Grace Kelly at 90: Celebrating an O.C. Icon

Grace Kelly at 90: Celebrating an O.C. Icon

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Ocean City Historical Museum board trustee Carol Dotts shows off a replica of Grace Kelly's wedding gown on display in the museum's permanent exhibit dedicated to the life of the movie star and princess.

By TIM KELLY

Grace Kelly still has a hold on Ocean City.

And now it seems, more than ever, Ocean City has a hold on Grace Kelly.

“People have a fascination with her,” said Al Crescenzo, who admits he is one of those people.

“There are six biographies of her that I’m aware of and I’ve read them all,” added Crescenzo, a 10-year volunteer of the Ocean City Historical Museum.

The Oscar-winning actress and former Princess of Monaco from Philadelphia passed away in 1982 at age 52 from injuries sustained in a car crash. Though 37 years have passed since Grace’s tragic demise, time hasn’t dimmed her star power in Ocean City.

Grace Kelly summered or vacationed here every year of her life except for the last one, and she left an indelible impression on those who still remember her fondly.

Bill Whiteside, of the Gardens section, knew Grace through her brother, Jack, a friend from both Ocean City and Philly. He recalls playing in a pickup basketball game with Jack when both men were in their 20s.

“I was an OK athlete,” said the humble Whiteside, 90, a letterman on Notre Dame’s 1949 undefeated national championship football team.

On this particular day, however, Bill wasn’t having much success on the basketball court.

“I heard this shrill voice coming from the stands,” he remembered. “Hey, Whiteside!” someone screamed. “Get the lead out of your (pants)!”

“I turned and looked up to the bleachers, and there was the Hollywood actress and future princess, laughing hysterically,” he continued.

Grace Kelly’s former summer home in Ocean City as it appeared in 2018.

Crescenzo said a large part of Grace Kelly’s appeal is her real-life ascension from Philly girl working as a waitress at the Chatterbox restaurant in Ocean City, to European royalty.

“In between, she had quite a career on the stage, on TV, and, of course, in film,” said Crescenzo.

November 12 will mark what would have been Grace Kelly’s 90th birthday. Ocean City could not let such a milestone go unrecognized.

A recent lecture by Crescenzo on Grace Kelly’s brief, but meteoric acting career, received rave reviews and was attended by a representative of Philadelphia’s East Falls Historical Society. He was asked to make the presentation in Grace’s old neighborhood and stomping grounds, an event which took place earlier this week.

Interestingly, a history group in what is arguably America’s most historic city, turned to Ocean City for help in celebrating one of its most iconic figures.

Crescenzo did not disappoint. His talk, “Grace Kelly in the Cinema” touched on her rise from dabbling in local theater all the way through her departure from Hollywood to marry Prince Rainier III and assume the role of monarch of the tiny principality just outside of Nice, France.

He touched on some of the little known facts of her career, including summer stock work she did at the Bucks County (Pa.) Playhouse and Philly’s Playhouse in the Park. There is also discussion of Grace Kelly’s extensive TV work.

“People don’t realize she did approximately 60 TV shows before she made it in Hollywood,” Crescenzo said. “In those days the networks aired numerous live dramas on TV. I personally remember seeing her on many of these shows, such as Hallmark Hall of Fame, an NBC staple of the early to mid-50s.”

“Grace Kelly Tea,” an annual fundraiser that was held at the Flanders Hotel in 2018, celebrates the movies of the royal Ocean City summer resident.

Crescenzo will present a condensed version of the talk to Ocean City’s Colony Club on Monday, October 21 at the club’s regular meeting, 6:30 p.m. at the Free Public Library’s meeting room 111.

Also, the Historical Museum’s annual Grace Kelly Exhibit and High Tea fundraiser has been set for June 3, 2020, with details to follow in coming weeks.

Her days in Ocean City centered around the family’s second home, a Spanish revival-style building still standing and looking almost exactly as it did when Grace lived there, at 26th Street and Wesley Avenue. Her father, four-time Olympic rowing champion John B. Kelly Sr., became a millionaire when he turned his background as a bricklayer into a multimillion-dollar empire in the construction business.

The elder Kelly bought the then-beachfront lot and built the distinctive house, which includes signature ornamental brickwork.

Grace left the United States for Monaco at age 26, giving up her chosen career when she had achieved new heights of success and popularity. During this period, Grace’s “Hollywood friends” would visit her at the summer house, which eventually became part of a compound when the family built a larger, now-demolished house across the street on the east side of Wesley.

“She was never a prima donna,” her late sister Lizanne said in a published article. “She would come in, kick off her shoes and run around barefoot just like the rest of us.”

Grace Kelly’s visitors in Ocean City included many of her friends from Hollywood, including Frank Sinatra. (Photo credit: London Daily Mail)

Each Labor Day weekend, the family would host an end-of-summer family reunion and party, which attendees said featured a neighborhood barbecue cook-off and a body surfing contest. Some said it was basically an open house, with neighbors and even the curious dropping in to take part in the festivities, and that all were welcome.

The celebrity culture in America was more subdued in those days, before social media and hundreds of cable TV networks hungered for content. But there would still be the occasional “scene” when a limousine would pull up in front of the house and Ocean City residents and vacationers would gather there.

One such incident took place in 1956, upon news Grace was pregnant with her first child, Princess Caroline, born in January of the following year.

A large crowd gathered to catch a glimpse of the glamorous couple and Grace’s “royal baby bump.” Most of the time, Grace blended into the local scene, playing with family members in the sand, swimming in the ocean and strolling the Boardwalk, friends said.

“Her approachability was one of the big (aspects of her popularity),” Crescenzo noted.

He said his knowledge and perspective on Grace improved upon visiting East Falls this week. He toured the neighborhood, including many of her haunts of childhood, adolescence and days as a young adult.

“I saw her family home, her grammar school, Ravenhill Academy (now closed and known as Ravenhill Mansion), and the old Academy Playhouse, where her acting career began,” Crescenzo said.

Grace’s first known theatrical performance was as a stand-in for a role that was to have been her sister’s, who was sick with the chicken pox at the time.

The rest is Philadelphia, Hollywood, Monaco – and Ocean City – history.

Grace Kelly photos fill a section of the Ocean City Historical Museum.