By Jill Draper
When Liz Kelley began her dance career at age 7 at Starlight Theatre, she had no idea it would take her to Hollywood, Las Vegas and cities around the world. Decades later she’s back at Starlight, this time as a wardrobe assistant/dresser for other performers in productions like Earth, Wind and Fire and “The Prom.”
“I’m in my element with actors and actresses, dancers and singers,” says Kelley, a south KC resident who spent several years with the Golddiggers and later ran a dance studio at 103rd and State Line Road.
After appearing as a young marcher in “The Music Man,” she worked at Starlight every summer until graduating at age 17 from Raytown South High to pursue her dream of a show biz career. But that dream had a rocky start.
In 1969 she and a friend drove to California, where they found lodging at the Hollywood Studio Club, a chaperoned dormitory for rising stars. Kelley paid $25 a week for a room, meals and a curfew.
Not long afterward, she noticed an audition for a show called Gene Kelly’s “Wonderful World of Girls.” She pulled her hair into pigtails, donned a red leotard and white go-go boots, and showed up at NBC Studios eager to try out. Hundreds of other girls also were eager, and Kelley was told “thanks, no” before she could even take the stage.
“I had no idea what a cattle call was—at Starlight I didn’t need to audition anymore,” Kelley recalls. “I wasn’t used to that kind of treatment. I sat in the basement of NBC, hysterical, sobbing buckets of tears.”
Alarmed, a man rushed over. Between sobs Kelley told him her name and her background and how she surely was meant to work with Gene Kelly, her longtime idol. The man was Greg Garrison, producer of the Gene Kelly special and “The Dean Martin Show.” Next week she received a phone call offering her the dance job she wanted. Thinking back, Kelley realizes, “Somebody upstairs was looking out for me.”
There was still another close call. The dancers headed to Las Vegas, where performers needed a sheriff’s card certifying they were at least 18. Kelley had lied about her age, since her birthday was two weeks away. “I got the look, the lecture, but they gave me a card,” she says. “I spent my birthday dancing with Gene Kelly. He was everything I thought he would be—he was extra.”
Her parents flew out for the show’s opening night at the International Hotel, purchasing tickets in the back seats. When the curtains opened, Gene Kelly had moved them to the front. A few days later she accidentally knocked him in the head with her knee during a jump-over move. She was called to his dressing room after the show.
“At that moment I thought my life and career were over,” Kelley remembers. Instead, Gene Kelly had invited her parents to his room to tell them what a great kid she was. “That’s when I totally fell in love with him,” she says.
Kelley next joined the Golddiggers, a singing and dancing ensemble on “The Dean Martin Show.” In 1971 the group spun off their own weekly TV series, making guest appearances on shows like “Carol Burnett,” “Dinah Shore” and “Laugh-In” and touring the nation. “We were really popular, kind of like rock stars in our own little world,” she says.
The original Golddiggers fell apart after a trip to Mexico in 1973, but that was okay with Kelley, who had broken her contract by secretly marrying an actor. She was ready for a different dream–to be a housewife and raise a child. She had a daughter, but later divorced and moved back to Kansas City, where she appeared in local shows, commercials and voiceovers as well as a dinner theater in Waldo.
In 1984 Kelley opened Dance Studio 1 where she taught kids ballet, tap and jazz. She did her own choreography, costume design and music editing.
A favorite memory occurred in 1990. Spread-eagled on the floor, jotting dance moves in a notebook between her legs, she heard the chimes jangle on her studio door. In walked her high school boyfriend, Phil Hansen, whom she had not seen in years. He leaned over the front counter, grinned and announced, “I’m back.”
Her mind went blank and she felt the floor drop beneath her body. The two immediately became a pair, eventually marrying. She was devastated when he died in 2008.
Another life-altering event occurred even earlier, during her Golddigger days, when Bob Hope asked the dancers to accompany him on a Christmas tour to entertain the troops. The year was 1970 and their final stop was Vietnam.
“To me, the war was something you saw on TV and then changed the channel because it was boring,” Kelley says. “But when I got there, the reality of it struck me. There were foxholes, blood, amputees in the hospital. People were dying.”
The tour organizers had arranged to bring a high school classmate of Kelley’s backstage. The boy, in his early 20s, had been fighting in the demilitarized zone. “He collapsed in my arms,” she remembers. “We were all just babies. It was a moment in time that changed my life.”
Today Kelley volunteers with veterans by attending conventions, fundraising and collecting supplies for the tiny house Veterans Community Project. She’s received national awards for her support, and in July she spoke at the Military Order of the Purple Heart at the World War I Museum.
“It’s my heart and soul,” says Kelley, herself the daughter of a WWII Marine captain who smuggled her Chinese mother out of Tientsin in a pilot’s uniform. “I give big hugs, lend a listening ear and show a lot of gratitude. It’s a humbling experience to know these people have held that hell inside them for many years. That’s part of my job now to honor them and say welcome home.”
After closing her dance studio in 2019, Kelley was offered a seasonal job at Starlight Theatre as part of a crew that cleans, steams and organizes costumes and helps performers switch outfits backstage, sometimes in as little as 15 seconds.
The first production she worked was “Hello Dolly,” a show she danced in years earlier with Ethel Merman. To honor her and say welcome home in their own way, the cast gave her a button printed with the lyrics, “It’s so nice to have you back where you belong.”
“I welled up with tears. Starlight was my playground growing up,” says Kelley, who has one more goal—to write a book about her life for her daughter and grandson. Still, she feels content.
“I danced with Gene Kelly. I’m happy in my soul. I have everything I need, and I’m grateful for that.”