May 10th, 1899– Fred Astaire:
“I just put my feet in the air and move them around.”
The Husband comes down firmly in the Gene Kelly camp, but I am a Fred Astaire guy. It doesn’t really matter. Astaire has been named the favorite dancer and a major influence for Gene Kelly, George Balanchine, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Bob Fosse, Rudolf Nureyev, and Michael Jackson.
One of the greatest artists of the 20th century, a Style Icon, and arguably the finest dancer ever to appear in films, I always have felt he was underappreciated as a singer, with perfection diction and phrasing, vocalizing with the same casual elegance as his dancing. Astaire introduced the world to some of the greatest tunes of the 20th Century including: Cole Porter’s Night And Day, Irving Berlin’s Cheek To Cheek, Jerome Kern’s The Way You Look Tonight, George and Ira Gershwin’s Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off, and Johnny Mercer’s One For My Baby. He frequently claimed that he could not sing.
He was born Frederick Austerlitz in Omaha. He started in show biz at 4 years of age, by default. He was along with his parents and his sister in NYC as the sister, Adele Astaire, was starting dancing class, and she had an initially reluctant partner in her little brother Frederick. The team gave their first professional performance in 1905 when Fred was six years old and Adele was nine years old.
The Astaire siblings grew up dancing together in vaudeville and they were big stars while still in their teens, with smash stage musical hits in NYC and in London. Adele Astaire left the act, giving up the theatre world for good in order to marry rich in 1932. Fred Astaire became a solo act. He soon scored a stunning success in The Gay Divorce (1933) on both sides of the Atlantic.
Hollywood studios seemed interested and Astaire agreed to do a screen-test in hopes of having a film career. One studio executive’s now famous report:
“Can’t act. Slightly bald. Also dances.”
Astaire’s first film was at MGM, Dancing Lady (1933) with Clark Gable and Joan Crawford. Astaire played himself, introduced by Gable as: “That dancer from New York”. He went on to make 40 films, 31 of them musicals, although he received an Academy Award nomination for his dramatic turn in the campy disaster flick, The Towering Inferno (1975). He was given an honorary Oscar, presented to him by his frequent song and dance partner Ginger Rogers, in 1950. Astaire’s final musical film was Finian’s Rainbow (1968), which I like quite a lot, and his last screen performance was in That’s Entertainment, Part 2 (1976), serving as the narrator and even dancing a little bit. My own favorite Astaire performance would have to be Shall We Dance (1937), his seventh collaboration with Rogers, and with a sparkling Gershwin score.
Astaire and Rogers had one of film’s greatest partnerships. They made ten movies together, always playing a couple who fall out over a misunderstanding, then end up together when it’s cleared up. Unexplainable magic happened when they danced together. Astaire tapped and twirled with other great dancers like Rita Hayworth, Eleanor Powell, and Judy Garland, but none had quite that special stardust as Rogers.
In 1952, Astaire recorded The Astaire Story a four volume album, and then announced his retirement. It did not last long. He made a series of television specials in 1958, 1959, 1960, and 1968. Each one won him an Emmy Award. Astaire revolutionized dancing on television, just as he had for film.
Even his walk was like dancing. Academy Award winning choreographer Hermes Pan described Astaire’s everyday walk as:
“A loose rhythmic saunter that looks as if it’s, in a way, dancing. I remember Gershwin wrote music especially for that walk.”
Gershwin had been one of Astaire’s Broadway rehearsal pianists. He was a big fan and admired Astaire’s self-taught jazz piano style. Astaire was also an accomplished songwriter. He wrote the music for I’m Building Up To An Awful Letdown, with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, which reached number four in the Hit Parade of 1936. He recorded his own tune It’s Just Like Taking Candy From A Baby with Benny Goodman in 1940.
Astaire remains an incomparable male Style Icon. I can’t imagine any other man today who could get away with wearing a necktie as a belt (well, maybe Justin Timberlake). No matter the plunge, pirouette or position Astaire was photographed, his clothing always fit him perfectly. Astaire always opted for bespoke suits. He made sure that they had the range of motion needed and were never restricting while still holding their form and style. Astaire’s contribution to Men’s Fashion is sans pareil.
Nothing I have read about him, the few people that I know that worked with him never indicated to me, and I never got any gay vibe from Astaire, but Gore Vidal had told someone I know that Astaire may have married twice and had children, but Vidal had seduced the famous actor/dancer/singer when he was working in Hollywood. People have accused me of “making everyone gay”, but I don’t know.
I once spotted Astaire in a vintage Jaguar convertible while driving on Benedict Canyon Drive. In the early 1970s, I loved nothing more than to drive around Bel Air, Beverly Hills, or the canyons in my 1959 black T-Bird, looking at the fabulous homes and hoping to spot a movie star. Well, you couldn’t get bigger than Fred Astaire! I followed him on to San Ysidro Drive in Beverly Hills and watched him park his car in an un-gated driveway of a very nice, but not ostentatious modern house. To the horror of my passengers, I chose to turn around in Astaire’s driveway in order to get a better look.
Astaire was fit, trim and active in to his 80s, checking out in 1987, at just 88 years old. He concludes his memoir Steps In Time (1959) with the modest:
“I just dance.”