There aren’t many people who can say they learned to dance from one of the greatest of all time — Gene Kelly.
But, for Mary Lewis, those early lessons with the late, great movie star at his family’s dance studio in Squirrel Hill turned into a lifelong love of the arts.
Mrs. Lewis, nee Kane, parlayed that passion into a role as a teacher, author and acting instructor at the Pittsburgh Playhouse.
“She knew how to have fun,” said her daughter Mary Anne Lewis, of Mt. Lebanon. “She loved anything to do with the theater.”
Mrs. Lewis, of Mt. Lebanon, died March 19 of congestive heart failure while visiting family in San Francisco. She had celebrated her 97th birthday just two weeks earlier.
She grew up in Squirrel Hill, where Mrs. Lewis’ parents signed her up for dance lessons as a way to overcome shyness.
“Taking lessons there, it started her off on her journey to the fine arts. It left a lasting impression,” her daughter said. “She always told the story about the time, around 1960, when Gene Kelly made an appearance at the Manor Theater and saw her across the street and yelled ‘Hello Mary!’”
After graduating from Mount Mercy High School in 1944, Mrs. Lewis earned a degree in dramatic arts from Carnegie Tech in 1948.
As a student, she found herself dancing onstage with classmate Jack Klugman, who studied briefly at Carnegie Tech before his career in Hollywood and Broadway took flight.
Mrs. Lewis went on to receive a master’s degree in education from the University of Pittsburgh and taught English at Wilkinsburg Junior High School.
Around the same time, she performed at the Playhouse and began teaching at the Playhouse school of theater and Carlow University.
“She taught acting, mostly to kids [at the Playhouse] from the ‘50s till the ‘70s,” her daughter said.
In 1959, Mrs. Lewis married Mark W. Lewis, director of the Playhouse. Mr. Lewis died in 1999.
By 1969, she wrote and published “Acting for Children,” a collection of plays and a guide for teaching drama to children.
Visitors at the former Buhl Planetarium in the ‘60s might also remember her as the voice of “Transpara,” a female body that demonstrated how organs and circulation worked.
Mrs. Lewis went on to teach oral communication and acting at Community College of Allegheny County from 1971 to 1990.
A lover of Thai and Indian cuisine, crossword puzzles and the classics, like “Madea” — think Greek tragedy, not Tyler Perry -- Mrs. Lewis was an original, her daughter said.
“She was a great storyteller and a woman of anecdotes,” she said.
Even in her 90s, Mrs. Lewis took to technology like a teenager with an iPad and smartphone.
“She was not intimidated by technology, which was a good thing for someone her age,” her daughter said. “In her later years she became a big reader and she was proficient at downloading books for her Kindle and texting.”
A very religious woman, Mrs. Lewis devoted much of her life to St. Bernard Catholic Church in Mt. Lebanon, where she served as a lector.
“She was spiritual and went to daily Mass in later years,” her daughter said.
After she retired, Mrs. Lewis traveled the world, including religious pilgrimages to Ireland, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Croatia and visits to the London theater district.
“She and my father went to London one year and saw about 18 plays,” her daughter said.
She will remember her mother for little life lessons and cherished memories, her daughter said.
“I have so many memories of my mother — from her teaching me the names of different types of clouds as a child to taking us to Kennywood, to showing me how to tie my shoes,” she said. “She was a real character.”
Along with her daughter, Mrs. Lewis is survived by her other children Terry Lewis, of San Francisco, and Mark Lewis, of Chicago; her sister Nancy Thompson, of Savannah, Ga.; four grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Janice Crompton: firstname.lastname@example.org.