The energy, and ingenuity, of Hermes Pan.
Oct 7, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 05 • By KATE LIGHT
The news is good in this book, and the work is nice, indeed. Meticulously detailed and a joy to read, it recounts not only how much there was to Hermes Pan’s partnership with Fred Astaire, but how much there was beyond it.
With Fred Astaire, 1937
Did Hermes surpass Fred as the hardest-working man in show business? It would seem. During the years with Astaire, when the films rolled out one after another and the long hours and perfectionism were legion, when Astaire lost so much weight in the multiple takes that his clothes had to be altered, Pan matched him, take for take, hour for hour. But when Astaire worked a short day, or even took a few days off, Pan was in the studios, staging and choreographing numbers for other films across the lot, pampering and coaching insecure starlets, and sometimes appearing, uncredited, onscreen.
So there he was, masterminding a brilliant sequence, or coddling a nondancer—such as Katharine Hepburn, who approached him for private tap lessons in 1934, and for whom he would eventually choreograph single dances in two 1936 films on his days off between Swing Time and Shall We Dance. Or there he was, auditioning 60 girls and so saddened over having to turn anyone down that he’d leave the room for the roll calls. And there he was, hosting one of his famous pasta parties. A friend to the likes of Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, and a young Ann Miller (14 when they first met on the set of Stage Door), he was patient, kind, and enthusiastic. But while Fred Astaire was commanding five-figure salaries, the genius behind the genius was getting anywhere from $75 a week (The Gay Divorcee netted him $800) to $100 a week for Roberta and Top Hat—with the chance to earn an extra $200 here and there for a few days’ work across the lot.
Hermes Panagiotopoulos was born in Memphis in 1909. His Greek father, a confectioner, had come to America to represent his hometown as “consul” for Tennessee’s Centennial and International Exposition, but delays required him to get a job, and he eventually started a business of his own. He fell in love with an American girl and stayed in Tennessee. Hermes was the younger of two boys, with a middle sister, Vasso, also a talented dancer. At the hip, literally, of his African-American nanny, Hermes discovered jazz moves and rhythms he wouldn’t otherwise have seen. Soon he was begging to be allowed to go along to his sister’s dance classes—and a good thing, too, for after his father’s untimely death, Hermes’s adventuresome mother packed everyone off to New York, and, before long, Vasso and Hermes were dancing for tips in dance contests and everywhere they could be seen. By 15, Hermes was popping in and out of show choruses in and out of town.
In 1932, Hollywood’s demand for dancers rose while the number of shows in New York fell, so migration west seemed inevitable. With their last $75, the Pans piled in a car, arriving in Los Angeles with $7 left. Stints in touring shows gave Hermes opportunities (if not always salaries) to design costumes and steps—and to dance, sing, and, above all, watch. RKO Pictures was virtually bankrupt when Pan arrived, but he leapt up the studio chain when he began to assist dance-director Dave Gould. Even when Pan did most of the work, however, he remained uncredited.
When Pan first met Fred Astaire, already in process with Flying Down to Rio (1933), it played like a movie scene; the two were immediately in sync. Alongside Astaire’s legendary perfectionism was an openness to critique and suggestions from someone he could respect. Straightaway, Pan became that man.
Spending such intense time together-—Pan and Astaire would work closely and privately on concept, choreography, and rehearsals, with Hermes dancing Ginger Rogers’s parts for 10- or 12-hour days—required constitutions not merely hardy but lighthearted. Pan’s warm personality was ideal for the long haul and long hours, and both Pan and Astaire were committed to the idea that, no matter how frivolous the plot, the dances should stem organically from character and situation. Both were always prepared to reshoot sequences if one tiny tilt or lift, or Fred’s toupée, was off.
So fast and furious were films made, and such was the whirlwind of productivity, that after signing his first RKO contract, Pan worked on The Gay Divorcee (1934), Roberta (1935), and Top Hat (1935). After completing Top Hat, he received a whopping $250 for two-and-a-half weeks on I Dream Too Much (1935), working with nondancer Lily Pons; he then staged elaborate numbers for Ginger Rogers in In Person (1935). At the height of his work with Astaire, Pan was still in his 20s; and although he was working at the top, it was many years before his income would reflect this. It takes a lot of $250 weeks to make a $13,000 down payment on a home—as he was able to do in 1937.
While the Astaire films loom largest in Pan’s history and affections, we learn that he also choreographed Kiss Me, Kate (1953), Porgy and Bess (1959), My Fair Lady (1964), Finian’s Rainbow (1968), Darling Lili (1970), and dozens of other films. And though, like Irving Berlin, Pan could not read music, he kept pace with the luminaries: Kalman and Ruby (Hips, Hips, Hooray! 1934), Cole Porter (The Gay Divorcee), Jerome Kern (Roberta), the Gershwins (Top Hat), Berlin (Shall We Dance), Rodgers and Hart (Pal Joey, 1957), Rodgers and Hammerstein (Flower Drum Song, 1961), and Lerner and Loewe (My Fair Lady).
Pan loved and cared for his choruses as much as he did the big names: Casual photos show him on the beach, smiling in the midst of lady choristers. Quietly homosexual, sometimes with a committed partner, his private life remained out of the spotlight, while gossip columns linked him with many a starlet. The 55 photographs in Hermes Pan whet the appetite; the stories are a feast.
Astaire never wanted to be associated with one dance partner only. When he sometimes filmed with lesser dancers, or nondancers, it was up to Pan to make it work; coddling insecure stars and playing to their strengths were among his skills. When Paulette Goddard danced with Astaire in Second Chorus (1940), she could hardly believe it: She rehearsed hard, did the number in one take, looked great—and never danced again.
Pan once said that Fred Astaire hypnotized both his audiences and his partners. While maybe not a hypnotist himself, Pan could captivate his audience with one original staging idea after another, built from the sights and sounds around him: construction noises and rubble, band-room paraphernalia, a Fun Show, buffeting rainstorms, a coat rack. We learn that dancing on the diagonal, instead of straight towards the camera, best captures the sense of motion, and that soundstages in the 1930s recorded singers and orchestras at a distance of about a block apart. In one Pan/Astaire film, on an extremely resonant stage, taps were recorded live for the first time ever, instead of being overdubbed. We’re told of the heavily sequined sleeves, in Follow the Fleet (1936), that Astaire dodged in take after take, and that eventually smacked him in the face so hard it made him bleed; and of the feathers shedding all over the Bakelite floor during “Cheek to Cheek.”
Pan was a stylistic sponge: He choreographed Mexican hat dances, square dances, Persian-influenced dances with finger cymbals, Spanish zarabandas, re-creations of Vernon and Irene Castle’s ballroom dances, jitterbugs, salsas, waltzes, polkas, swimming dances for Esther Williams, ice dances for Sonja Henie, belly dances, dances to gospel music, a strip for Pal Joey, a basketball dance, and a chorus line of 11 elephants, whom he found easy to work with. And he made the most of nondancers such as Douglas Fairbanks, Betty Hutton, Peter Lorre, Cary Grant, Kim Novak, and Liv Ullmann, a testament not only to his choreographer’s talent but his psychological skills.
His collaborations with Fred Astaire alone place Hermes Pan in the ranks of the greatest choreographers. Hermes Pan leaves us eager to search out gems we may have missed or taken for granted, or to spot the man himself onscreen—and to celebrate this stellar, tireless, peerless career.
Kate Light, poet and violinist in New York, is the author, most recently, of Gravity’s Dream and the libretto to Once Upon the Wind.