Mar 232014
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~ Fred Kelly: Tony Winner, World Class Choreographer and Story Teller ~

Written by Steve Conrad with edits by Tam Francis

Vintge photo Fred and Gene Kelly in Memory lane











The multi-talented dance legend spoke about the history of the Lindy Hop, the creation of the Big Apple to the invention of the Cha Cha Cha and performing with his brother Gene.

A few years ago, I sat across the table from Fred Kelly, the youngest of five children in the Kelly Family, born in 1916 in Pittsburgh, PA. Fred started his career in dance at the very young age of four. He performed with his older siblings and they were known as The Five Kelly’s. He began teaching at the Gene Kelly Studio in Eighth grade. After learning to tap from legends like Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Hal Leroy, he went onto a successful career on stage and screen.

Vintage Fred and Gene KellyAs a young man he performed with his older brother Gene as one of the Kelly Brothers in Vaudeville. In 1941 Fred won three Tony Awards (then called Donaldson Awards)for his role in The Time of Your Life, for acting,  comedy, and dance. He only performed in one film with his brother, in the musical, Deep in My Heart. Fred and Gene sang and danced in the number “I Love to go Swimmin’ with the Wimmin.”

He said he taught Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret to dance in England as well as John Travolta in New Jersey, (before Saturday Night Fever). He directed over 1000 Steve Allen Shows.. He sang “The Boy Next Door” in the movie “Meet Me in St. Louis,” and  is credited with introducing “Cue Cards” to television.

He had many memories from his eighty-two years of experience and I was able to share a few with him. As he finished his lunch, I listened to history unfold. It is difficult to sum up a man’s life in just a few short hours and I soon found that deciding which stories to share with readers would be very difficult. What follows is a few of Fred’s recollections, (though dance historians have argued his perspective of these memories).

Savoy with Lindy Hop contest marquee

The Lindy Hop

Fred Kelly’s take on how the Lindy Hop got it’s name:

“It was the spring of 1927. Every Sunday afternoon the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, New York, would have dances with two big bands playing. On this particular day, Duke Ellington had one stage and Cab Calloway was set up on the other. Duke was regarded as a hot band and Cab was considered smooth. The Savoy was packed with people. Over two thousand dancers packed the place with all the men in jackets and the women in dresses. This was the day that Charles Lindbergh was to land in Paris after his flight over the Atlantic. When the news about Lindbergh arrived in Harlem, a young man burst into the Savoy and shouted: Lindy landed, he made it across the Atlantic.

For the first time ever, all the music stopped at the Savoy. Never had there been a moment of silence in the Savoy. The bands overlapped each other so this was very unusual. Suddenly Cab and his band started playing a fast number in celebration. Soon, Duke Ellington’s Band started to play along. Then the place broke out into complete pandemonium. Everyone started to swing each other around and dance with each other. Dancers were hopping all over the floor and creating new steps. From that moment the dance was regarded as the Lindy Hop.

Dance historians beg to differ with Fred’s recollection, but his colorful interpretation is fun to image. For the best historical facts on the lindy hop go here.

1936 Football Magazine cover

The Big Apple

In 1936, Fred Kelly was selected to be the mascot for Pitt University. He describes how he invented the first line dance to sweep the nation:

“In 1936 it was my job to choreograph a routine for the biggest game of the year: Pitt vs. Nebraska. Both teams were undefeated going into the championship and this was a long awaited match. I had put together a great routine where all the band members would wear green capes with yellow lining. When the band was to take the field at halftime in the shape of an ear of corn. When each band member passed by each other they would turn over their cape exposing the yellow side and make I look like the ear of corn was being peeled. I was going to be a worm that went up the middle of the corn. It was a great idea, the Pitt tiger as the worm in the ear of corn.

One thing went wrong, the capes were not finished in time and there was no way to do the routine. I had one day to come up with something. So I made up a routine using the cheerleaders and had them make a giant circle. I just used moves that were popular at the time, kept it simple. I was still going to be the worm and the only color capes we had were red so it looked like a Big Apple on the field. I chose the song Little Brown Jug for the routine. The routine was a hit, the crowd went crazy for it. It was so popular, in fact, that people wanted to learn it after the game.

heniz pavillon worlds fair 1939Then in 1939, I was asked to teach The Big Apple Dance at the New York’s World Fair. Everyday, every hour, I would teach the steps in the Heinz Pavilion to Little Brown Jug. The song became one of the most requested.

I remember one bandleader who found the song to be a strange request. He was playing at the William Penn Hotel and was surprised to hear all the people requesting this song that hadn’t been played in years. He didn’t even have an arrangement for it, but fortunately his band knew the song by heart. They would play the song again and again as new people were learning the dance.

People would say they were going to New York to learn the Big Apple. Soon, people would just say I’m going to the Big Apple. This is how New York got it’s nickname.

Oh, and the bandleader who didn’t have an arrangement of Little Brown Jug, but played it anyway, his name was Glenn Miller.”

Here is some other ideas of how New York got it’s Big Apple nickname. More information on the connection to the dance and the nickname.

Dance historian tell a little different story of the Big Apple Dance as well. Visit these sites for more historical information on The Big Apple Dance. The Lindy Circle or My Swing Archives

1950s Havana Madrid Nightclub NYC

The Cha Cha Cha

Fred Kelly talks about how the invention of the Cha Cha was an accident.

“It was 1949, I was hired to put on a show in New York at a club called Havana Madrid on Broadway. The owner of the club was a guy named Angel Lopez. Lopez wanted something new and exciting for his show and I tried to come up with a number as fast as I could. I remembered an exceptional dance team when I was doing show in Havana, Cuba and this new dance they were doing called the Mambo. The dance had not yet been introduced in America, so I thought it would be perfect. I finally reached the dancers and met up with them in New York.

