May 10th, 1899– Fred Astaire. The Husband comes down firmly in the Gene Kelly camp, but I am an Astaire guy. It doesn’t really matter. He was named the favorite dancer & major influence for Gene Kelly, Balanchine, Baryshnikov, Fosse, Nureyev, & Michael Jackson.
One of the greatest artists of the 20th century, & arguably the finest dancer ever to appear in films, I always have felt he was underappreciated as a singer, with perfection diction & 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 & Day, Irving Berlin’s Cheek To Cheek, Jerome Kern’s The Way You Look Tonight, The Gershwin’s The Way You Look Tonight, & Johnny Mercer’s One For My Baby.
Frederick Austerlitz was born in Omaha. He started in show biz at 4 years old, by default. He was along with his parents & his sister in NYC as Adele Astaire was starting dancing class, & she had an initially reluctant partner in her little brother Frederick. The team gave their first professional performance in 1905 when Fred was 6 years old & Adele was 9.
The Astaire siblings grew up dancing together in vaudeville & were big stars while still in their teens, with smash stage musical hits in NYC & London. Adele left the theatre world to marry rich in 1932 & Fred Astaire became a solo act. He soon scored success in The Gay Divorce (1933) on both sides of the Atlantic.
Hollywood came calling & Astaire agreed to screen-test in hopes of a film career. One studio executive’s now famous report:
“Can’t act. Slightly bald. Also dances.”
Astaire’s first film was MGM’s Dancing Lady (1933), with Clark Gable & 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 was Oscar nominated for his dramatic turn in The Towering Inferno (1975). He was given an honorary Academy Award, presented to him by frequent song & dance partner Ginger Rogers, in 1950. Astaire’s final musical was Finian’s Rainbow (1968) & his last film performance was in That’s Entertainment, Part 2 (1976), serving as the narrator & even dancing a bit. My own favorite would have to be Shall We Dance (1937), his 7th collaboration with Rogers, & with a Gershwin score.
In 1952, Astaire recorded The Astaire Story a 4 volume album & then announced his retirement. It did not last long. He made a series of TV Specials in 1958, 1959, 1960, & 1968, that each won him an Emmy Award. Astaire revolutionized dancing on TV, just as he had for film.
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 & were not restricting while still holding their form & style. Astaire’s contribution to Men’s Fashion is sans pareil.
I once spotted him 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, & the canyons in my 1959 black T-Bird, looking at the homes & hoping to spot a star. Well, you couldn’t get bigger than Fred Astaire! I followed him on to San Ysidro Drive in Beverly Hills & watched him park his car in an un-gated driveway of a modern house. To the horror of my passengers, I chose to turn around in Astaire’s driveway in order to get a better look.