Recent immigrants John and Delia Kelly from Ballinrobe, County Mayo, Ireland, welcomed their daughter, Sarah Veronica Kelly on January 12, 1910 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY. The fifth and youngest Kelly, was delivered at home under the dining room table, having arrived before the doctor could get to the 10th Avenue tenement for the delivery. The second to be born stateside (the other was her brother, Willie), her three older sisters were born in Ireland. At the age of just 6 months, her father, a garage foreman, transferred the family to Manhattan. First, on 53rd Street between Third and Lexington, and later, a succession of other tenements across the city, including locales in Hell’s Kitchen. Generous of heart, the Kelly home was a revolving door of people who needed a temporary place to stay or a hot meal. A home that struggled despite two working parents, Delia Kelly always had a kettle of black tea and a pot of stew on the stove for anyone who might stop by. In games with her older brother, who soon realized that little Sarah made for a great ‘fall guy’, easily blamed, and possibly a tad gullible, the family soon began calling her ‘Patsy’, because, with gentle teasing, that’s how they saw her.
Ignoring her mother’s repeated requests to ‘act like a lady,’ Patsy played handball in the streets and baseball with the boys, and would hang around the police station and local firehouse, sneaking rides on the firetruck when the alarm would sound. In a possible effort to squash her tomboyish ways or to prevent her from getting hit by more cars (she’d been hit by a firetruck and a taxi), when she was about nine or ten, her parents sent her off to the Jack Blue School of Rhythm and Taps, where she met fellow future dancer and actor, Ruby Keeler. For five cents a class, it was a good way to keep her off of dangerous and busy New York streets; but, she only agreed to go if she didn’t have to do any ballet. She attended St. Paul's Cathedral school, then public school, and finally, the Professional School for Children, (also with Ruby Keeler). Her mother worked many odd jobs in the neighborhood to pay for the $11.00 a month tuition. Shortly after starting dance lessons, at 13, she began to teach classes herself, working 10 hour days for $18.00 a week arriving right after school and working until 2 or 3 AM. Not ever having considered a job in show business or the stage, young Patsy dreamed of one day running her own dance school.
According to Patsy, dancing came easy. On a day in 1926, her brother, Willie, who was working for headliner Frank Fay on stage at the time, asked a then 16 year-old Patsy to come down (via threats and physical force, according to her) to the Palace Theater to show him and a boy partner a dance routine that they were to do in Mr. Fay's show. Since they were only able to learn a part of the routine, they asked her if she would show Mr. Fay what she was teaching them. He came down and asked her to join his show, starting that next Monday. She agreed because she thought that she'd be able to be onstage with her brother, whom she adored. Mr. Fay, however, had other ideas and demoted Willie from the act to his personal chauffeur, which evidently, Willie did not seem to mind, thinking that being a driver was more his speed. He later went on to work at the Waldorf Hotel in New York.
One of the most original and clever (albeit cutting and acerbic) comedians of the time, Frank Fay’s vaudeville show was constructed of singing, storytelling, skits, and interacting with the audience. Patsy danced with Frank Fay's act for quite awhile before letting another boy in his act go, prompting Fay to ask Patsy to take over to fill the vacancy. Even though she had been through many a performance as a dancer, she hadn't paid much attention to the dialog portion of the show, in which she now would be require to participate. The show had some scripted parts, but much of it was done ‘on the fly’. With a least 40 minutes of wisecracking repartee time to fill, the realization of where she was and what she was about to do set in as well as some intense stage fright. The first night, she ended up running off the stage, but she rallied and subsequent performances were good and ran smoothly. A quick learner, she always had a snappy comeback to his ribbing of her. “Fay realized that Patsy’s street kid, attitude-filled backtalk contrasted nicely with his refined, suave manner. His barbs tended to be indirect, and he often used stooges off whom he bounced his insults. Patsy’s ripostes were direct and plainspoken.” (Cullen 626)
Playing the Palace Theater was the goal of most performers of the time; simply put, it was Mecca. As Patsy was often quoted as saying, she ‘started out at the top and worked her way down.’ Being at the Palace, Fay’s audience expected a high-quality, entertaining act. Frank Fay, being one of the great humorists and ad-libbers of the day, had the right to expect the same from his cast-mates. If Patsy made any mistakes in these first shows, he would upbraid her on stage to which her ‘off the cuff’ Irish kid smart-mouthed replies made for comedy gold that eventually evolved into their own act that ran for three years.
