KST Blog


    When you hear the names Gene Kelly and Billy Strayhorn you think of two entertainment legends: Kelly, an actor, dancer, singer, filmmaker, comedian and choreographer and Strayhorn a jazz composer, pianist, lyricist and arranger.

    What doesn’t come to mind is that both individuals were being monitored by the FBI. This juicy nugget came up as I was listening in on a conversation between Patricia Ward Kelly, official biographer and wife of Gene Kelly and David Hajdu, official biographer for Billy Strayhorn as they met for the first time during a Zoom call I arranged with KDKA TV & Radio Reporter Lynne Hayes Freeland. We all got together to chat about the live moderated conversation that the three of them will have during Kelly Strayhorn Theater’s Suite Life 2020 Concert on November 28th where, for the first time, we will pay tribute to both of the organization’s namesakes.

    During the virtual meet and greet, Mrs. Kelly casually asks Mr. Hajdu, “Do you have Billy’s FBI files?” And he replies, calm and matter-of-factly, “Why yes, they are over here in these boxes.” He returns the question back to her, “What about you? Do you have Gene’s files?” She says, “Yes, they are right here in my office?” 

    Wait? What just happened? FBI files? I had so many questions: Why did the FBI have files have on Gene Kelly and Billy Strayhorn? What did they do? Why was the FBI watching them? What did the files say? How many files did they have each?

    Realizing this opportunity was not for me to get my questions I answered, I quickly started searching for information on my laptop. There I found a treasure trove of information that the FBI’s focus on musicians and entertainers has its roots in the agency’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO), which led to the surveillance of several of the most important entertainers and Black jazz musicians of the mid-20th century. The bulk of this activity took place when FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover unleashed this program which aimed to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” subversive political groups.

    The bureau had been keeping close tabs on the civil rights movement, accumulating massive files on leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. The FBI also spent countless hours investigating thousands of celebrities, entertainers, writers and other prominent individuals during the Cold War. The official story was that the effort rooted out communists and others who wanted to overthrow the government. The reality is that countless citizens who had not committed wrongdoing found their lives under the bureau’s lens of hyper-acuity.

    Like many others in Hollywood, Gene Kelly was under investigation for his presumed “Communist” activities. He, of course, was not a Communist, but he was under constant surveillance by the FBI under the heading “Security Matter C.”

    Among the earliest entries are those for Duke Ellington, reaching back to the 1930s. Agents compiled a dossier that runs as a counterpoint during his life, that had little to do with his musical achievements. The first entry is from 1938. Jazz historians mark this as the year Ellington first met Billy Strayhorn. For the FBI, it was when he performed for the All-Harlem Youth Conference, a progressive gathering that included well wishes sent by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Ellington’s band would play at a variety of concerts, but if the FBI didn’t like what group was hosting the event – for them that meant the entertainers were not only supporters, but participants of the groups.

    Mrs. Kelly and Mr. Hajdu also talked about what influence the City of Pittsburgh had on both artists, how both felt like outcasts and navigated discrimination, and so much more! I was amazed on how much I didn’t know about our namesakes outside of their celebrated talents, and how watching the interplay and connection between both biographers would be so engaging.

    I invite you to join me and listen in on a LIVE moderated conversation led by KDKA-TV & Radio Reporter Lynne Hayes Freeland, with Mrs. Patricia Ward Kelly and Mr. David Hajdu on Saturday, November 28 at 6:00pm, right before the Suite Life concert that will feature music from both entertainment giants, performed under the musical direction of Pittsburgh’s own Poogie Bell!

