Arts Feature

Columbia (Finally) Celebrates Stanley Donen, Pioneer of Hollywood Musicals

By August Krickel
Wednesday, July 23, 2014
Gene Kelly
Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain

Long before box-office success and critical acclaim in Hollywood, Stanley Donen was just another child growing up in Depression-era Columbia. Donen was raised in a comfortable, upper-middle class home on Crestwood Drive in the Hollywood/Rose Hill neighborhood, but he often sought escape in the worlds he saw on the silver screen in Columbia’s five downtown movie theaters. His father managed Mangel’s, a dress store located in the building now housing the Columbia Conservatory of Dance; the closest theater to Mangel’s was the State, later called the Fox, and now the location of the Nickelodeon, South Carolina’s only nonprofit arthouse film theater.

To commemorate Donen’s recent 90th birthday and to celebrate his legacy of cinematic work, the Nickelodeon Theatre is presenting A Lotta Talent and a Little Luck: A Celebration of Stanley Donen, a series of special events and screenings of Donen’s films that will last into August. The program kicks off Saturday with walking tours of Donen’s neighborhood and an outdoor screening of Singin’ in the Rain and continues on Monday with a screening of the 1949 film On the Town, starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra with music by Leonard Bernstein and Roger Edens.

Perhaps the greatest living director from Hollywood’s golden age, Donen was fascinated as a boy by films like Fred Astaire’s Flying Down to Rio, and he convinced his parents to let him take dance lessons. Heading to New York after high school, Donen was cast at 17 in the chorus of Pal Joey, starring Gene Kelly. Donen’s career led him to Hollywood, where he worked first as choreographer, then as co-director with Kelly on films like On the Town and Singin’ in the Rain. In 1951, he directed Astaire in Royal Wedding, which features the famous scene in which Astaire appears to dance on the walls and ceiling of a hotel room; Donen later recreated this moment when he directed the Lionel Ritchie video “Dancing on the Ceiling” in the 1980s. Other directing credits include Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, The Pajama Game, Funny Face and Charade. In 1998, he was awarded an honorary Oscar “in appreciation of a body of work marked by grace, elegance, wit and visual innovation.”

Andy Smith, director of the Nickelodeon Theatre, has always been amazed that a major figure of 20th-century cinema experienced some of his earliest influences in the very building where the Nickelodeon is now located. Smith also hopes that this celebration will draw more attention to Donen in his hometown.

“Though so many people love his work, too few people know who he is, much less that he’s a native,” Smith says.

The Donen festival will kick off Saturday with free walking tours of the Hollywood-Rose Hill neighborhood led by the Historic Columbia Foundation at 6 and 6:30 p.m., including a stop in front of Donen’s childhood home. The tours begin from Hollywood Park at 300 S. Gregg St., where families are encouraged to bring picnic dinners and enjoy a DJ starting at 7 p.m., followed by a free outdoor screening of Singin’ in the Rain at 8 p.m. On Sunday, a free reception and lecture by Donen’s biographer and People magazine editor Steven Silverman will be held at the Nickelodeon Theatre at 1607 Main St.

Beginning July 28, there will be screenings of Donen films at the Nickelodeon each Monday and Tuesday, with Monday showings at 5:30 p.m. and Tuesday showings at 3 p.m. The schedule includes On the Town, Charade, Royal Wedding, Funny Face and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. There will also be a screening of The Little Prince as part of Family Fun Day at the Nickelodeon on Aug. 9 at 10 a.m.. 

Before Donen, Hollywood musicals usually featured a show-within-a-show scenario, with the camera documenting a stage production. Donen’s decision to discard that convention was revolutionary, Smith explains.

“Having music appear out of nowhere and the characters burst into song and dance is not off-putting, but rather is a source of entertainment.”

Donen’s films, says Smith, reinvented the Hollywood musical and are “a more liberated and playful form of musical that take advantage of what the moving image has to offer.”

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