On Wednesday, I told Angel that the show would be ready and he wanted to open on Friday June 29th, 1949. The Mambo was seen for the first time in America that night.

Angel’s shows always brought in great publicity and the next day people were calling non-stop about this new dance. The Mambo swept New York. Members of the United Nations were coming to learn the steps and because of its fast tempo, it became very popularr with the young crowd. This was bad for business. Angel called and said the young people were taking over his club and they weren’t buying drinks or eating dinner. [sound familiar swing dancer?]

So, in August that same year, Angel put out a press release that a new dance was going to be introduced at this club. This go the attention of some important people. In the audience that night were Walter Winchell, Ed Sullivan and Arthur Murray. I had experience with Arthur Murray and I didn’t want him to know who had come up with the new dance so I told Angel to introduce the dance as created by Fredrico Calis.

To create the Cha Cha, all I did was straighten out the Lindy Hop. Instead of going in a circle, I had the dancers go forward and back. I still didn’t have a name for the dance by opening night. Then Angel suggested that he wanted the music to sound like something Jimmy Durante would would do. He said, you know that cha cha cha guy. Angel had a bit of an accent and he couldn’t pronounce the ‘h’ in the ha cha cha man. Angel unknowingly gave me the name for the dance.

Murray Cha Cha Album 1950s 1960sThe evening when the dance was introduced I met with Arthur Murray. He asked if I knew Fredrico Calis and if I would set up a meeting. I agreed to set things up and told Mr. Murray that Fredrico would meet him the next morning. So, I went down the next day to the Murray studio with the contract in my hand. When I arrived he soon figured out that Fredrico Calis was just Spanish for Fred Kelly. So, that day I sold the Cha Cha Cha to Arthur Murray for five-thousand dollars. Needless to say Murray made millions from the Cha Cha dance craze of the 1950s.”

More historical info on the Cha Cha at Latin American Guide and Wikipedia

When I interviewed Fred Kelly, he was still traveling the county and teaching masters classes in tap, but died shortly after in Tucson, Arizona at the age of eighty-three. I highly recommend Rusty Frank‘s book “Tap! The Greatest Tap Dance Starts and their Stories 1900-1955.”

Whether all of Fred’s claim to dance creation were true, he was an innovator, teacher and legendary dance man. For more on Fred Kelly check out Marc Baron’s Biography.


Have you seen Fred Kelly dance? Heard any of his stories? What do you think? Did Fred Kelly invent the Cha Cha Cha?

Tam Francis, authorTam Francis is writer, blogger, swing dance teacher, avid vintage collector, and seamstress. She  shares her love of this genre through her novels, blog, and short stories. She enjoys hearing from you, sharing ideas, forging friendships, and exchanging guest blogs. For all the Girl in the Jitterbug Dress news, give-aways, events, and excitement, make sure to join her list and like her FB page! Join my list ~ Facebook page



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  6 Responses to “Fred Kelly: Tony Winner, World Class Choreographer and Story Teller”

Comments (6)
  1. Check out the video short on “I Love To Go Swimmin’ with Women” at:

    • Delightful! Thanks for sharing! I never think to add video links. This is awesome. Thanks for posting and stopping by the site! I’ll always remember you as the first dancer we met in San Diego ;)


  2. Hi Tam! I would like to say that Fred Kelly seemed to have been great storyteller. His claim to have invented Cha Cha Chá doesn’t make any sense after finding out the year he claimed to have invented it. Mambo was in its beginning in New York, when he already invented Cha Cha Chá. It became popular years later without any mentions about it in newspapers between 1948 and the beginning of the 1950s. Well, I still believe in that the origins of Mambo and Cha Cha Chá are in Cuba. What comes to Cha Cha Chá it is obviously commonly believed that Cuban Enrique Jorrín was the inventor of the music and possibly even the dance somewhere in 1951-52. That makes sense, when you find out from newspapers, how the term ‘Cha Cha’ was connected to the dance. My advice is to go as close as possible to those years and find out, if there is any mentions about Fred Kelly in these connections. I doubt if you find nothing more than I have had. Good luck anyway for searching!

  3. Wild stories. Fred or his brother Gene have not been among my number one interests, although at least Gene’s stage career was remarkable. I, however, would like to comment a few things in the article. First, Mambo was presented in New York possibly already in 1947 and at the latest in 1948. In 1948 for sure. I haven’t found any reference to Fred Kelly in the case. Secondly, Cha Cha Chá was popularized in New York at the latest in 1954. Its origins are in Cuba like Mambo’s. Fred Kelly’s claim to have been the one, who invented that, is highly suspicious and unlikely. I’ll publish about The Cha Cha Chá and Mambo -history later as part of my research.

    • I agree, although, I think it is possible that he was there in New York at the time and may have “sold” the homogenized version of the dance to Arthur Murray? The Fredrico Calis bit is kind of interesting as well. I thought I’d read other blogs where Fredrico Calis is credited with Cha Cha Cha? Why do you think he would try to take credit? Have you run across this with other dancers in your research? I only found reference to the Heinz Pavilion with dancing, but not the specific dance teachers or dancers. Do you have info on that. I’ve got some stuff from Billy Rose’s Aquacade, but that’s all.

      It’s great to have you stopping by the site. My intention is not to pass on misinformation which is why I’ve included links to more historical takes on the beginnings of these dances and I deemed him a great “story-teller.” Check out this guy’s bio on him. Interesting… Oh and this site lends credence to his Cha Cha Cha claim, (though these could be based on misinformation as well?). History has a way of changing depending on who’s doing the telling…

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