One of the best reasons film was invented was to capture the elegance, glamour, and sheer beauty of Fred and Ginger dancing across a Bakelite stage. But the first time Fred Astaire performed in public wearing a top hat came almost 30 years before he and Ginger Rogers were teamed at RKO Pictures in Flying Down to Rio in 1933.
Fred’s first and longest-lasting dance partner was his sister Adele, who was two-and-a-half years older than Fred and can be credited with leading him into the dancing life. As the Australian theater historian Kathleen Riley writes in this joint biography, the siblings were, despite highly unlikely circumstances, born to dance. Their parents were Austrian immigrants who settled in Omaha, the father taking work at a brewery and the mother emerging as a model “stage mother” determined to get her children into vaudeville. Adele had been the first to be sent to dance school, and Fred, as Riley notes, “literally followed in her footsteps.”
Driven by their instructor’s -enthusiasm over the siblings’ “gift,” Mrs. Astaire moved the children to New York in 1905, when Fred was 5 and Adele was 8. One of their first appearances on the small-time vaudeville circuit was in a confection called “The Wedding Cake Act,” in which Adele wore a bridal gown and, yes, Fred was costumed in white tie, top hat, and tails.
Since most of us who are Fred and Ginger fans know little about these early chapters of Fred’s life, it is fascinating to learn details about how important a partner Adele was: Riley tells us that she was an exuberant gamine who delighted audiences with her sense of rollicking madcap mischief. She was the one with star quality, while Fred was the workhorse. Even in his youth, he was emerging as a perfectionist intent on getting the steps “just right.” Riley explains that Fred supplied “the creative energy [and] choreographic brilliance” that was the perfect foil to Adele’s radiance.
In his memoir, Steps in Time (1959), Fred describes how “for performers of our age, Adele and I must have been pretty good. But the appeal of our act was that we were a pair of amusing youngsters with a novelty. Maybe they thought we were cute kids.” They experienced middling success, but a high point for Fred came when he was 14 and met the 15-year-old George Gershwin, then earning $15 a week plugging other people’s songs. From the beginning, the boys dreamed of collaborating, and their friendship would soon fuel the rise of a genuinely American musical theater, first on Broadway and later in Hollywood.
Fred and Adele got their Broadway break in 1917 in a revue called Over the Top. The show itself got mixed reviews, but the Astaires were singled out. (One critic wrote, “The girl, a light, spritelike little creature, has really an exquisite floating style in her caperings, while the young man combines eccentric agility with humor.”) This success attracted the attention of the Broadway impresario Charles Dillingham, who launched them into the fame pipeline. Their appearance in The Passing Show (1918) was embraced by Heywood Broun, who wrote:
In an evening in which there was an abundance of good dancing, Fred Astaire stood out. He and his partner, Adele Astaire, made the show pause early in the evening with a beautiful loose-limbed dance. It seemed as if the two young dancers had been poured into the dance.
Another reviewer exulted: “Fred Astaire . . . is a master dancer, a rattling eccentric comedian, and in his biggest scenes was assisted by a dancing girl, Adele Astaire.” Riley’s use of such contemporary notices adds an authentic ring to Fred and Adele’s success and gives weight to her judgment that what “truly distinguished the Astaires as dancers and as a unified stage presence was sheer likeability, and an almost tangible sense of delight in what they were doing.”
While Adele still provided the zip, Fred was increasingly spotlighted for his dancing, and together they emerged as real Broadway stars. In 1922, they stole the show in a production called For Goodness Sake. One critic rhapsodized: “As they amble into view . . . they don’t look as though they were anything more than somebody’s children. But when they dance—oh, boy, and likewise girl! With ease, grace, rhythm, charm and humor, youth becomes a wonderful thing.”