It’s perhaps fair to say that Fred Astaire will always be synonymous with dancing. But his name doesn’t bring to mind just any old moves. On the contrary; he’s known best for the rhythmic, unique performances that dazzled the world throughout his nearly 50-year career in Hollywood. By the time that Fred had reached his 70s, however, he had found a new hobby – and it was one that caused him a tough injury in his old age.
Fred – who was originally known as Frederick Emanuel Austerlitz – came into the world in May 1899 in Omaha, Nebraska. Life out west did not suit his mother, Johanna, however, and so she came up with a plan. Specifically, Johanna’s children, Fred and Adele, would be her ticket out of Nebraska after they had become vaudeville stars. It turned out, though, that there was a hitch to the scheme: Fred had no interest in dancing lessons.
Fred did enjoy music, however, and so he began to play a trio of instruments: piano, accordion and clarinet. And by the time he was six, show business had become his and his sister’s focus, too. The family had moved from Omaha to New York City after Fred and Adele’s father, Fritz, lost his job; and once there, the children enrolled at the Alviene Master School of the Theater and Academy of Cultural Arts.
What’s more, despite Fred’s initial refusal to dance, the young boy had no trouble copying his sister’s routines. Then, through his school-based training, he learned choreography as well as speaking and singing skills. And all of this would go into his and Adele’s first vaudeville act: Juvenile Artists Presenting an Electric Musical Toe-Dancing Novelty.
But Fred and Adele needed just one more thing before they went in search of the spotlight: a stage name. After all, Johanna feared that their family name would remind people of the Battle of Austerlitz – a crucial skirmish during the Napoleonic Wars. So, she pitched Astaire instead – a moniker that was supposedly inspired by an uncle with the last name “L’Astaire.”
With that, Fred and Adele were ready for their first stage show, which they debuted in Keyport, New Jersey. And for the debut, Fred donned a top hat to make himself appear a touch taller. But no visual tricks were needed to prove that the siblings had talent. After the duo’s inaugural performance, a local newspaper even declared them to be “the greatest child act in vaudeville.”
Yet glowing reviews of that ilk weren’t the only factors that contributed to Fred and Adele’s rise; Fritz used his sales skills, too, in order to land the siblings a huge contract touring the Orpheum Circuit. Originally, the Orpheum Circuit had delighted California theatergoers with squeaky-clean, family-friendly entertainment that encompassed magicians, singers, dancers and even animal acts.
Eventually, though, the circuit expanded beyond the Golden State, with theaters added in the 1890s in Missouri, Nebraska and Colorado. And by the time the Astaires joined up, it had locations throughout America, growing to encompass 45 theaters in 36 cities.
After that tour, though, the Astaires had to press pause on Fred and Adele’s showbiz careers. For one thing, their daughter had grown to be much taller than their son, meaning they needed to wait for him to match her in size. Then they also had to stay in line with child labor laws of the period.
When Fred was just 14, though, he became friends with a teenaged George Gershwin. At that time, George worked as a mere song plugger, playing and singing along to sheet music in an attempt to help sell the tunes. But the teens had bigger dreams. They reportedly envisioned that George would one day pen a musical in which Fred could star.
And as it happens, Fred and George’s friendship would change the course of both of their careers. For Fred, at least, it led him to seek new creative outlets away from vaudeville. He and Adele began to chart a different course, then, with their Broadway show Over the Top, which they debuted in 1917.
Then, over the next 15 years, Fred and Adele added a further nine Broadway productions to their resumes – including Funny Face, a musical penned by George. During this time, however, Adele began to emerge as the star of the duo, although her brother had arguably become the better dancer.
Indeed, according to the Dance Heritage Coalition, “[Adele was a] dark-eyed beauty celebrated for her effervescent personality [and] the more outgoing of the siblings, but it was the shyer and more serious Fred who developed and perfected their routines.” Regardless of the Astaires’ respective talents, though, audiences loved the pair. Columnist Robert Benchley even considered Fred to be the best tap dancer on the planet.
But after the end of the Astaires’ Broadway run, the two siblings would ultimately part ways. Adele decided to propose marriage to Lord Charles Cavendish, and he duly accepted, giving her an out from having to perform for a living in the future. Adele therefore decided to retire from the stage in 1932, after which she moved to Ireland to live with her husband in Lismore Castle.
Meanwhile, after his sister had gone, Fred stayed in the U.S. and continued to pursue his on-stage career. He also attempted a jump from theater to film that got off to a slightly rocky start. Initially, Fred embarked on a screen test for RKO Radio Pictures; when his test review came back, however, it read, “Can’t act. Slightly bald. Also dances.”
But David O. Selznick – the man who ultimately contracted Fred to RKO – nevertheless believed that the dancer had something special. In a memo, Selznick explained, “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.”
So, in 1933 – just months after his sister’s retirement – Fred made his on-screen debut with a small cameo in the Joan Crawford vehicle Dancing Lady. And that same year, the fledgling actor also earned fifth billing on the movie Flying Down to Rio – just below Ginger Rogers, with whom he shares a dance in the film.
In fact, Variety said that the movie actually owed its success to the inclusion of Fred, writing, “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 likeable on the screen, the mic 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 [Fred] starts dancing where the others stop hoofing.”
And the dance that Fred had performed with Ginger had some wondering if a partnership could be forged between the pair. Yet while Fred was hesitant of the idea – he had only just gone solo, after all – RKO had different plans.
In fact, RKO chose to put Fred and Ginger together in eight more films over the next five years. Some of the flicks in which they starred during that period include Shall We Dance, Swing Time, Top Hat, Follow the Fleet and Roberta.
