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.”
Their dance style was becoming more distinctive as well by the early 1920s. In Life magazine, Robert Benchley exclaimed that “when they dance, everything seems brighter.” And although Fred was earning plaudits as the dancing star, Adele was emerging as a prototypical flapper. Riley explains that she didn’t fit any of the current showgirl or musical star molds but had a personality that resonated with the twenties’ emerging roar. A Boston critic described her as “the freedom of youth and grace personified, an airy bubble of personality from her agile toes to her wildly tossing curls.”
By the mid-1920s, the Astaires were appearing both on Broadway and on the London stage, notably in such Gershwin shows as Lady, Be Good (1924) and Funny Face (1927). Alexander Woollcott wrote that Fred’s feet and Gershwin’s music “were written in the same key.” They wowed postwar London when they first appeared in 1923 in Stop Flirting. Their effervescence made them the toast of the town, and they were swept up in the remarkable young coterie that included Noel Coward, Gertrude Lawrence, and John Gielgud, who wrote that they “perked up the whole season.” As Riley perceptively notes, they “were the sweet voice of life and hope and thus symbolically distant from both the horror of the Great War and the ennui of its aftermath.” Their popularity soared:
It is difficult in our “celebrity”-sated era to appreciate what a sensation the Astaires were in London throughout the 1920s. They were photographed by Cecil Beaton and caricatured by Sava. Their social activities were written up in all the smart periodicals. . . . They were invited to contribute articles . . . under such headings as “Hoofing It to Fame by Adele Astaire” or “Shall We Tango or Jazz?” by Fred Astaire.”
Their names and images endorsed toothbrushes, shampoo, cold cream, shoes, and Waterman pens. Royalty endorsed them as well, and Fred and Adele soon made appearances at St. James’s Palace to show off such popular steps as the Charleston to the Prince of Wales and Louis and Edwina Mountbatten. Adele was captivated by George Bernard Shaw, whose voice she thought “could melt ice.” (Ultimately, her heart was captured by Lord Charles Cavendish, whom she would marry in 1932.)
Fred and Adele’s last appearance together was in The Band Wagon (1931), which triumphed both on Broadway and in London. In his memoir, Fred seems to write diffidently of Adele’s departure: “She retired from theatrical life on the evening of 5 March 1932, at the Illinois Theatre, Chicago. It was not a sad affair.” When he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute in 1981, he was more forthcoming: “My sister Adele was mostly responsible for my being in show business. . . . In all the vaudeville acts we had and the musical comedies we did together, Delly was the one that was the shining light and I was just there pushing away.”
Happily, Fred Astaire heard Hollywood’s siren call after Adele retired—although he was not smitten by RKO’s plans to make him part of another team. David O. Selznick, head of production, was a great fan and had lobbied for Fred to be cast, but his screen test was not a crashing success (although Riley says the legendary critique, “Can’t act. Slightly bald. Also dances,” is probably apocryphal). But when RKO teamed him with Ginger Rogers, Astaire wrote his agent Leland Hayward in capital letters on February 9, 1934: “WHAT’S ALL THIS TALK ABOUT ME BEING TEAMED WITH GINGER ROGERS? I WILL NOT HAVE IT LELAND—I DID NOT GO INTO PICTURES TO BE TEAMED WITH HER OR ANYONE ELSE.”
What if Leland Hayward had listened to Fred Astaire?
The bigger what-if posed at the beginning of this delightful volume is: What if Fred Astaire had been an only child? What a profoundly less interesting world it would have been, as Riley explains that “the shows written for
the Astaires’ singular talents changed the very shape of the American musical.”
The Astaires’ story can be chronicled in photographs, reviews, and a few recordings, notably from Funny Face in the late 1920s. But there is no footage of them performing together except for a few tantalizing seconds from the end of a 1930 short entitled Backstage on Broadway. Now, by illuminating the formative decades of Fred’s life, Kathleen Riley gives us a sense of how, before Ginger and Hollywood, Adele helped create the icon known as Fred Astaire.
Amy Henderson is a writer and museum curator in Washington.