Iconic movie's stars had Tulsa connections
BY DAVID L. YOWELL
Thursday, July 12, 2012
7/12/12 at 3:08 AM
Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborn commented recently that on Thursday, movie palaces across the country, including Tulsa's Cinemark/Imax theater, would offer special showings celebrating the 60th anniversary of the 1952 premier of one of Hollywood's most memorable musicals from its Golden Age.
The movie? "Singin' In The Rain," starring three of moviedom's most talented and memorable performers, Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor and Debbie Reynolds.
With Osborn's announcement, I was reminded of a fact few would know: Two of those three stars, Kelly and O'Connor, had Tulsa connections.
Gene Kelly, who was to become a great musical performer, got his first job as a dance choreographer in the 1941 Broadway hit "Best Foot Forward" (starring a youthful June Allyson) with producer George Abbott - the David Merrick of that era - as a result of Gene's close friendship with Tulsa's and Broken Arrow's renowned composer Ralph Blane, the lyricist for "Best Foot Forward."
In 1988, I was producing a musical stage show in Anaheim, Calif., starring Donald O'Connor and Debbie Reynolds. After reviewing O'Connor's musical numbers for the show, I realized the selection from "Singin' in the Rain," his best-known movie, was buried in a brief medley. I explained my concern and suggested "Singin' in the Rain" be moved to open the show as a major production number, with O'Connor dancing his way down a giant, sweeping staircase to a stage where we had recreated the MGM "backlot" look of Kelly's entire rain and umbrella dance number. Donald liked it very much.
So I rewrote that part of the script and, through a number of Hollywood connections, was given permission to search the giant backlot warehouses at MGM, Paramount, Universal and Warner Bros. for just the right staircase for O'Connor.
What a nostalgic trip back through Hollywood's Golden Age of movies that search was!
At the end of the Anaheim show, O'Connor asked me to keep him in mind for a future show. I assured him I would. It would take six years to fulfill that promise.
In 1994, I decided it was time I write an entirely new stage show tailored specifically to O'Connor's career and talents. The result was "The MGM Story: Movies ... Music ... Magic," commemorating nearly 40 years of that studio's greatest musicals.
One of the show's features was O'Connor's memorable, stunt-filled routine in "Singin' in the Rain" to the song "Make 'Em Laugh," a hilarious and physically exhausting routine performed in one take by O'Connor and which, due to a faulty camera on that first take, he had to repeat. He didn't recover from take two until three days later.
He also recalled that a portion of the famous "pinwheel" stunt was borrowed from one performed earlier by Moe Howard of Three Stooges fame. He said he would never have used it without Moe's blessing.
Among other behind-the-scenes anecdotes, O'Connor recalled that during the shooting of one of the hundreds of "Singin' in the Rain" scenes, Kelly had taken a short breather by resting his head against an off-set stepladder. He did not realize the teenage Debbie Reynolds had, between scenes, stuck a large chew of bubble gum on the ladder, and it was now tightly fastened to Gene's hairpiece. Gene headed back to the set for the next scene not knowing Debbie's' bubble gum had revealed to all the secret that he wore a toupee.
Throughout the years I worked closely with O'Connor I began to fully realize the man's incredible talents and his comedic genius. He was one of moviedom's greats.
His untimely passing in 2003 took from us a star in every sense of the word. His wife, Gloria, said to me, "None of us ever understood how much bigger than life he was, did we?"
As one of Hollywood's truly classic motion pictures, it seems entirely fitting that "Singin' in the Rain" is being recognized on the 60th anniversary of its release.
David L. Yowell of Tulsa is founder and president of Signature Productions, a full-service stage production firm.
Gene Kelly performs in the 1952 musical "Singin' in the Rain.'' On Thursday, local Cinemark/Imax theaters will offer a special showing of the film to mark its 60th anniversary. Associated press file
David Yowell: "Singin' in the Rain" ... is a truly classic motion picture