Becoming Fred Astaire

Becoming Fred Astaire
Fred Astaire was known for his creativity and strong work ethic. Studio publicity still for the 1955 film "Daddy Long Legs." (Public Domain)
Stephen Oles

Fred was in trouble. Ever since childhood, he and his sister, Adele, had danced together as a team, finding success in vaudeville and then stardom on Broadway. Adele was the focus of the act, radiating charm and star quality, while her brother escorted and supported her. But she was gone now. She’d suddenly married and left the act. Could Fred find another partner with Adele’s magical appeal? Unlikely. Would audiences pay to see him perform without her? Even less likely.

In Hollywood, with the advent of talkies, the studios were cranking out a bunch of quickie musicals. Surely, Fred’s Broadway résumé would get him work there. It got him a screen test. The camera whirred and he showed his stuff, certain that in no time he’d be starring alongside Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier.

Then came the studio’s report: “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Balding. Can dance a little.” His audition had been a disaster. For a Broadway man beloved by theater audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, it was the worst setback since he'd started dancing at age 3.

So Young and So Much Talent

Frederick Austerlitz was born on May 10, 1899, in Omaha, Nebraska, nearly three years after his sister, to Fritz, an Austrian immigrant, and his wife, Johanna. The baby looked sickly. According to Kathleen Riley’s biography, “The Astaires: Fred & Adele,” Frederick’s grandfather declared, “That child will never live!” But a childhood of his mother’s loving care did wonders.
When Johanna (better known as Ann) enrolled Adele at a local dance school, she enrolled her son as well, hoping the exercise would strengthen his frail body. Adele was a born entertainer. Her natural grace and vitality soon made her a favorite at private parties and recitals. Little Fred lacked his sister’s allure, but he worked hard and even learned to dance en pointe before she did.
The children’s dance teacher spotted their potential and urged Fritz and Ann to take them to New York, where they could get more training and might catch the eye of a booking agent. Vaudeville was at its height and kiddie acts were in demand.
It seemed like a long shot, but the tots were certainly talented. So in 1905, the family made the big move and enrolled Adele, 8, and Fred, 5, in a theater school on the corner of 8th Avenue and 23rd Street. When Fritz returned to Omaha and his job as a beer salesman, Ann and the children took up residence in a one-room flat near the school.
“Stage mother” has a bad connotation, but Ann was one of the good ones. In the morning, she home-schooled the children before their afternoon lessons in dancing and acting. She kept them away from the seamier side of show business and saw to their cultural education, exposing them to plays, opera, and ballet as well as singers, comedians, and the Ziegfeld Follies.
By the time the pair made their public debut at a New Jersey amusement park, Ann had decided that Austerlitz was no name for a star. In school programs, she billed her offspring variously as the Austers, the Astiers, and the Astares before finally settling on the posh, mellifluous Astaire.

Paying Their Dues

When <span style="font-weight: 400;">Adele was 8 and Fred, 5, their mother enrolled them in a theater school in New York. </span>A publicity photograph of Fred and Adele Astaire, 1919. (Public Domain)
When Adele was 8 and Fred, 5, their mother enrolled them in a theater school in New York. A publicity photograph of Fred and Adele Astaire, 1919. (Public Domain)
Fritz, meanwhile, sent money from Omaha and managed to sign the kids with the renowned Orpheum Circuit at $150 a week plus train fare. Ann rejoiced—they’d  finally hit the Big Time! But touring in vaudeville was less than glamorous. “We played every rat trap and chicken coop in the Middle West,” Astaire recalled in his autobiography.
In her excellent book, Riley notes: “It was years before the Astaires attained headliner status, and their climb ... was slow and arduous. Yet the very things that could make vaudeville a demoralizing business were also what made it an invaluable training ground.”
During the long years that Ann and her children toured the nation and fought for better time slots at better theaters, Adele and Fred grew, not only in height and age but also from cute kids into versatile professionals who could dance, act, do comedy, and sing.
In 1915, they shared a bill with the Cansinos, a dancing family from Madrid. Fred studied and copied some of their moves, while Adele developed a big crush on the brother Eduardo. Thirty years later, Fred would dance in two films with the youngest Cansino, by then renamed Rita Hayworth.
Fred befriended and learned from another legend, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the first black solo performer in vaudeville. Fred never forgot Robinson’s first words to him: “Boy, you can dance!’” He would pay tribute to his friend in the delightful movie “Swing Time” (1936).