Part of Fay and Kelly’s performing together included Harry Delmar's Revels, a Vaudeville show which also featured the future Cowardly Lion, Bert Lahr. This production was headlined at the Schubert Theatre from November 28, 1927 to about March 1928 for 112 performances. She was initially hired on for about $45.00 a week, which allowed her to give her mother things she'd never had before, including an apartment of her own. Due to her father's alcoholism and physical abuse, it is possible that her parents separated at this time. Patsy’s mother, Delia passed away in 1930 at the age of 55. She mentions in an interview that as of 1938, her father had his own apartment and friends and was still living in New York. John Kelly passed away in 1942 at the age of 78.
About the time Frank Fay was moving to Hollywood (with soon to be wife, Barbara Stanwyck), to do movies, the (longstanding, for Fay) partnership with Patsy finally ended when he fired her. Fay, an alcoholic, was also a cruel egomaniac. According to Patsy, he’d threaten to fire her several times in a week. Story has it that after working for so long together, Frank may have developed a little crush on Patsy, who, did not return his amorous feelings. Still, thinking that maybe their working relationship had reached a new level in spite of her rejection, in a relaxed moment, she dared to call Mr. Fay, ‘Frank’, an event that prompted him to let her go for good. Never one to speak ill of anybody, Patsy always said that she was grateful for everything Fay had done for her and for the opportunities he gave her. Luckliy, after a show one night, Patsy was asked to meet Broadway producer, Charles Dillingham, for a new Will Rogers show, Three Cheers. Rehearsals began September 12, 1928, and Patsy was cast as Bobbie Bird in the musical about a Hollywood movie crew arriving in the fictional European country of Itza to shoot background shots for their upcoming movie. The King’s daughter falls in love with the film’s director, and hilarity ensues. The play ran from October 15, 1928 to April 13, 1929 at the Globe Theater for 210 performances. After it closed at the Globe, they took the show on the road for a two and a half month tour that closed in Pittsburgh, PA, on June 1, 1929. The musical based on the book by the same name, was modified by Mr. Rogers to include the politics and culture of the time. Three Cheers was Mr. Rogers’ last Broadway musical.
After Three Cheers, Patsy was cast in Earl Carroll’s Sketch Book, with producer and director, Earl Carroll as part of the ensemble cast. A musical revue in two acts, there was a loose plot, if any. The production ran from July 1, 1929 to June 7, 1930 with 392 performances. For its duration, the show ran at three different theaters: The Earl Carroll Theatre, the 44th Street Theatre and the 46th Street Theatre.
Earl Carroll signed Patsy to another of his productions, the 1930's edition of Vanities, where again she was part of the ensemble cast and featured Jack Benny’s Broadway debut. This show, too, was a musical revue which contained songs and comedy sketches in two acts and ran from July 1, 1930 to January 13, 1931 and was Earl Carroll’s last Broadway hit. The show ran at the New Amsterdam Theatre. Patsy was part of a sketch that required her to sit in a bathtub for about 30 minutes for six shows a week, not including the matinee shows on Wednesday and Saturdays. Dedicated performer that she was, she never missed a performance during the show’s run and upon remembrance of the show, would shiver at the thought of how cold the water had been.
Next, came the musical, a ‘continental cabaret drama’, The Wonder Bar with Al Jolson in his return to Broadway, where Patsy was cast at Electra Pivonka where she solo’ed two of the musical’s numbers. The musical did not perform as expected and ran for only 76 shows from March 17, 1931 to May 29, 1931 at the Nora Bayes Theatre, before moving on the road. One night, Jolson, a notorious practical joker, who was supposed to, during her ‘Dying Flamingo’ scene, shoot Patsy with a gun with blanks. Hoping to get a laugh or two, he shot Patsy with actual buckshot, which caused a reaction, not quite expected. She said of the event, “I did leaps Nijinsky never saw! Jolson apologized and sent me flowers afterwards (The Making of, Dunn 160.)” Patsy returned to New York once the show closed in San Francisco, April 1932. While still performing in The Wonder Bar on Broadway, Patsy filmed a one reel (9 minute) movie for Vitaphone at their Brooklyn studios, called The Grand Dame in 1931 (Parish 359). It is unknown how she was approached to do the film or why nothing ever came of it, however, many other East Coast stars also had short movies like this filmed, which seemed to be a way for New York talent to have a screen test of sorts for Hollywood filmmakers looking for new blood or the the next big thing.
