Tim Kelly Doesn't Have Gene's Magic Feet, but He Made Enough on An L.a. Dance Club to Become An American in Paris

updated 06/18/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/18/1984 01:00AM

Like other kids who grew up in America, young Tim Kelly managed a few lemonade stands in his time. "And they did very well," he says now. "But I didn't really understand why." Probably it was his location: the sidewalk in front of the Beverly Hills house that belonged to his dad, Gene Kelly. Parched tourists were happily getting a cheap drink and a chance to hobnob with Gene's genes at the same time.

Tim is still offering value for money received and his name still doesn't hurt, but he has recently moved up from lemonade stands to dance halls. From June 1983 until late this April, he and a partner ran the Nairobi Room, which overnight became L.A.'s hottest after-hours club and which charged only 5 bucks to get in the door. "If we upped the admission," said Tim, 22, "we wouldn't get the type of kids that make it happen." The club's mix of models, yuppies, street kids from Watts and East L.A., stars and anyone else who could crowd in gave Nairobi, which was open only between 11 p.m. Saturdays and 4 a.m. Sundays, a special electricity.

Tim started the place in a small African restaurant whose leopard-skin wallpaper inspired the name, but so many turned up to dance to black funk the very first night that he and his DJ partner, Matt Dike, had to expand. Searching for the perfect place, they floated from rented hall to hall, substituting stark roominess and infectious spontaneity for the programmed glitz that many discos serve up. In one barny lodging, the ballroom of the Park Plaza Hotel, chandeliers hung from 65-foot ceilings and Matt scratched the records from a balcony 50 feet above the feverish funk-o-philes. Yet tempers never seemed to heat up with the tempo. "We've never had a fight or any hostility here," Tim said proudly.

Once again Tim's benign merchandising has paid off. Six weeks ago, having decided they'd had enough for a while, Tim and Matt suspended the Nairobi operation. Tim took off, using his gains to bum around France, Germany, Switzerland and Italy for the summer. In the fall the Nairobi, presumably, will throb again.

All this has been done with little help from home. Once, after several months as proprietor and host of this genial oddity, Tim invited his dad down for a visit. "It was a big surprise to him," he recalls. "He went off dancing. When he came back he said, 'Gosh, this is a great time, but some of these kids need dancing lessons.' "

The relationship between father and son seems a close one, and it has been tested by tragedy and near-tragedy. Tim's mother, Jeanne, died of leukemia when he was 11 and his sister, Bridget (now 19 and a student in Paris), was 9. Gene "quit working to stay home with those children," a family friend recalls. "For years he was home at 6 to have dinner with his kids every night." Says Tim, "He became both father and mother." Last Christmas Tim saved his father's life in a fire that razed the Beverly Hills house Gene had lived in for nearly 40 years by guiding him out through the smoke.

Gene Kelly always wanted his son to pull himself up on his own, but he wasn't hidebound about it. Not every father would have lent a 18-year-old the money to buy a used Porsche—but not every father would have made him sell it when repair bills put him behind on the payments. Although Gene pays Tim's tuition at USC's film school and lets him use the garage apartment at a big house they've rented since the fire, Tim also worked regularly as a production assistant while raking it in at the Nairobi. "I work twice as hard as anybody else," he says. "It's best if someone doesn't know who I am. When they do, they expect the worst from me, thinking 'Oh, Daddy got him the job.' "

That's hardly a major problem, given Tim's natural reticence. "As a child, anytime a camera came out, I disappeared," he says. "Few people realize that Gene Kelly even has a son." Although the house was frequented by such friends of his father as Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood, Tim looked on them as "just normal people." Later he spurned fashionable Beverly Hills High in favor of Loyola, a Jesuit school noted for academic excellence, located in a largely Hispanic L.A. neighborhood. That doesn't mean that he is snooty about performers. Last August he worked as a DJ at Sean Penn and Timothy Hutton's joint birthday party. "It felt odd," he said, "because I knew so many of the people there. But it was fine. I really like working."

Even though Tim has made his first big money in the world of dance, he doesn't plan to follow in his father's fancy footsteps. For a few years, however, he did fill his father's shoes, as well as his sport coats, tails and his whole wardrobe from all those MGM musicals. "Our shirt, sleeve, neck, shoulder size, everything is the same. It's amazing," Tim says. "I had the greatest black loafers of all time. Boy, I miss those loafers." The clothes, his father's Oscar, the 16mm home movies of Tim's birthday parties and his father's notes for an autobiography all burned in the fire. The special Oscar he received in 1951 was replaced at this year's Academy Awards.

The statue, it was plain that night at the awards, means a lot to Gene Kelly. "He is a perfectionist," Tim says. "When he watches his movies, the only thing he won't criticize is the ballet scene in An American in Paris. But he's also very down to earth. Late one night I was photographing a New York graffiti artist in the basement. I had music cranked up on this blaster, and my dad wandered down into the kitchen. Now this artist said, 'Wow, a real legend,' and he wanted to meet him, but he felt my dad would be a blown-away conservative thinking, 'Who's this nut with dreadlocks in my house?' But then he went up to the kitchen and found my dad just drinking beer, scatting around to the music. 'Wow,' he said, 'a real regular guy.' "

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