FRED ASTAIRE, born Frederick Austerlitz, was born in Omaha, Nebraska, the son of Johanna "Ann" (née Geilus) and Frederic "Fritz" Austerlitz (born September 8, 1868 as Friedrich Emanuel Austerlitz). Astaire's mother was born in the United States to Lutheran German immigrants from East Prussia and Alsace, while Astaire's father was born in Linz, Austria, to Jewish parents who had converted to Catholicism; Astaire became an Episcopalian in 1912. He was the younger brother of Adele Astaire.
After arriving in New York City at age 24 on October 26, 1892 and being processed at Ellis Island, Astaire's father, hoping to find work in his brewing trade, moved to Omaha, Nebraska and landed a job with the Storz Brewing Company. Astaire's mother dreamed of escaping Omaha by virtue of her children's talents after Adele early on revealed herself to be an instinctive dancer and singer. She envisioned a "brother-and-sister act," which was fairly common to vaudeville at the time. Although Astaire refused dance lessons at first, he easily mimicked his sister's step, and took up piano, accordion, and clarinet. When their father became suddenly unemployed, the family moved to New York City to launch the show business career of the children. Adele and Astaire had a teasing rivalry but fortunately they quickly acknowledged their individual strengths — his being durability and hers greater overall talent. "Astaire" was a name taken by him and his sister in 1905, when they were taking instruction in dance, speaking, and singing in preparation for developing an act. Family legend attributes it to an uncle surnamed "L'Astaire".
Finally, their first act took shape and was called Juvenile Artists Presenting an Electric Musical Toe-Dancing Novelty. In it, Fred wore a top hat and tails in the first half and a lobster outfit in the second. The goofy act debuted in Keyport, New Jersey in a "tryout theater", where the local paper wrote: "the Astaires are the greatest child act in vaudeville." After a short time, as a result of their father's salesmanship, Fred and Adele landed a major contract and they played the famed Orpheum circuit throughout the United States, including Omaha. Soon Adele grew to at least three inches taller than Fred and the pair began to look incongruous. The family decided to take a two-year break from show business, also to avoid trouble from the Gerry Society and the child labor laws of the time.
Their career resumed with mixed fortunes, though with increasing skill and polish, as they began to incorporate tap dancing into their routines. In this, Astaire was inspired by Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and John “Bubbles” Sublett. From vaudeville dancer Aurelio Coccia, they learned the tango, waltz, and other ballroom dances popularized by Vernon and Irene Castle.
While on the hunt for new music and dance ideas, Fred Astaire first met George Gershwin, who was working as a song plugger in Jerome H. Remick's, in 1916. Their chance meeting was to have profound consequences for the subsequent careers of both artists.
Astaire was always on the lookout for new steps he spotted on the circuit and was starting to demonstrate his ceaseless quest for novelty and perfection. Finally, they broke into Broadway with Over The Top (1917), a patriotic revue. They followed up with several more shows and of their work in The Passing Show of 1918, Heywood Broun wrote "In an evening in which there was an abundance of good dancing, Fred Astaire stood out...He and his partner, Adele Astaire, made the show pause early in the evening with a beautiful loose-limbed dance." By this time, Astaire's dancing skill was beginning to outshine his sister's, though she still set the tone of their act and her sparkle and humor drew much of the attention, due in part to Fred's careful preparation and strong supporting choreography.
During the 1920s, Fred and Adele appeared on Broadway and on the London stage in shows such as George and Ira Gershwin's Lady Be Good (1924) and Funny Face (1927), and later in The Band Wagon (1931), winning popular acclaim with the theater crowd on both sides of the Atlantic. By then, Astaire's tap dancing was recognized as among the best, as Robret Benchley wrote in 1930, "I don't think that I will plunge the nation into war by stating that Fred is the greatest tap-dancer in the world." After the close of Funny Face, the Astaires went to Hollywood for a screen test (now lost) at Paramount Pictures but were not considered suitable for films.