The last credited Broadway production for this period of her life, prior to Hollywood, was another musical revue called, Flying Colors where she received her first billing on the theater marquee. Patsy was cast as various characters for the skits and musical numbers. This show ran from September 15, 1932 to January 25, 1933 at the Imperial Theatre. Clifton Webb, Imogene Coca, and future Jed Clampett, Buddy Ebsen were amongst her cast-mates. In many ways, Flying Colors was a disaster from the start. Despite a choreographer change, faulty sets, poor rehearsals, and producer Max Gordon’s mental breakdown, the show ran for 188 performances and took a loss of $125,000. Some sources say that an agent from Hollywood came and some say Hal Roach himself came to see this show. Patsy was approached afterward to ask her to consider replacing ZaSu Pitts as Thelma Todd's comedy partner in the then famous shorts. Since Patsy herself enjoyed the shorts, she agreed. “It would be nearly 38 years to the day until [she] would appeared on Broadway again.” (Nissen 127) Too smart to say no to any kind of a movie contract, Patsy doubted her success would translate to films and didn’t think much about her new life to come in California.
According to Patsy, the studio paid for her to sit for a few months while they waited for a new project to start and simply sent money to her at her hotel. Since this was her first visit to the West Coast, she enjoyed the weather and the scenery of the then, still small, but bustling Los Angeles area. At one point, she was even inspired to buy a ranch. Of her first day of filming, she said, “... he sent for me, and I met the great Miss Todd and we made up and then they said, ‘Now we’re going on location,’ and I said, ‘What’s that?’ So they took me in a big limousine down to a theater...” (Maltin, Film Fan Monthly 6) Once the filming for the first short began, it took about a week do complete one 20 minute two reeler and eight of these short films were made a year, oftentimes, filming two or three consecutively. It was common for Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, also Roach performers, to stop by their set to help and give clever suggestions to help round out the story line. Most of the scripts weren't scripts at all, but a well planned out sheet or two of the general story, which they would then flesh out as they ran through the outlines in rehearsals. Patsy’s Vaudeville ad-lib ‘education’ with Frank Fay translated well to the film shorts’ skeleton script. She initially didn't like working at the studio, finding it much too different from the stage productions she was used to. On Broadway, socialization began after the last show was over and went well into early morning. Breakfast started about noon! In Hollywood, you had to be in bed by 10PM to be in the makeup chair by 6:30AM. She said in an interview with Motion Picture Magazine, "I tried it for a few days and thought it was the silliest fool business in the world. I had to get up about five in the morning and get a lantern to light my way to the studio. I'd get there and there'd be no audience, no applause. It was like talking to myself. Someone was always hollering, 'Quiet!' or 'Hush!' My voice was always too loud or not loud enough. You had to knock yourself out with a powder puff in this business. Make up every minute. I was always hanging out a window, off the edge of a cliff, or from the side of a car going ninety miles an hour. Or I was being knocked on the bean with a pot or a pan. First day I was yelling, 'Say, where are those doubles I've heard about?' After a few days of it I packed my duds and took a train back east.” (Movie Screen, Hall) Patsy attributed her return and her staying to her good friend and co-star, Thelma Todd. In the same article, she cites a story where Thelma drove to Pasadena just to get on the train to coax Patsy off of it and to stay at least until her contract expired. With Thelma's help, she not only quickly acclimated to studio life and work, but she helped Patsy avoid bankruptcy and got her out of debt, too!
