Fred Astaire was born in Omaha Nebraska in 1899. His father passed through Ellis Island before making his way to Omaha to work at the Storz Brewing Company. His mother was the driving force behind her children’s show business careers.
Fred’s sister, Adele, showed potential for great singing and dancing skill. This was the beginning of the brother/sister team act that would last for years to come. At first, Fred wouldn’t take dance lessons but learned by repeating steps Adele did outside the classroom.
As children and teenagers, the pair worked the vaudeville circuit before working the big time by landing a contract with the famed Orpheum Circuit and traveling the States.
After a two-year break in their teens, the Astaires began to refine their act. They began incorporating more tap dancing and ballroom into their routines. Fred was heavily influenced by Bill Bojangles Robinson and John Bubbles Sublett.
In 1917, the Astaire pair debuted on Broadway in Over the Top which helped to launch their adult careers. While Fred started to become the stronger dancer of the two, Adele’s humor and charm was used to set the tone of the show.
The pair split when Adele married her first husband in 1932, Lord Charles Arthur Francis Cavendish, a son of the Duke of Devonshire. Though upset by the separation, it forced Fred to expand his range by playing more romantic roles that would have been inappropriate with his sister.
During this time, Fred appeared in a now famously lost screen test for RKO Pictures which said “Can’t sing. Can’t act. Balding. Can dance a little.” He refuted this and claims it said “Can’t act. Slightly bald. Also dances.” Either way, he received less than enthusiastic reviews. It didn’t seem to matter though and he was loaned to MGM in 1933 for his work Dancing Lady alongside Joan Crawford.
When he returned he appeared alongside Ginger Rogers for the first time in Flying down to Rio. The film kept RKO out of receivership and launched the two’s film career. Both were supporting characters that used wisecracks and dance as comic relief. The pair filmed ten musical numbers together over the years.
Fred Astaire is credited with reforming the way musical numbers were filmed. He insisted that 1)musical numbers help to tell the story and 2) be shot in one long seamless shot. Up to that point, film tricks were used to help “fix” a dancer’s performance. They would cut out to the audience, cut back to just a shot the feet, pan the audience, cut back to close up of the face. He insisted that his whole body be viewed for the entire routine which helped the film audience stay more “in the moment” with the story.
This legend of performance was a perfectionist in every area of his work. He would work for weeks to ensure each gesture, step, expression perfectly flowed into the next. While refusing to watch a playback of his work, he always thought his work was less than good.
The normal format for his routines was to build a routine up until it reached it’s high point and then come to a quick end. In essence, “leave them wanting more.” While he brought a touch of class to the art of tap, he was also one of the first to mix the mainly black rhythm tap with ballroom dancing. Tap was at the zenith of elegance and style.
In 1946 he announced he would be retiring and spent time on his horse racing interests and opened the Fred Astaire Dance Studios.
By 1948 he was back to work again. He would work on and off in films and music for the nearly the rest of his life. His last film was a horror film in 1981.
Fred Astaire left behind not only a vast body of work but a legacy that will carry on indefinitely. The original image of living an active life, at the age of 78 he broke his wrist while riding his grandson’s skateboard.
Though many didn’t realize his political affiliations, Fred Astaire was one of the founding members of the Hollywood Republican Committee.
After his first wife Phyllis died after 21 years of marriage (they were married in 1933), Fred married his second wife, Robyn Smith, in 1980. A jockey, she was 45 years his junior.
While Fred’s son, Fred Jr., became a rancher, his daughter, Ava Astaire McKenzie has dedicated her life to preserving her father’s legacy. Part of this legacy includes a ban on portraying Fred Astaire in any film. Astaire didn’t want “my life misinterpreted, which it would be."
Fred Astaire died on June 22, 1987 of pneumonia and was interred in Oakwood Memorial Park Cemetery in Chatsworth, California.
DANCING LADY, FLYING DOWN TO RIO, THE GAY DIVORCEE, ROBERTA (and choreographer), TOP HAT (and choreographer), FOLLOW THE FLEET, SWING TIME, A DAMSEL IN DISTRESS (and choreographer), SHALL WE DANCE, CAREFREE, THE STORY OF VERNON & IRENE CASTLE, BROADWAY MELODY OF 1940, SECOND CHORUS, YOU'LL NEVER GET RICH, HOLIDAY INN , YOU WERE NEVER LOVELIER (and choreographer), THE SKY'S THE LIMIT (and choreographer), YOLANDA AND THE THIEF, BLUE SKIES (and composer), ZIEGFELD FOLLIES, EASTER PARADE (and choreographer), THE BARKLEYS OF BROADWAY, LET'S DANCE, THREE LITTLE WORDS, ROYAL WEDDING, THE BELLE OF NEW YORK, THE BAND WAGON, DADDY LONG LEGS, FUNNY FACE (and choreographer), SILK STOCKINGS, ON THE BEACH, THE PLEASURE OF HIS COMPANY, THE NOTORIOUS LANDLADY, PARIS- WHEN IT SIZZLES (voice only), FINIAN'S RAINBOW, MIDAS RUN, IMAGINE, THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT!, THE TOWERING INFERNO, THE AMAZING DOBERMANS, THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT, PART II, UN TAXI MAUVE, IMPOSTERS, GHOST STORY, PENNIES FROM HEAVEN (song composer), CAN SHE BAKE A CHERRY PIE? (song composer), GEORGE STEVENS: A FILMMAKER'S JOURNEY, HOTEL TERMINUS: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF KLAUS BARBIE (song composer), GOING HOLLYWOOD: THE WAR YEARS, LOVERBOY (song composer)
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