Margaret Kelly

Founder of the Bluebell Girls
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The Independent Online

Margaret Kelly was the founder and impresario of the world-famous Bluebell Girls, the ne plus ultra of dancing troupes. When I first met "Miss Bluebell", as she was known to all, in 1981 in Paris for a magazine article, her first words were "I'm a character, you know". Her bold assertion proved no exaggeration. From that meeting sprang a cover story, a book and a BBC1 drama series.

Margaret Kelly, dancer: born Dublin 24 June 1910; OBE 1996; married 1939 Marcel Leibovici (died 1961; two sons, one daughter, and one son deceased); died Paris 11 September 2004.

Margaret Kelly was the founder and impresario of the world-famous Bluebell Girls, the ne plus ultra of dancing troupes. When I first met "Miss Bluebell", as she was known to all, in 1981 in Paris for a magazine article, her first words were "I'm a character, you know". Her bold assertion proved no exaggeration. From that meeting sprang a cover story, a book and a BBC1 drama series.

Born in 1910 in the Rotunda Hospital, Dublin, Kelly never knew who her parents were. She was quickly adopted, standard Catholic procedure then with illegitimates, and raised by Mary Murphy, a deeply religious woman and eldest of three spinster sisters, who made her living as a dressmaker.

A Dublin doctor, enchanted by the baby's clear blue eyes, said "You're my little bluebell" and conferred the famous nickname. Bluebell was a frail child and was past her third birthday before she could walk. Murphy, concerned with Ireland's high rate of infant mortality, spent her last savings on tickets to England, leaving soon after the 1916 Easter uprising.

She settled in Liverpool and a two-room house in Deysbrook Lane, West Derby, with a job as a hospital-ward maid at £1 a week. Bluebell, in spite of her puny frame, was a playful, exuberant child. A doctor suggested dancing lessons to channel her energy and strengthen her matchstick legs. At eight she was enrolled for the Saturday-morning classes of Madame Cummings and quickly blossomed, displaying natural ability.

All through childhood she danced, augmenting Murphy's meagre earnings with paper rounds, golf caddying, delivering milk and potato picking. One Christmas Madame Cummings sent her best girls, Bluebell Kelly included, to a pantomime in Newquay where they were billed as "The Six Little Darlings".

Her appetite whetted for the world beyond, Bluebell at 14 joined a Scottish touring company, the Hot Jocks, and nine months later was hired by Alfred Jackson at £2 a week to become a Jackson Girl in Berlin, at the huge Scala with its line of 30 dancers. She spent five years in Germany during the Weimar period, and learned the language, making occasional forays with the Jacksons to Hungary, Spain and even the London Coliseum.

In 1930 she was a holiday replacement at the Folies Bergère, and so entranced by Paris that she decided it was where she always wanted to live. By 1932 she had formed her own troupe for the Folies. The programme for the first show, Nuit de Folies, called them "The Blue Bell's Girls".

The temperamental superstar Mistinguett later had them fired, but, undaunted, Kelly moved to the Paramount cinema which with lavish cine-variety shows was trying to emulate New York's Radio City Music Hall. "Les Blue Bell Paramount Girls" became the Parisian Rockettes, even appearing in a number of frothy film musicals. As a full-time administrator and choreographer, Kelly installed her second troupe at the Folies Bergère, and imposed a minimum height of 5ft 9in (she was only 5ft 7in), recruiting them from Britain because she found British girls were better team players.

Bluebell Girls became so popular that soon they were touring Europe, except for Nazi Germany. In 1939 Kelly married Marcel Leibovici, Folies pianist, composer and orchestral conductor, who renounced his Romanian nationality.

The Second World War changed everything. As France fell, they fled to Bordeaux, but the last boat out had been crammed with departing diplomats. They returned to Paris. Kelly, as a British passport-holder, was interned and sent, pregnant with the first of four children, to detention barracks in Besançon. Leibovici asked the Irish chargé d'affaires to intercede because Kelly had been born in Dublin and was therefore a neutral Irish citizen. She was released.

Then, Leibovici, who was Jewish, was arrested and sent to Gurs, a transit camp in the Pyrenees. His command of languages enabled him to escape and make his way back to Paris, where he hid in an attic opposite the Prefecture of Police. For two and a half years Kelly saw that he was fed and even had clean laundry, many times risking arrest for breaking curfew.

Her Berlin years helped her to understand German attitudes. Requested to take a troupe to Berlin to entertain the Wehrmacht, she told a colonel that her relations in the British army would be horrified. "Quite so," said the colonel, and she was never asked again. Later she was interrogated at 84 Avenue Foch, the infamous Gestapo headquarters, an ordeal that few survived, but she was able to convince them that she had no idea where her husband was, although she was pregnant with her third child - the inquisitors drew the wrong conclusions.

After the war Joseph and Louis Clérico opened the Lido, with the intention of making it Paris's finest place of entertainment. Donn Arden, who had made his name staging Las Vegas spectaculars, was brought in and he and Kelly formed a professional association which lasted for four decades. The Bluebell Girls performed 365 nights of the year against a constantly moving backdrop of waterfalls, jungles, ice rinks, palaces, with supporting acts of jugglers, illusionists, acrobats, strong men, but no stars - the show was the star. By the 1950s various Bluebell troupes were travelling the world, and a permanent company was established in Las Vegas, where they were an immediate sensation.

Marcel Leibovici was killed in a car crash in 1961, having fallen asleep at the wheel, and Kelly then had to take over all his business responsibilities.

Kelly's standards were always extraordinarily high. Many of her statuesque girls were classically trained, and exchanged tutus for g-strings, rhinestones and ostrich feathers when they became too tall for ballet. In the early 1970s some volunteered to go topless and, if their figures were suitable, Kelly allowed them. It was decorous rather than erotic, the kind of show a maiden aunt could enjoy. "You only feel naked if you are not wearing any body make-up," one of the girls told me.

Kelly watched most performances and her hawk-like eyes could spot a faulty fastening or a fumbled step from 60 paces, and stern notes would follow. Girls likened the time with the Bluebells to serving in a crack Guards regiment, with Kelly as colonel, regimental sergeant major and sympathetic mother superior all in one. She zealously protected their moral welfare, and, when suggestions were initially made in Las Vegas that the Bluebells should mingle with the customers, her wrath caused the tough guys to tremble.

In November 1980, when a disastrous fire engulfed Kirk Kerkorian's enormous MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas and 84 died, Donn Arden, Kelly and many others were trapped on a floor too high for ladders to reach and spent anxious hours awaiting rescue. Someone had seen The Towering Inferno and soaked towels and carpets, stuffing them under the door to stop the smoke, until eventually a long enough escape ladder was found to lower them from the dizzying height.

When she appeared on Parkinson in the 1980s, Kelly demonstrated that she could do high kicks like a 20-year-old. She retired at 79. France made her a Chevalier des Arts et Lettres and in 1996 she was appointed OBE.

George Perry