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Kelly statue earns a mixed OK in poll

Wednesday, December 12, 2001

By Tom Barnes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The verdicts are in.

According to Pittsburgh Post-Gazette readers, a statue of movie star Gene Kelly forever swinging on a lamppost in Gateway Center would be:

A way to capture "a singular moment of joy and optimism."

A missed cue, stranding the great dancer on a traffic island.

A bad idea because Kelly turned his back on Pittsburgh after becoming famous.

More than 130 Post-Gazette readers responded over the past week by mail and e-mail -- and from as far away as California, Florida and Nebraska -- to an invitation to sound off about the Gene Kelly Statue Foundation's plan to erect a large statue of the Pittsburgh native Downtown.

About 45 percent said they thought it was a great idea.

But others complained that a Liberty Avenue traffic island between the Pittsburgh Hilton and Towers and the State Office Building, the site City Council approved last week, isn't the right place.

Kelly, who died in 1996, is best known for his work in 1940s and '50s musicals such as "Singin' in the Rain," "An American in Paris," "On the Town" and "Anchors Aweigh."

Many of the 35 percent or so of readers who said they didn't like the site said they preferred a spot in the nearby Downtown cultural district or in Kelly's home neighborhood of East Liberty.

And some critics just didn't think Kelly was an appropriate symbol for Pittsburgh. Of those who wrote, 20 percent panned the whole idea.

"They have got to be kidding. What has [Kelly] done for the city?????" said Cal Hammer of West Mifflin. "Why not [former Pirates announcer] Bob Prince or Mario Lemieux or [city namesake] William Pitt. Anybody but a movie star."

But Pat Reid of Ohio Township liked the Kelly tribute.

"It is time we honor someone other than sports figures," she said. "There is more to life than baseball heroes."

The foundation plans to raise $500,000 in private funds over the next few months and then commission artist Susan Wagner, who sculpted the bronze statues of Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell outside PNC Park, to do a statue of Kelly from the famous movie scene in which he hangs off a lamppost, clutching an umbrella and singing in the rain.

Ron Dylewski of Aspinwall likes "what that particular scene represents -- a singular moment of pure joy and optimism."

"It's happy! It's uplifting! It makes you want to get up and move!" wrote Karen Munster of Baldwin Borough.

"It would be cool to see him there twirling his umbrella," said Darlene Bernd of Cecil. "A lot of people around the country aren't even aware that he's from Pittsburgh."

Many readers thought the location was perfect. The statue will become a "treasured landmark, charming and delighting visitors as they enter the city from the Fort Pitt Bridge and Tunnel," said Dave Kerr of Carlisle, Cumberland County.

Buster Maxwell, a local playwright and performer, liked the statue but suggested it be "integrated with a fountain raining down upon it, so that Mr. Kelly is literally singing in the rain eternally."

Perhaps the most important vote for the Gateway site came from Kelly's widow, Patricia Ward Kelly, who will have much to say about the final design of the statue. She came to the city and met with Mayor Tom Murphy on the project.

"The more time I spent in Pittsburgh, the more the Gateway site seemed acceptable," she said. "Gene was the perennial common man. The tough but tender young American, wearing T-shirts and loafers, who brought dancing into the streets."

Many readers didn't agree with the location.

"Is City Council crazy?" asked Shane Dosch of Highland Park. "Gene Kelly was good, but he does not deserve that prominent of a space. The statue belongs in East Liberty."

Others opted for the nearby Cultural District, with its performing arts theaters.

The Gateway site is "terrible," said Richard O. Price of Mt. Lebanon, because it offers "virtually no access to pedestrians." He suggested the corner of Penn Avenue and Seventh Street in the cultural district, where a large fenced-in sculpture now sits.

Larry Harris of Pittsburgh agreed, saying Kelly should "replace the pile of rubble posing as 'modern art' at Seventh and Penn. The location would allow passersby to interact with it, rather than just speeding by it in their cars. This is a no-brainer!"

Former Pittsburgher Ed O'Kane of Sebastopol, Calif., said the statue should be in Point State Park "where you can dance around it on a sunny or rainy day."

Others suggested Market Square, Grant Street or Oakland.

But there were some readers who just didn't see Kelly as an appropriate symbol for Pittsburgh. Some readers said younger people won't even know who he is. Others complained that Kelly forgot about Pittsburgh after he went to Hollywood.

William Thomson of Tarentum said a statue of Kelly "is a bad idea for a very basic reason, which everybody seems to be blind to -- he left. Maybe it's time to honor people who lived here or contributed here."

"Gene Kelly was a fine actor and dancer ... but how is he a symbol of Pittsburgh?" asked Edward S. McKenna of O'Hara.

A couple of people favored a medical person, such as Jonas Salk, inventor of the polio vaccine, or heart surgeon Thomas Starzl. Other votes went to former Mayor Sophie Masloff, TV star Fred Rogers, World War II hero Charles "Commando" Kelly, pianist Errol Garner, comedian Dennis Miller and "Batman" star Michael Keaton. Some said a native American would be fitting.

Former Pittsburgher Dominic Donato, now of Tampa, Fla., suggested a statue of "a group of mill hunks carrying lunch buckets and wearing hard hats."

And finally, Tim Bridgeman of Sheraden had some zany ideas for statues that would capture the real essence of Pittsburgh:

A sandwich board like the one street protester Robert Lansberry used to wear.

The word Pittsburgh "with a solid gray rainbow above it."

"A kinetic statue of the rear end of the PAT bus, belching live smoke into the air."

"A giant lawn chair."

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