They split in 1932, when Adele married her first husband, Lord Charles Arthur Francis Cavendish, a son of the Duke of Devonshire. Fred Astaire went on to achieve success on his own on Broadway and in London with Gay Divorce, while considering offers from Hollywood. The end of the partnership was traumatic for Astaire but stimulated him to expand his range. Free of the brother-sister constraints of the former pairing, and with a new partner Claire Luce, he created a romantic partnered dance to Cole Porter's "Night and Day", which had been written for Gay Divorce. Luce stated that she had to encourage him to take a more romantic approach, "Come on, Fred, I'm not your sister, you know.":6 This number was credited with the success of the stage play and, when recreated in the film version of the play The Gay Divorcee (1934), ushered in a new era in filmed dance.:23,26,61 Recently, film footage taken by Fred Stone, of Astaire performing in Gay Divorce with Luce's successor Dorothy Stone in New York in 1933 was uncovered by dancer and historian Betsy Baytos, and now represents the earliest extant performance footage of Astaire.
According to Hollywood folklore, a screen test report on Astaire for RKO Pictures, now lost along with the test, is reported to have read: "Can't sing. Can't act. Balding. Can dance a little." The producer of the Astaire-Rogers pictures Pandro S. Berman claimed he had never heard the story in the 1930s and that it only emerged years later.:7 Astaire, in a 1980 interview on ABC's 20/20 with Barbara Walters, insisted that the report had actually read: "Can't act. Slightly bald. Also dances". In any case, the test was clearly disappointing, and David O. Selznick, who had signed Astaire to RKO and commissioned the test, stated in a memo "I am uncertain about the man, but I feel, in spite of his enormous ears and bad chin line, that his charm is so tremendous that it comes through even on this wretched test.":7 However, this did not affect RKO's plans for Astaire, first lending him for a few days to MGM in 1933 for his Hollywood debut, where he appeared as himself dancing with Joan Crawford in the successful musical film Dancing Lady.
On his return to RKO Pictures, he got fifth billing alongside Ginger Rogers in the 1933 Dolores del Río vehicle Flying Down to Rio. In a review, Variety magazine attributed its massive success to Astaire's presence: "The main point of Flying Down to Rio is the screen promise of Fred Astaire ... He's assuredly a bet after this one, for he's distinctly likable on the screen, the mike is kind to his voice and as a dancer he remains in a class by himself. The latter observation will be no news to the profession, which has long admitted that Astaire starts dancing where the others stop hoofing.":
Having already been linked to his sister Adele on stage, Astaire was initially very reluctant to become part of another dance team. He wrote his agent, "I don't mind making another picture with her but as for this team idea it's out! I've just managed to live down one partnership and I don't want to be bothered with any more.":8 He was persuaded by the obvious public appeal of the Astaire-Rogers pairing. The partnership, and the choreography of Astaire and Hermes Pan, helped make dancing an important element of the Hollywood film musical. Astaire and Rogers made ten films together, including The Gay Divorcee (1934), Roberta (1935), Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), Swing Time (1936), Shall We Dance (1937), and Carefree (1938). Six out of the nine musicals he created became the biggest moneymakers for RKO; all of the films brought a certain prestige and artistry that all studios coveted at the time. Their partnership elevated them both to stardom; as Katharine Hepburn reportedly said, "He gives her class and she gives him sex."
Astaire easily received the benefits of a percentage of the film's profits, something extremely rare in actors' contracts at that time; and complete autonomy over how the dances would be presented, allowing him to revolutionize dance on film. Astaire is credited with two important innovations in early film musicals.:23,26 First, he insisted that the (almost stationary) camera film a dance routine in a single shot, if possible, while holding the dancers in full view at all times. Astaire famously quipped: "Either the camera will dance, or I will. He maintained this policy from The Gay Divorcee (1934) onwards (until overruled by Francis Ford Coppola, who directed Finian's Rainbow (1968), Astaire's last film musical). Astaire's style of dance sequences thus contrasted with the Busby Berkeley musicals, which were known for dance sequences filled with extravagant aerial shots, quick takes, and zooms on certain areas of the body, such as the arms or legs. Second, Astaire was adamant that all song and dance routines be seamlessly integrated into the plotlines of the film. Instead of using dance as spectacle as Busby Berkeley did, Astaire used it to move the plot along. Typically, an Astaire picture would include a solo performance by Astaire — which he termed his "sock solo" — a partnered comedy dance routine, and a partnered romantic dance routine.
Dance commentators Arlene Croce,:6 Hannah Hyam and John Mueller consider Rogers to have been Astaire's greatest dance partner, while recognizing that some of his later partners displayed superior technical dance skills, a view shared by Hermes Pan and Stanley Donen. Film critic Pauline Kael adopts a more neutral stance, while Time magazine film critic Richard Schickel writes "The nostalgia surrounding Rogers-Astaire tends to bleach out other partners."
