A photograph is like a balloon. Filled with the right substance, a seemingly insignificant thing can expand and float. For a photograph, the substance isn’t helium. It’s context.
This photograph is not technically accomplished. The composition is lopsided. The action is pushed too far in the background. It’s hard to tell what’s going on or who’s involved.
Help comes from three clues found within the image and one written on it. The sign at the podium and the man in the crowd wearing the “Singin’ in the Rain” jacket suggest that this event must have had something to do with the actor Gene Kelly. The person on the far right of the podium is former Mayor Richard S. Caliguiri, making this an official occasion. The location is East Liberty Presbyterian Church. The date is April 29, 1987.
If you assumed that the man speaking into the microphone was a middle-aged Gene Kelly, and that this was a ceremony in his honor, you would be half-right. The ceremony was indeed honoring the career of Gene Kelly. The city was dedicating the block around the church as “Gene Kelly Square.” But according to the April 30, 1987 editions of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh Press, Gene Kelly was not in attendance that day.
The man at the microphone is former City Councilman Richard Givens. He is presenting a ceremonial street sign to Gene Kelly’s sister Louis Kelly Bailey. In the absence of the Hollywood legend, Caliguiri performed an amateur version of Kelly’s famous umbrella dance from “Singin’ in the Rain.” A springtime gust flipped his umbrella inside out.
Accompanying the newspaper articles are better photographs than this one. What makes this otherwise unimpressive photograph meaningful, and relevant to local Jewish history, are two details you cannot see: the photographer and her reason for snapping the shot.
The Jewish community of Pittsburgh, particularly its Squirrel Hill contingent, was the most loyal patron Gene Kelly had during his apprenticeship in the 1930s. Congregation Beth Shalom hired him to teach dance classes, arrange productions and entertain at congregational functions. (I’ll be sharing the full story of the relationship between the Kelly family and Jewish community of Pittsburgh in an evening talk at Beth Shalom on Wednesday, June 21.) Kelly’s reputation in Squirrel Hill allowed him to open the Gene Kelly Studio of the Dance on Forbes Avenue with his brother Fred and sister Louise.
Marjorie Spector was one of the dozen of Jewish children who took dance classes from Gene Kelly and his siblings. In the archive we have a program from one of the studio’s annual “Revue of the Dance” recitals. Spector performed the “Rhythm Tap” and played a “Sweet Girl Graduate” in the Graduation Day segment of an ambitious interpretive dance medley on the theme of “Holidays Throughout the Year As Done in Song and Dance.”
Like many former students, Spector affectionately followed Gene Kelly’s rise after he bought a one-way ticket to New York City in August 1938. In her high school diary, she dutifully reported a Gene Kelly sighting at the old Kahn’s Restaurant on Murray Avenue and lamented his nervous performance on a live WJAS radio adaptation of “Me and My Gal.” By the early 1950s, Gene Kelly was one of the biggest movie stars in the world.
Spector was an avid photographer who snapped shots of important events and interesting places (including Fallingwater before its prohibition on indoor photography). Her photography shifted toward more common subjects in the late 1970s. Sometimes she was compelled to capture familiar surroundings, and sometimes she seems to have been compelled to document changes as Pittsburgh confronted its loss of industry and identity.
From her apartment at the Essex House, it would have taken Spector only 15 minutes to walk to East Liberty Presbyterian Church on April 29, 1987. Her photograph that windy morning is both hopeful and nostalgic. It documents the leaders of her city taking a small step toward revitalizing her new neighborhood by honoring the man who had taught her to dance, 50 years earlier. This photograph is an echo of her childhood brush with fame. PJC
Eric Lidji is the director of the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives at the Senator John Heinz History Center. He can be reached at email@example.com or 412-454-6406.