaps by the famous example of Winston Churchill, took up recreational painting instead. A few days later the company of "This Is the Army," Sergeant Kelly among them, was shipped off to the Pacific Theater, where they and Irving Berlin island-hopped, in drag and blackface and olive drab, from New Guinea to Guam.

January 07, 2001 NY Times

Love,

Michael


Back to Twin Peeks  E-Mail Michael

Clubhouse Lobby