Hermes Pan was working as a dancer on Broadway where he met Virginia McMath. She was headed to Hollywood where word was out that film studios were looking for musical comedy performers. McMath convinced Pan to try his luck with her. He had a rough start. Pan was broke when he was hired at $75 a week to work with Astaire in Flying Down To Rio (1933), only Astaire’s second film and the first teamed with McMath, now renamed Ginger Rogers.
Pan worked with Fred Astaire on 17 pictures, including all ten of the films Astaire made with Rogers. In the years that he worked as a choreographer for Astaire at RKO, Pan always taught Rogers the steps way before she worked with her onscreen perfectionist partner. The two men would refine the dances together, and Pan would then introduce them to Rogers. Pan would first dance the Astaire part while Rogers slowly learned hers. Pan resembled Astaire physically and as a dancer.
He sometimes dubbed Rogers taps for her films with Astaire, in high heels for authenticity.
Pan had been hired by RKO’s Dance Director Dave Gould to work with Astaire, because ironically, Gould didn’t know how to dance. There were no choreographers for films in those days.
Pan and Astaire had very different personalities, but compatible sensibilities in dance, music and humor. Pan was a decade younger than Astaire and more hip to the latest dance steps, and Astaire, smart about showbiz, admired Pan’s youthful vim and vigor.
Pan and Astaire’s collaboration lasted for the rest of the two men’s lives, all the way to Astaire’s last film musical, Finian’s Rainbow (1968), an experience that was not good for either of them. Young director Francis Ford Coppola knew little about how to shoot a musical, and thwarted Astaire and Pan’s ideas for the film’s dances. Coppola decided to reintroduce the style of camera work from the early 1930s which Astaire and Pan had worked so hard to end. Eventually, Coppola fired Pan, who also had a small role in the film.
Pan enjoyed a lengthy career as a choreographer and he hired a number of major American dancers for their first Hollywood jobs including Bob Fosse and Jack Cole. He won an Academy Award for Damsel In Distress (1936), back when they gave Oscars for Best Dance.
After Astaire and Rogers were no longer a team, Pan went over to Fox Studios where he worked with Betty Grable, at the time, the number one box-office star in the USA. In the 1950s, he went to work for MGM. Joe Mankiewicz hired Pan to design and stage Elizabeth Taylor‘s entrance in to Rome in Cleopatra (1962).
Pan’s special skill was his transformations of mundane life situations to a dance idiom. His vitality, work ethic, and ability to please both the dancers and studio bosses made him much loved in Hollywood. Handsome and lithe, a doppelganger for Astaire, Pan was an A-list party-goer, usually with Rita Hayworth as his beard.
Pan was a deeply closeted gay man who had trouble living with his gayness, his Roman Catholic faith, and his disapproving mother. Invited to an all-male party by New York City’s Cardinal Francis Spellman, Hermes was shocked by the gay shenanigans and he dove even deeper into the closet.
He did have a long affair with dancer Gino Malerba, but like so many gay men of the era, he seldom appeared in public with male partners, and he never lived together with Malerba.
Among the more than 50 films he choreographed are Top Hat (1935), The Blue Angel (1959), Kiss Me Kate (1953), Pal Joey (1957), Porgy And Bess (1959), The Pink Panther (1963), and My Fair Lady (1964). His first was Flying Down To Rio in 1933, and his last was Aiutami A Sognare in 1981. He played small roles in some of the films that he choreographed and danced on screen with Hayworth and Grable.
He did the dances for all four of Astaire’s popular television specials and won an Emmy Award in 1961 for Astaire Time: An Evening With Fred Astaire.