On their way to an after hours party at ‘The Barn’, not long after midnight on August 10, 1933, Patsy and long time friend from New York, female impersonator, Jean Malin along with friend Jimmy Forlenza got into Jean’s sedan after a final concert Jean had given at the Ship Cafe in Venice. Possibly inebriated and likely not realizing the car was in reverse rather than in drive (being from NYC where taxis are the norm; he had only recently learned to drive), he drove the three of them backward off of the pier, resulting in a tragic accident. Both Patsy and Jimmy survived the crash, but Jean died instantly, crushed by the steering wheel. The car landed in shallow water, only 4’ deep. Jimmy had been thrown from the car and suffered a few broken bones. However, the firemen/paramedics who arrived on the scene doubted Patsy would make it as they put her on a stretcher to take her to the hospital. She almost drowned and had taken on a lot of sandy water and had to have her stomach pumped. She was in a coma for several days. It was not an experience she wished to talk about or recount to people and she rarely spoke about it to anyone. Given the amount of sand that reached her lungs, doctors surmised she would only have about ten years to live. She intended to live them to the fullest and make movies until the end. Thankfully, they were all wrong.
Patsy said she used to “laugh at herself if she ever called it (working on the Roach lot) work.” Collaborating with fellow ‘shorts’ stars like Charley Chase and Laurel and Hardy and working under the directorship of Gus Meins, not to mention the friendship of her beautiful co-star, Thelma, made making movies more fun and entertaining than grueling toil. A rarity to pair two female comediennes together, before or since, the snappy Todd-Kelly pairing brought forth a success that has not been matched. In December of 1935, when Todd died under questionable circumstances, at the height of their collaboration and after 21 shorts, things weren’t the same. Patsy rarely spoke of Thelma the rest of her life, but she always felt that Thelma was ‘near her’. (Parish, 360) Needing to complete the contracted number of shorts, the last three for the season, had to be filmed. Roach first tried pairing her with Lyda Roberti, which had potential, where Patsy got to be the “smarter” of the two with Lyda playing the ‘naive immigrant’ and screwing things up for the pair. They went on to make Nobody’s Baby, but Lyda’s untimely death in 1938 closed the door on any future projects together. The final short was with Pert Kelton for Pan Handlers, which didn’t work at all as neither woman was good as the straight man and Kelton had drew the short straw for an unsatisfactory performance.
Film acting did not come easily for Patsy as she said in an interview from 1936: “Of course I was fortunate in having enjoyed a long and fairly successful stage career before going to Hollywood, but just the same, I had to start all over again as there is as much difference between stage and screen acting technique as there is between day and night.” She also was a bit disillusioned, even throughout her career about how rough and uncaring all aspects of show business could be. She offered this advice to young females yearning for stardom, “The average small-town girl who comes to Movieland without previous stage or screen experience will find the road ahead rough and heartbreaking at times.” (Victoria Advocate 8 Nov. 1936)
The 1938 Motion Picture interview mentions for the first time, Patsy’s association with another woman. Wilma Cox, another character actress at Roach studios and singer lived with Patsy at 524 Elm Drive in Beverly Hills. The article mentions that the house was decorated with Wilma’s preferred style and color scheme and that Patsy had absolutely no interest in interior decorating. This same article mentions her giving nature, her dislike of makeup and the beauty parlor, and that she wore tailored suits and slacks and off camera. She then dodges questions about a man in her life, giving excuses, as she would the rest of her life, as to why she was not married or in a romance. She claims that her ideal man came in the form of a comedian that could make her laugh, or boxer-sportsman type, but that since she couldn’t cook and was always so busy working, it wouldn’t be right to do subject a man to marriage with her. Shortly after this interview, it appears that the relationship ended and Wilma moved back to New York City where she became a nightclub singer at places like the Rainbow Room. Patsy followed not long after to try and reconcile the relationship, but returned to Hollywood without her, acknowledging the relationship was finally over. Wilma’s name disappears from the New York papers as of December 1943.
Feature films at the Roach studios, were a different matter than the shorts. The features were fully scripted movies that were just as much fun to make as the shorts, but the Roach Studios’ released B movies never seemed to make any money, and as of 1943, Patsy found herself out of film work. A combination of issues likely affected her ability to get work: her reputation as a jinx (a few of her female co-stars - Jean Harlow, Thelma Todd, and Lyda Roberti, and had died young) her fluctuating weight, her alcoholism, and, probably most of all, her failure to hide her (then) controversial personal life. The studios collectively and effectively, black balled her from movies.