    For more information, visit Kelly-Strayhorn.org/suitelife

  2. Down with ODD: featuring Hallie Donner


    Every Wednesday at 2:00pm, KST Deputy Director Orlana Darkins Drewery takes to Instagram Live for conversations with the KST community in Pittsburgh, and across the USA. Join us to see how folks are managing the impact of COVID-19. For this Wednesday, April 15th stream, Orlana chats it up with Alumni Theater Company (ATC) founder, Hallie Donner. Check out Alumni Theater Company here: https://www.alumnitheatercompany.org

    Hallie Donner graduated from Bucknell University in 1993 with a Bachelor of Arts in English and a teaching certificate. Hallie started her career as a third grade teacher at Featherbed Lane Elementary School in Baltimore, MD. Each of her four years at Featherbed, she volunteered to direct a school musical. Realizing that producing theater with young performers was her true passion, Hallie moved to Pittsburgh to obtain a Master’s degree in Arts Management at Carnegie Mellon University in 2000. Upon receiving her Master’s degree in 2000, Hallie began teaching at the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh Charter School a K-5 public charter school in East Liberty. From 2000 – 2016, Hallie founded and developed an innovative drama program at the charter school that integrates theater education with classroom studies and values education where young people explore and develop their creative capacity and personal character. In 2008, Hallie founded the Alumni Theater Company (ATC) to provide more intense learning and performance for youth in grades 6-12. ATC began as a group of exceptionally talented alumni from the charter school, and in 2012 became an independent 501(c)(3) organization.

    Down with ODD is a part of KST Global Stream, KST’s COVID-19 responsive online programming initiative.

    Below is video of the conversation between Orlana Darkins Drewery and Hallie Donner Check out the full schedule of upcoming guests here.


  3. 19 Mins with Joseph Hall: featuring Maria Bauman-Morales

    Every Tuesday at 12:30pm, KST Executive Director Joseph Hall takes to Instagram Live for conversations with arts leaders in Pittsburgh, across the USA, and internationally. Tune in, get to know Joseph, and find out how he and fellow arts leaders around the world are adapting to the challenges brought on by COVID-19.

    For this Tuesday, April 14th stream, Joseph was joined by “Bessie” award winning multi-disciplinary artist and Brooklyn, NY based community organizer, Maria Bauman-Morales. Check out Maria Bauman-Morales and MBDance here: http://www.mbdance.net

     Maria Bauman-Morales is a “Bessie” award winning multi-disciplinary artist and community organizer based in Brooklyn, NY. She is 2020 Columbia College Dance Center Practitioner-in-Residence, 2019 Gibney Dance in Process residency award winner, 2018-20 UBW Choreographic Center Fellow, 2017-19 Artist in Residence at Brooklyn Arts Exchange and was the 2017 Community Action Artist in Residence at Gibney. In 2009 she founded MBDance which recently premiered (re)Source to sold-out audiences, co-commissioned by the Chocolate Factory Theater and BAAD!. She creates bold and intimate artworks for MBDance, via dream-mapping and nuanced, powerful physicality. Centering non-linear stories, bodies and musings of queer people of color, she draws on her studies of English literature, capoeira, improvisation, dancing in nightclubs and concert dance classes to emphasize ancestors, imagination, and Spirit while embodying inter- dependence. Bauman-Morales is also a performance collaborator with Jumatatu Poe’s and Donte Beecham’s Let ‘im Move You: This is a Formation. Previously, she danced with Urban Bush Women (UBW) and was UBW’s Director of Education and Community Engagement before becoming Associate Artistic Director. She still works with Urban Bush Women as part of the UBW Summer Leadership Institute advisory council and faculty member for the Summer Leadership Institute. She is an active member of our dance community outside of choreography and performance. Bauman-Morales is a Core Trainer with The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, helping arts organizations and university dance programs understand and undo racism. In 2014, she co-founded a grassroots organization, Artists Co-creating Real Equity, which won the 2018 BAX Arts and Artists in Progress Award for working to undo racism in our daily lives. Organizing to undo racism informs her artistic work and the two areas are each ropes in a Double-dutch that is her holistic practice. She is also a mentor to early career artists through Queer Art Mentorship.

    19 Mins with Joseph Hall, is a part of KST Global Stream, KST’s COVID-19 responsive online programming initiative.

    Below is video of the conversation between Joseph Hall and Maria Bauman-Morales. Check out the full schedule of upcoming guests here.