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.