In 1943 and '44 Patsy teamed up with singer Barry Wood to do a radio musical variety program (The Palmolive Party on NBC) and get an act together to take on the road to entertain troops around the country and Canada. After the war, the show was revised as a nightclub act. (Go to Media Links page to listen to a song they recorded for this show.) Outside of performing in Summer Stock, the odd radio appearance, and the game show, ‘Anyone Can Win,’ performance opportunities appear to have hard to come by through the late Forties and Fifties and her movie roles only reappear in the Sixties with an almost cameo-type role in Please Don't Eat the Daisies in 1960. According to the website, Tallulah, a Passionate Life, "Tallulah and Kelly met when Tallulah worked in Hollywood in the early 1930s. They became close friends and sometimes lovers in a relationship that lasted throughout their lives.” Not one to save her hard earned dollars, “when Kelly needed work in the early 1950s, Tallulah hired her as her assistant. She performed personal assistant/maid duties at Ms. Bankhead’s home, ‘Windows’ in Bedford Village, NY and later traveled to Las Vegas to help Tallulah with her cabaret act." Sports jounalist, Ed Silverman confirms that Patsy was, quite literally, a maidservant for Tallulah. In his article, Tallulah’s Maid -- A New York Vignette, he states that he showed up to Tallulah’s New York apartment with fellow journalist, Bill Stern in September, 1954 to interview Tallulah (a baseball enthusiast) about Willie Mays. Patsy answered the door in a maid’s outfit much to Mr. Silverman’s shock. Tallulah’s callous referencing of her longtime friend as a nameless ‘maid’ once she was alone with the two men, was disturbing. Bill Stern, who had known Tallulah for some time, explained to Ed that they had been on-again, off-again for as long as he’d known Tallulah. In 1952-53, as host of NBC’s All Star Revue, Tallulah suggested that Phil Foster pair with Kelly to portray a bickering couple in some skits on the show in an attempt to balance entertainment with which the public could relate against Ms. Bankhead’s sophistication as host. The show was cancelled after a few epsiodes, but Patsy got paid for the season. (Cullen, 627) Patsy mentions in a few interviews that she toured with Tallulah in the road production of the Broadway play, High Time in 1953, Dear Charles in 1955, and A Streetcar Named Desire in 1956. It was about this time she parted ways with Tallulah and she appeared in what was a traveling production of Noel Coward's Fallen Angels with Pert Kelton. The sixties brought forth opportunities for TV pilots and guest appearances on existing TV shows of all varieties, but none of the pilots sold and there was no opportunity to get recurring roles on established shows. 1968 brought a small, but memorable part in Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and not long after, was offered the part of Pauline, the maid, in the Broadway revival of No, No, Nanette.
No, No, Nanette’s rebirth was due, by and large to then socialite, Cyma Rubin’s desire and her rich husband’s ability to bankroll the greater share of the show. Don Dunn’s book, The Making of No, No, Nanette, from 1972, outlines the pitfalls and drama of making the musical come to life. From the poorly realized planning of the producers (Harry Rigby was the co-producer), to budget constraints, lack of script in time for rehearsals (the third act wasn’t completely finished until their one and only dress rehearsal), costume and prop delays, song inclusion confusion, and random cast firings for no apparent reason(s), were a few of the problems. There’s no wonder in listening to interviews of the main cast members at the time, why they sound so surprised that the play was the successful take off it was at the time.
For the producers, Mrs. Rubin, also known as the 'The Black Witch,' was the heavy and it appears that Harry Rigby was the softer touch, and the producer the cast preferred to deal with. Gloria Safier, Patsy’s agent at the time, had been in touch with Harry Rigby and was attempting to sell him on Patsy for the part of Pauline. When Ms. Safier contacted Patsy in California to let her know talks were in the works, she put herself on a strict crash diet to slim down for the potential return to Broadway. Patsy knew there were other actresses who had auditioned for the part, and there was Mrs. Rubin to approve the hire. (Dunn, 71) “According to Buster Davis (the show’s musical director), Rubin had firmly vetoed the idea [of Patsy’s casting] as soon as the name was mentioned. She had heard for years that the comedienne was a problem drinker and thought ‘Patsy Kelly’ on a marquee would mean virtually nothing to a theatre-going public.” (Lamparski, 1816) In keeping with the already established, poor planning by the producers, the part of Pauline went un-cast up to a week before rehearsals were to start. During a production meeting break, Davis saw someone with a copy of Richard Lamparski’s Whatever Became of...? and took it to show Cyma Rubin the chapter on Patsy Kelly. According to Lamparski, his words and snippets of reviews about Patsy were enough to sell Mrs. Rubin to hire Patsy for the job. He was right and the critics throughout her career agreed. Even if movies or plays she was in were pretty bad, Patsy was routinely the bright spot in any production.
