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On Stage: Renaming honors Kelly, Strayhorn

Wednesday, June 14, 2000

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Critic

The Kelly-Strayhorn Theater -- doesn't that have a great ring to it? East Liberty's Regent Theater, sole survivor of the half-dozen that once enlivened "Pittsburgh's second downtown," is going to get this new name to honor a couple of East Liberty kids who made it pretty big in the world of rhythm.

The two to be linked in marqueedom are, of course, dancer-actor-director Gene Kelly (1912-96) and composer-arranger-pianist Billy Strayhorn (1915-67). Kelly grew up in East Liberty, went to Peabody High School and Pitt and moved on in the late '30s to the big time on Broadway and in Hollywood. Strayhorn moved to the Pittsburgh area (Duquesne and Rankin) as a child and by age 11 was settled in Homewood. He went to Westinghouse High School and was part of the lively East End jazz scene before heading to New York in 1939, beginning his lifelong collaboration with Duke Ellington.

The Strayhorn family gave their permission for the new name some time ago, but the request to use Kelly's name waited until the recent first visit here by his widow, Patricia Ward Kelly, who was happy to oblige. She provided me with some of Kelly's remarkably detailed memories, recorded during their work on his life history:

"We started going to movies when we were around 8 or 9. And the top three kids [three older Kellys] would walk down into the city [East Liberty]. . . . We went to the movies Friday nights and Saturdays all the time. They were a nickel and then a dime, and some were 15 cents. And then if you went to the vaudeville show with a movie, it was 25 cents."

Those East Liberty theaters gave Kelly his early love of show business. Patricia Kelly says he would be pleased by the naming because he always waxed lyrical about his childhood in East Liberty: "There never again will be days like we had then. . . . It was the greatest time of my life."

She points out that the conjunction of these two men also makes sense, because a big part of Kelly's mission was to rescue dance from its effete image, and that led him to be an enthusiast for American music, especially jazz. Whether Kelly and Strayhorn knew each other isn't certain, but she says Kelly did hang out with the Ellington band, so it's easy to imagine the two men, so close in age, reminiscing together.

The naming ceremony will actually take place when the Regent board collects the full $1.3 million planned for facilities improvement.

Without intending any aspersions on those generous funders who have given their names to our revitalized theaters -- Heinz, Benedum, Byham, O'Reilly, Chosky, Rockwell, Hamburg, Rauh, Rauh, Rauh, to name a few -- it also makes sense to name a theater after great artists with no funding strings attached. Congratulations to East Liberty.

TONY PREDICTIONS: I was proud of my 16 right out of 21, but my guru, Michael Grossberg of the Columbus Dispatch, claims he scored 17. At least I defended my home turf: I had offered a prize to any one whose e-mailed predictions did better than mine, but of a half-dozen takers, only Rachel Jackson came close, scoring 15. Congratulations, but no prize! Justin Krauss had only four wrong, but he omitted predictions in six categories.

TONY AFTER-TREMORS: Carnegie Mellon University's tracker of talent, Don Wadsworth, counted nine CMU grads on screen during the Tony telecast: nominees Cherry Jones, Jason Antoon, Jules Fischer and Peggy Eisenhauer; presenter John McDaniel; and performers Donna Lynn Champlin, Christian Borle, Michael McElroy and Yancey Arias.

BOTTOM LINE: Paid admissions at city's professional theaters for week ending June 11:

Cherry Public (69%) 3,349

Inishmaan/PICT (39%) 407

Global Posse/Hamburg (26%) 122

For week ending June 4:

Cherry Public (59%) 1,793


FINAL WORDS: "By America, of course I mean New York; and by New York, I mean Broadway." -- Michael Blakemore, accepting his directing Tonys.

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