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A tap dancer named Fred: Astaire survived his infamous screen test: "Can't act. Can't sing. Balding. Can dance a little.".


The name Austerlitz sounds more like a Napoleonic battle than a name fit for a great dancer. As a matter of fact, in 1805 it was a Napoleonic battle! But dancer Fred Austerlitz was born in Omaha some 94 years later, on May 10, 1899. The family moved to New York in 1904, and when he and his sister, Adele (a year older), both with relatively little formal training, were started on a boy-and-girl vaudeville act in 1906, someone had the sense to change their name to Astaire. The two of them made their Broadway debut in 1917 with the musical comedy Over the Top, but had their first big success a year later with The Passing Show of 1918.

It was during the 1920s and '30s that they placed an indelible mark both on Broadway and London's West End. Such shows as George and Ira Gershwin's Lady, Be Good/(1924), another Gershwin musical Funny Face (1927), Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz's revue The Band Wagon (1931), and then, after Adele's marriage into English society and her subsequent retirement, Fred's first show without her, Cole Porter's musical The Gay Divorce in 1932.

Despite the show's modest success (it did include "Night and Day" among its numbers), things soon started to look down for Fred. He was like a Laurel without a Hardy, as one unkind Broadway wit put it. There was an unpleasant truth in this: Unlike his later rival, the 13-years-younger Gene Kelly, Astaire was never really comfortable as a solo act.

After the advent of the talkies in 1927, Hollywood became fair game for musicals. But the first throw of the movie dice was definitely loaded against Astaire. It was the celebrated screen test that year, probably the most infamous of all time, for a movie of Funny Face that resulted in Adele being dismissed as "lively," and the unforgettable verdict on Fred: "Can't act. Can't sing. Balding. Can dance a little." Fortunately, our Fred could dance rather more than "a little."

Still, with Adele retired, now forced to go solo (his temporary partner in The Gay Divorce was Claire Luce, an actress who really couldn't sing or dance!), Astaire trekked westward to Hollywood. In 1933 he picked up a small part in a Joan Crawford backstage movie in which he--clad, of course, in top hat, white tie, and tails--played himself in a couple of numbers. Later that same year someone at RKO Pictures had the genius to partner him with another Broadway expatriate, Ginger Rogers, in significant but secondary roles in Flying Down to Rio, nominally starring Dolores Del Rio. Astaire and Rogers danced away with the movie.

Interestingly, Hermes Pan, having first worked with Ginger Rogers (he was a chorus boy) on Broadway in 1929 in Top Speed, was partly responsible for the dance sequences in the movie. It was a partnership made in dance heaven. Fred and Ginger were pretty good as well.

All in all there were 10 Fred and Ginger movies, and these lie at the core of the Astaire movie legacy, most of it in choreographic association with Pan. But during his long career he had many other partners, including Rita Hayworth, Leslie Caron, and Cyd Charisse. And one must never forget Judy Garland. In 1946 Astaire had announced his retirement, but two years later, MGM persuaded him back to replace an ailing Gene Kelly as co-star with Garland in Easter Parade, and his career took on a second life, lasting until 1968.

Although it was Kelly who had aspirations toward ballet, Astaire was the pop dancer ballet called its own. He did tap, ballroom, you name it--anything but ballet. But he had the delicacy, the finesse of timing (he rehearsed fanatically), and that God-given harmony of gesture ballet strives for. Balanchine adored him, Robbins created a ballet dedicated to him, and when either Nureyev or Baryshnikov were invited to name the greatest male dancer in the world they both unfailingly plumped for him. Who else were they going to name?

He was the greatest Astaire in the world, and the heritage of his filmography proves it. I sometimes wonder whether he was any better or even as good a tapper as Bill "Bojangles" Robinson or Charles "Honi" Coles or Jimmy Slyde or Gregory Hines. But he did more for the popularity of tap dance than anyone else in the 20th century.

Senior Consulting Editor Clive Barnes also covers dance and theater for the New York Post.
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Title Annotation:Fred Austerlitz
Author:Barnes, Clive
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2008
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