And even in the midst of the Great Depression, audiences lined up to watch RKO’s slate of movies starring Fred and Ginger. It helped, too, that the duo had stunning art deco sets on which to dance. And the combined effect of the opulent surroundings and Fred and Ginger’s routines proved dazzling.
Behind the scenes, though, Fred was earning his own prestige. For one thing, he earned a portion of the profits from all of his films with RKO. Not only that, but he also had free rein over how his routines would appear on screen. And through that power, he ultimately changed the way in which dance was seen by the movie-going public.
Before Fred made his mark, you see, musicals made by filmmakers such as Busby Berkeley would use dance scenes as mere spectacle, rather than as a storytelling mechanism. They would shoot aerials, zoom in on specific body parts and make cut after cut.
But that all changed with Fred at the helm. He chose instead to capture dance sequences in as few takes and with as few cuts as possible. What’s more, the dancers’ bodies could be seen in full at all times while they moved. This therefore gave viewers the chance to see the choreography from start to finish – just as they would if witnessing a routine in real life.
On top of that, Fred insisted that any song-and-dance number should serve to advance a movie’s plot. And according to Ginger, her dance partner’s strict standards were actually evident in other aspects of the filmmaking process apart from the choreography.
According to John Mueller’s book Astaire Dancing – The Musical Films, Ginger said of Fred, “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,” she said. “No loafing on the job on an Astaire picture – and no cutting corners.”
Still, in spite of Fred’s successes on screen with Ginger, he did insist that RKO allow him to branch out. The star did not want a single partnership to define his career, it’s said. To that end, then, he made A Damsel in Distress in 1937 with inexperienced dance partner Joan Fontaine. But that movie sadly proved unsuccessful, leaving Fred to eventually reunite with Ginger for two more features: Carefree and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle.
Yet even though the dancing duo were back together, those two films also lost money, leading the Independent Film Journal to deem Fred “box office poison.” So, he left the studio and set out on his own. After Ginger, Fred first danced alongside Eleanor Powell – a fellow tap dancer with incredible talent.
Then Fred starred alongside Bing Crosby in the hugely successful Holiday Inn and Blue Skies – the latter of which contains one of Fred’s most famous song-and-dance routines ever in “Puttin’ On the Ritz.” Still, the star was not completely thrilled with either film; in both pictures, you see, Crosby’s character won the girl over his.
And in the midst of filming Blue Skies, Fred made a momentous announcement. That film would be his last, and he would retire from the screen completely in 1946. The dancer had had prior doubts about the trajectory of his career; he hoped, then, that “Puttin’ On the Ritz” would be his swansong.
Retirement also gave Fred time to focus on the family that he had built with his wife, Phyllis Potter, whom he had married in 1933. The pair shared two children, Fred Jr. and Ava, and their dad spent his spare time with them rather than frequenting the Hollywood social scene.
By 1948, though, Fred had ended his retirement and had returned to the screen. And his first foray back into film had him perform in Easter Parade, after which he teamed up with Ginger again in The Barkleys of Broadway. These two movies brought the dancer back to prominence, too, so he rode the wave by starring in a further pair of musicals for MGM.
As Fred set out to work with 20th Century Fox on Daddy Long Legs, though, his wife, Phyllis, got sick and unexpectedly died from lung cancer. The naturally distraught star therefore offered to stump up any production costs to put an end to filming, but studio executives finally talked him into working for his own sake at such a hard time.
Then, after Daddy Long Legs, Fred went on to film over a dozen more movies, with 1981’s Ghost Story marking the end of his on-screen career. And though he never won an Oscar, he earned countless other accolades. His dancing, singing and filmmaking stylings had an influence on the industry, too, as well as on some of the greats who came after him.
Indeed, some of the 20th century’s best dancers to follow in Fred’s footsteps – including Gene Kelly and Bob Fosse – cite him as an inspiration. And George Balanchine, who is considered the father of American ballet, has also praised the dancer, telling Horizon in 1961, “[Fred] is terribly rare. He is like Bach, who in his time had a great concentration of ability, essence, knowledge [and] a spread of music. Astaire has that same concentration of genius.”
Even Michael Jackson cited Fred as one of his influences. And the unlikely pair shared a mutual respect, it appears. According to Jackson’s autobiography, Moonwalk, Fred called the pop icon to say that he was “a hell of a mover”; Michael Jackson: The Golden Book of Condolence also quotes Fred saying that Jackson was “the greatest dancer of the century.”
But, in contrast, Fred refused to reflect on his own accomplishments. In an interview with American Classic Screen in 1978, for instance, he resolutely wouldn’t discuss what he deemed to be his favorite of his own performances. The star added, “I just don’t look back, period. When I finish with a project, I say, ‘All right, that’s that. What’s next?’”
Perhaps, then, this attitude to life led Fred to take up a bizarre hobby for someone in his 70s: skateboarding. Yes, the dancer’s daughter, Ava, confirmed her father’s unusual choice of pastime during a 2013 interview with the BBC.
In the interview, Ava said, “[Fred took to skateboarding], and he fell off [a board] and broke his wrist when he was over 70.” She added, “Unfortunately, [Fred] was just having to start a film in Ireland – a straight part. And he had to get over this broken wrist from falling off the skateboard first.”
But Fred’s risky hobby was just another representation of the Hollywood innovator that he was. And Ava imagined that had her father picked up skateboarding sooner, he would have made it part of on-screen routines. She said, “I think that would be a definite.”