Never a glamour girl, Patsy Kelly made her reputation by being a funny, spunky, straight-shooter on film and on stage. Though she’s mainly remembered for her work in comic movies, her Broadway credits reach back to the 1920s. After a long absence from the stage, she returned to Broadway in the 1970s and enjoyed two triumphs in a row, strutting her stuff in No, No, Nanette and Irene.
Kelly was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1910, the daughter of Irish immigrants. In 1927, she made her Broadway debut in the vaudeville musical Harry Delmar’s Revels and the following year played Bobbie Bird in Three Cheers, a musical by Raymond Hubbell, Anne Caldwell, and R. H. Burnside. She was then an ensemble member of two Broadway revues, Earl Carroll’s Sketch Book (1929) and Earl Carroll’s Vanities (1930).
In The Wonder Bar (1931), a play set in a contemporary Parisian night club, Kelly played Electra Pivonka, a part that allowed her to sing two songs. The following year she had several numbers in the revue Flying Colors, but this would mark the end of her Broadway career for many years.
Not that her absence from Broadway meant a halt to her performing career. Already in 1931, she had appeared in the film The Grand Dame Peggy O’Rourke, and for years to come she would act in movies now largely forgotten, often playing roles such as the maid or the nurse. Among the early films in which she appeared are Air Fright (1933), The Countess of Monte Cristo (1934),The Misses Stooge (1935), Pigskin Parade (1936), Wake Up and Live (1937), The Cowboy and the Lady (1938), The Gorilla (1939), and Topper Returns (1941)
Kelly was an uncloseted lesbian, and her outspokenness hurt her career in the 1940s. She became more visible again in the less censorious 1960s, with roles in such movies as Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (1960), The Naked Kiss (1964), The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966), and Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Her 1960s television credits include “The Man from U.N.C.L.E,” “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” and “The Wild Wild West.” In the following decade she appeared in the films Freaky Friday (1976) and The North Avenue Irregulars (1979).
But her greatest successes came when she returned to Broadway, first in 1971 in the revival of the musical No, No, Nanette. Kelly played Pauline, the maid, and wowed audiences both with her sharp wit and fleet-footed tap dancing. Clive Barnes of the New York Times remarked, “Kelly, a formidable lady who specializes in maids who have not only given notice but also taken notice, sucks up every scene she is in with the impressive suction of the vacuum cleaner she herself wields with such masterly expertise.” For her performance, she won the Tony Award® for Best Featured Actress in a Musical.
Kelly followed her hit performance in No, No, Nanette with another star turn in the 1973 Broadway revival of Irene, playing Mrs. O’Dare, the spirited mother of the title character, played by Debbie Reynolds. Kelly earned a Tony® nomination for her performance, and she can be heard on the cast recordings of both No, No, Nanette and Irene.