On the Way Up

It was Adele who had the charisma. Fred and Adele Astaire, circa 1920 to 1925. Library of Congress. (Public Domain)
It was Adele who had the charisma. Fred and Adele Astaire, circa 1920 to 1925. Library of Congress. (Public Domain)
The contrast between the siblings’ temperaments made their act click, but it also caused problems. Adele’s enchanting spontaneity and easy rapport with audiences made her loath to rehearse, while Fred worried that his lack of stage presence was holding her back. Riley explains: “Adele believed she was ... a detriment to her brother because she lacked his discipline and creativity.” She later confessed, “I wouldn’t do anything that made me work all the time. I was a lazy slob.” With her dazzling personality, she got away with it.
Not so for Fred. Unable to coast on his charisma, he worked tirelessly to improve his singing and acting and to invent surprising, never-seen-before choreography. Thus was born the Fred Astaire we know today: the perfectionist, the magic man, lighter than air, lifting American show dancing to new heights, and making it all look easy. Astaire’s mastery came at great cost: hours, days, and years of grueling rehearsals, never stopping, never settling for anything less than poetry in motion.

New York and London

By 1916, Fred was getting more attention in the press. Variety enthused: “That boy alone is like a streak of lightning on his feet.” Producers were taking notice, too. The following year, the Astaires were cast in their first Broadway show and left vaudeville for good. They appeared in several musicals and, even when their roles were small, were singled out for praise in reviews.
However, nothing prepared them for the sensation they created when they opened their 1923 show, “Stop Flirting,” in London. Critics and audiences went berserk over the young Americans. Celebrities from Noël Coward to George Bernard Shaw acclaimed them. Even the Prince of Wales was a fan. The show featured songs by a young composer Fred had met in New York when they were both teenagers: George Gershwin.

‘Lady Be Good’

Fred and Adele Astaire in the Broadway musical "Lady Be Good," 1924. (Public Domain)
Fred and Adele Astaire in the Broadway musical "Lady Be Good," 1924. (Public Domain)
The Broadway opening of “Lady Be Good” (1924) was a milestone in theatrical history. The Astaires’ first starring vehicle boasted songs by Gershwin, who had just premiered his immortal “Rhapsody in Blue,” and his lyricist brother Ira. The score, including “Fascinating Rhythm,” was so strong that “The Man I Love” didn’t even make the cut.
A smash in New York, the show hit even bigger in London. One critic raved, “Adele Astaire. That’s all!” He added that Fred was “a genius at his job.” In 1927, the now internationally famous siblings returned to Broadway in the Gershwins’ “Funny Face,” followed by three more hit shows and one flop, during the run of which Adele, who’d developed a taste for high society, starting dating a young British nobleman named Lord Charles Cavendish.

Hail and Farewell

Now in her 30s, at the height of her fame, Adele had grown tired of the grind of eight performances a week and Fred’s endless demands for more rehearsal. Her engagement shocked fans on two continents. On March 5, 1932, she played her last performance, retired from show business, and sailed for England and her new life as Lady Cavendish.
Even Fred’s mother, Ann, doubted his prospects without Adele. But movie producer David O. Selznick thought differently. He called Fred back to Hollywood in 1933, where his first audition had gone so badly. Paired first with Joan Crawford, then later with a starlet named Ginger Rogers, Fred was taken to heart by moviegoers. The rest, as they say, is history.
Stephen Oles has worked as an inner city school teacher, a writer, actor, singer, and a playwright. His plays have been performed in London, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Long Beach, California. He lives in Seattle and is currently working on his second novel.
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