Mueller sums up Rogers's abilities as follows: "Rogers was outstanding among Astaire's partners not because she was superior to others as a dancer but because, as a skilled, intuitive actress, she was cagey enough to realize that acting did not stop when dancing began ... the reason so many women have fantasized about dancing with Fred Astaire is that Ginger Rogers conveyed the impression that dancing with him is the most thrilling experience imaginable." According to Astaire, "Ginger had never danced with a partner before. She faked it an awful lot. She couldn't tap and she couldn't do this and that ... but Ginger had style and talent and improved as she went along. She got so that after a while everyone else who danced with me looked wrong." For her part, Rogers described Astaire's uncompromising standards extending to the whole production, "Sometimes he'll think of a new line of dialogue or a new angle for the story...they never know what time of night he'll call up and start ranting enthusiastically about a fresh idea...No loafing on the job on an Astaire picture, and no cutting corners.":
Astaire was still unwilling to have his career tied exclusively to any partnership, however. He negotiated with RKO to strike out on his own with A Damsel in Distress in 1937, unsuccessfully as it turned out. He returned to make two more films with Rogers, Carefree (1938) and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939). While both films earned respectable gross incomes, they both lost money due to increased production costs:410 and Astaire left RKO. Rogers remained and went on to become the studio's hottest property in the early forties. They were reunited in 1949 at MGM for their final outing, The Barkleys of Broadway.
In 1939, Astaire left RKO to freelance and pursue new film opportunities, with mixed though generally successful outcomes. Throughout this period, Astaire continued to value the input of choreographic collaborators and, unlike the 1930s when he worked almost exclusively with Hermes Pan, he tapped the talents of other choreographers in an effort to continually innovate. His first post-Ginger dance partner was the redoubtable Eleanor Powell – considered the finest female tap-dancer of her generation – in Broadway Melody of 1940 where they performed a celebrated extended dance routine to Cole Porter's Begin the Beguine. He played alongside Bing Crosby in Holiday Inn (1942) and later Blue Skies (1946) but in spite of the enormous financial success of both, was reportedly dissatisfied with roles where he lost the girl to Crosby. The former film is particularly remembered for his virtuoso solo dance to "Let's Say it with Firecrackers" while the latter film featured an innovative song and dance routine to a song indelibly associated with him: "Puttin' on the Ritz." Other partners during this period included Paulette Goddard in Second Chorus (1940), in which he dance-conducted the Artie Shaw orchestra.
He made two pictures with Rita Hayworth: the first You'll Never Get Rich (1941) catapulted Hayworth to stardom and provided Astaire with his first opportunity to integrate Latin-American dance idioms into his style, taking advantage of Hayworth's professional Latin dance pedigree. His second film with Hayworth, You Were Never Lovelier (1942) was equally successful, and featured a duet to Kern's "I'm Old Fashioned" which became the centerpiece of Jerome Robbins's 1983 New York City Ballet tribute to Astaire. He next appeared opposite the seventeen-year-old Joan Leslie in the wartime drama The Sky's the Limit (1943) where he introduced Arlen and Mercer's "One for My Baby" while dancing on a bar counter in a dark and troubled routine. This film which was choreographed by Astaire alone and achieved modest box office success, represented an important departure for Astaire from his usual charming happy-go-lucky screen persona and confused contemporary critics.
His next partner, Lucille Bremer, featured in two lavish vehicles, both directed by Vincente Minnelli: the fantasy Yolanda and the Thief which featured an avant-garde surrealistic ballet, and the musical revue Ziegfeld Follies (1946) which featured a memorable teaming of Astaire with Gene Kelly to "The Babbit and the Bromide", a Gershwin song Astaire had introduced with his sister Adele back in 1927. While Follies was a hit, Yolanda bombed at the box office and Astaire, ever insecure and believing his career was beginning to falter surprised his audiences by announcing his retirement during the production of Blue Skies (1946), nominating "Puttin' on the Ritz" as his farewell dance.
After announcing his retirement in 1946, Astaire concentrated on his horse-racing interests and went on to found the Fred Astaire Dance Studios in 1947 — which he subsequently sold in 1966.
Biography courtesy of Lyric Freaks....