Catching on quickly that things were not to run as planned, Patsy didn’t worry herself about lack of script or that the song they’d planned for her to sing kept getting delayed (until it was finally cut from the show). She’d just show up when expected and supervise or socialize until given something of value to do. While Ruby Keeler stressed about no script with which to memorize her lines even well into rehearsals, Patsy seemed to know that it was either all going to fall into place... or go up into a big ball of flame. After their opening in Boston, backstage, Patsy and Ruby listened to the audience response, to which Patsy thought they may want to run before the crowd could catch up to them, but she simply mistook the cheers for potential angry rioting. The play was deemed a hit and her part of Pauline so successfully entertaining she won a Tony award for it in 1971.
Patsy’s working relationship with producer Harry Rigby had been so good, he cast her in his next venture of reviving the musical, Irene, with Debbie Reynolds. Trying to cash in on the wave of nostalgia brought about by Nanette, it seemed like another potential hit. Patsy was cast as mother, Mrs. O’Dare to Ms. Reynolds’ Irene. Patsy stayed with the production until it closed on the road (with Jane Powell in the role of Irene) on September 8, 1974. Once again, Patsy’s performance was recognized with a Tony award nomination in 1973, but lost to Patricia Elliot for A Little Night Music.
Now that she’d had some good exposure with her hand well back in “the business”, an opportunity for a shot at television beckoned once again. After a new pilot Patsy filmed finally sold, it appeared that she would have continued stability in being a main character in The Cop and the Kid, as the main character’s Mother. Considered an ‘unfunny rehash of Chico and the Man,’ the show debuted on NBC on December 4, 1975. Although half a season was filmed, only nine episodes aired before getting cancelled February 12, 1976. Two Disney features followed, Freaky Friday with Barbara Harris and Jodie Foster and North Avenue Irregulars with Barbara Harris again and Cloris Leachman. She enjoyed making movies for Disney and would have made many more. As she mentioned in her (infamous?) interview with Boze Hadleigh, she wanted to stay in the closet at the time of their meeting as Disney might blackball her if her sexuality got out. Of course she had reason to be cautious, having already been burned. Most of her press/personal interest interviews from the Nanette days on usually mention why she never married. A nameless Army soldier who died in the war was manufactured as a long-ago love. It was an easy way to shut down that particular line of questioning and even easier than the truth. Not long after filming a two part episode for The Love Boat, in January 1979, Patsy had a rather severe stroke which left her with limited speech and (at least partially) paralyzed for a time. Stuck in a long term care facility in New Jersey for a spell, she was slated to go to the Actor’s Home in Englewood, NJ once she recuperated. (At the time, they didn’t have nursing care facilities.) Although she had recovered her speech and some movement, but also possibly noting that she would need continued nursing care, she was moved to the Motion Picture and Television Country House in Woodland Hills, CA, where she passed away, reportedly from cancer (although heart problems were also cited) on Thursday, September 24, 1981. A funeral mass was performed on September 28, at St. Malachy’s on West 49th Street in Manhattan and after, she was laid to rest with her parents at Calvary Cemetary in Woodside, Queens.
A talented, reliable fixture of old Hollywood, Patsy Kelly brought the element of fun to the movies in which she appeared. She was never one to speak ill of anyone and was respected and befriended by those who worked with her. She deserves this tribute and much more than I could ever offer. I hope I have done her life some justice. Thank you so much for reading and don’t forget to check my new Patsy Kelly page at Facebook or Tumblr where I will post other interesting facts about Patsy’s life not written about here!
2010 - present
2010 - present