“When they dance, everything seems brighter and their comedy alone would be enough to carry them through even if they were to stop dancing (which God forbid!)” – Robert Benchley
Astounding as it may be to contemplate, it was Adele Astaire whom in their days as a team was regarded as the truly talented one. When she retired from the brother-sister act in 1932, the public feeling was very much a case of “What will HE do?” Astaire’s hopes for himself weren’t even that great. Fortunately, he went on to prove the world and himself wrong.
The Austerlitz kids were born in Omaha: Adele on September 10, 1896, Fred on May 10 three years later. Their father, who was from Austria, worked in a brewery. There was no history of show business in the family apart from Mr. Astaire’s appreciation for the industry as a fan. What started the ball rolling was the fact that Adele – like nearly every other middle-class girl her age – enrolled in a dance class. The teachers at Chambers Dancing Academy quickly identified her as a prodigy. Their father, a subscriber to the New York Clipper, spotted an ad for Claude Alvienne’s dancing school and sent Mrs. Astaire with both children to New York to enroll Adele. Fred, who was four at the time, was also enrolled although he had shown no particular talent at that point. At the school, the children also took acting classes. In one early recital, Adele played Cyrano and Fred played Rosanne! Their mother taught them their regular subjects, but the family was focused like a laser beam on developing the childrens’ talents. Mrs. Astaire brought them to see The Soul Kiss featuring Danish ballet star Adeleine Green 28 times.
After a year of school, they went pro. Their first act, which debuted in Keyport, New Jersey, was an immediate winner both because it had a good gimmick and because the children were so young. It started out with an enormous wedding cake, with Fred and Adele dressed as a little bride and groom, standing at the top. The kids would dance down the layers of the cake, then each do a solo, and then, after a costume change, return dressed as a lobster (Fred) and a glass of champagne (Adele). The father, who’d remained in Omaha, would make periodic forays to New York to set up business. It so happened that he’d been friends with Frank Vincent, head booker for the Orpheum Circuit who set them up with an extensive tour of the entire west.
As time went on, however they lost both of their assets. The clever props were too much of a hassle to travel with, so they were dropped. And while they didn’t become teenagers overnight, neither were they so adorably tiny after awhile. They were left to fall back on their talent alone, which as anyone can tell you, is not by itself sufficient to get you ahead in show business.
They now entered a long, awkward middle period of struggle through which only discipline and hard work sustained them. Many minor misfortunes befell them. Oddly, they were simultaneously too young and too old. They were too young for the Gerry Society, that cabal of blue-nosed butt-inskys who lived to harass the parents of every underage child in vaudeville, but were content to let thousands of tykes work at lathes and assembly lines in factories. Young as he was, his mother put Fred in long pants, but it fooled nobody. Finally, when the Gerrys canceled the Astaires in Los Angeles, their mother arranged to talk with their representative, describing, in particular, the extensive academic schooling they got at her hands. That solved the problem of being too young, but not too old. Adele in particular was shooting up over Fred. They just weren’t that cute anymore, and the bookings dried up.
To wait out the period of drought, they took two years off to attend regular public school in Highland Park, New Jersey. After this, they attended impresario Ned Wayburn’s vaudeville academy for six months. Wayburn scripted an act for them called “A Rainy Saturday”. They got a slot at Proctor’s Fifth Avenue, but were booked first on the bill where they promptly did a nosedive. They flopped everywhere they worked for several weeks, then worked steadily for two years on the very small time Gus Sun circuit. There was no question of not taking the work, as pathetic as it was, as their father had lost his brewery job to Nebraska prohibition.
The turning point came when the hired a man named Aurelia Coccia to improve their act, although the results weren’t immediately felt. Coccia taught them showmanship, new dances, and above all, he worked them like dogs for six months. Their first big time bookings were on the Interstate Circuit in Texas. From here on in they remain in the big time, although usually in the number two slots. Hired as an emergency replacement at the New Orleans Orpheum, they stopped the show. This led to several more, ever improving, bookings. They were booked in the number one slot at the Chicago Palace, which ordinarily would have been a dreadful position. But fortunately a film was being shown first, assuring them of a full house when they went on. The Astairs not only stopped the show, but took six curtain calls. That week they were moved to the number three position, just before Cantor and Lee. They performed in vaudeville until 1917, playing all the major venues but the New York Palace.
You might say that they passed the Palace on their way to higher heights. In that year, they were hired by the Shuberts for the musical Over the Top with Ed Wynn and Joe Laurie, Jr. The Passing Show of 1918 with Willie and Eugene Howard followed. Fred and Adele did 20 musicals through 1931, some hits and some flops. Along the way, they took countless, lucrative night club dates on the side.
Adele retired in 1932 to marry Lord Charles Cavendish. Fred’s last Broadway show was The Gay Divorce with Clair Luce and a Cole Porter score, which became his first movie The Gay Divorcee (note the extra “e”)the following year. The stage show was widely panned, the reviews unfairly judging the production for the absence of Adele rather than acknowledging Fred’s own merits. The unjust trashing of The Gay Divorce drove Fred to Hollywood, where he got the last laugh.
The Rogers and Astaire vehicles of the 1930s were without a doubt formulaic. They are pleasant, diverting films with exceptional songs and dances and often sparkling, if not “classic” comedy. But though the books were repetitive, the dancing was unceasingly inventive. Fred always choreographed his own routines and never did the same things twice. His approach was completely fresh, and seemed conceived with the screen rather than stage in mind, relying on copious interaction with the set and props.
Not only was Astaire a terrific dancer but he could also carry a song with his smooth, pleasant voice (“Fred Astaire puts a song over better than anyone,” said Irving Berlin) and he could act plausibly and charmingly too. To those uninterested in dance, the Astaire-Rogers vehicles offer repartee which Fred could be relied upon to make seem sparkling in his clipped expeditious style. This might account for his enduring fame and success, when most other dancers are today little remembered. The sight of him in these films: tall, thin graceful, and romantic in his top hat and tails, leaves an indelible impression, and people continue to watch Top Hat (1935), Swing Time (1936), Shall We Dance (1937) and the other six Rogers-Astaire collaborations as avidly as ever.
After the thirties, the magic was only sporadic. Damsel in Distress, his first one without Rogers, didn’t do well despite Gershwin songs such as “A Foggy Day in London Town” and “Nice Work If You Can Get It”. Hereafter his career is characterized by periodic success punctuated by brief slumps. After several more films and U.S.O. tours during the Second World War, he announced his retirement, and concentrated on founding and running the Fred Astaire Dance Studios (still a going concern). In 1948, he was persuaded to end his retirement to replace Gene Kelly (who’d broken his ankle) to play alongside Judy Garland in Easter Parade. He even made another film with Ginger Rogers The Barkleys of Broadway in 1949. His last musical Finian’s Rainbow, was in 1968. He stopped dancing soon thereafter, though he continued to act in film, television and voice-overs for years. In 1974 he received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his performance in The Towering Inferno. His last film appearance was in the film Ghost Story (1981). Adele passed way that year; Fred followed her in 1987.
To find out more about Fred and Adele Astaire and the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold.