Fred Astaire - Biography

Fred Astaire was a famous Hollywood and Broadway dancer, singer, actor and choreographer. During his 76 year career, he starred in 31 musicals. Despite his own oft-repeated claim that he couldn't sing, he made hundreds of musical recordings, introducing some of the biggest pop hits of the 1930s and '40s.


Frederick Austerlitz, Jr. was born May 10th, 1899 in Omaha, Nebraska. His parents were Johanna "Ann" Geilus and Austrian immigrant Frederich "Fritz" Austerlitz. Understandably eager to leave dreary Nebraska, the couple groomed their children Fred and Adele at an early age as a dancing and singing brother-and-sister act, hoping their talents would take them elsewhere. In addition to singing and dancing, Fred learned accordion, clarinet and piano. The Austerlitz ended up leaving Nebraska after Frederic (he dropped the "h") lost his job. They moved to New York City in January, 1905 and that year and changed their family name to "Astaire." In November, the Astaire kids made their public debut in Keyport, New Jersey as part of Juvenile Artists Presenting an Electric Musical Toe-Dancing Novelty.


The Astaires continued performing in Vaudeville until 1909, when they temporarily retired to avoid heat from The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. The family laid low in Highwood Park, New Jersey and Fred Astaire attended grammar school for two years before he and his sister enrolled in Ned Wayburn's dance school in New York. In June, 1917, The Astaires signed with the Shubert Organization, and they returned to the stage as part of Over the Top, a patriotic revue whose title was a reference to trench warfare. It opened on Broadway on November 28th, 1917 and ran 78 performances. Their next tour was as part of The Passing Show of 1918, which opened on July 25, 1918, and ran 142 performances. Their next gig, Apple Blossoms, opened on October 7th, 1919, and ran 256 performances. The Love Letter was their first commercial failure, opening October 4th, 1921, and running only 31 performances. The Astaires had their first speaking parts in For Goodness Sake, which opened on February 20th, 1922, and ran 103 performances. The Astaires finally received top billing in Jerome Kern and Anne Caldwell's The Bunch and Judy. Unfortunately it was another flop, running only 63 performances after opening on November 28nd, 1922. On October 18th, 1923, The Astaires went to London to record two of Sigmund Romberg, Jean Schwartz and Harold Atteridge's songs from For Goodness Sake (re-titled Stop Flirting in the UK), "The Whichness of the Whatness" and "Oh Gee! Oh Gosh!" for HMV.


The Astaires returned to New York to appear in a new musical by George and Ira Gershwin, the former whom Fred had first met in 1916. Lady, Be Good! opened on Broadway on December 1st, 1924, and ran 330 performances. After a short tour, the show opened in London's West End on April 14th, 1926, where it ran for 326 performances. The cast recorded the triple 78 soundtrack for EMI's Columbia imprint the same year. Back in the US, they starred in The Gershwins' Funny Face, which opened on Broadway on November 22nd, 1927, and ran 250 performances, followed by 263 performances in London. There, they cut more 78s taken from the show. With Al Starita and His Boyfriends, Astaire cut "Not My Girl" b/w "Louisiana" in April 1929 and "Puttin' on the Ritz" b/w "Crazy Feet" in March 1930. Florenz Ziegfeld's Smiles was another flop for them, opening November 18th, 1930, and playing only 63 performances. Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz's The Band Wagon opened on June 3rd, 1931 and ran for 260 performances. Leo Reisman recorded a selection of the show's songs with The Astaires for Victor Records. A solo Fred Astaire sang "I Love Louisa," "New Sun in the Sky" and "White Heat." After its run, The Astaires broke up with Adele retiring, marrying Lord Charles Arthur Francis Cavendish, and settling in Ireland. Fred, meanwhile, was wooing his future wife, Phyllis Potter (née Phyllis Livingston Baker). He made his final Broadway performance with his first non-sibling partner was Claire Luce, in Cole Porter's The Gay Divorcee, which opened on November 7th, 1932 and ran 248 performances. The same month, again joined by Leo Reisman, Astaire cut “I've Got You on My Mind" and "Night and Day" and for Victor.


In 1933, Astaire married Phyllis, a 25-year-old divorcee. On May 27th, 1933, Astaire signed with RKO. He made his Hollywood debut, appearing as himself with Joan Crawford in Dancing Lady. In December, he appeared in the Dolores del Rio vehicle, Flying down to Rio, alongside Ginger Rogers, born Virginia Katherine McMath in Independence, Missouri. After filming, he left for England to perform in a limited engagement of The Gay Divorcee, his last stage performance. Back in the US, Astaire and Rogers went on to become one of the most celebrated dance duos in history. Together they starred in the filmed version of The Gay Divorcee (1934), followed by Roberta (1935), Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), Swing Time (1936), Shall We Dance (1937), Carefree (1938), The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939). In fact, for the remainder of the Astaire only appeared in films with Rogers except in The George Burns and Gracie Allen vehicle, A Damsel in Distress (1937). During this period, Astaire also began a side career as a songwriter, composing "I'm Building Up to an Awful Letdown" with Johnny Mercer, which reached number four on the Hit Parade in 1936. He also got into radio. On September 15, 1936, Astaire began hosting the radio program, The Fred Astaire Show (aka The Packard Hour) on NBC. That same year, the Astaires had their first child too, Fred, Jr.


Astaire left RKO in 1939, ending his partnership with Rogers. His first post-Ginger partner was famed tap dancer Eleanor Powell and the two appeared in MGM's Broadway Melody of 1940. In 1941, he had another hit with "It's Just like Taking Candy from a Baby," which he recorded with Benny Goodman. You'll Never Get Rich (1941) and You Were Never Lovelier (1942) paired him with bombshell Rita Hayworth. That year, Fred and Phyllis had another child, Ava Astaire McKenzie. In the Christmas film, Holiday Inn (1942), he co-starred with Bing Crosby. Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer's filmed version of The Sky's the Limit (1943) saw Astaire briefly return to RKO. Astaire then signed with MGM in 1944 and next partnered with Lucille Bremer, with whom he appeared in Vincente Minnelli's Yolanda and the Thief (1945), Ziegfeld Follies (1945) and Irving Berlin's Blue Skies (1946). After that, he announced his retirement from film, instead focusing on breeding race horses and opening the Fred Astaire Dance Studios in 1947. The retirement proved short. After Gene Kelly was injured, he stepped in to star alongside Judy Garland in Easter Parade (1948). The following year, he partnered for the last time with Rogers in The Barkleys of Broadway (1949).


His retirement proved to be short lived and he acted in Let's Dance (1950) with Betty Hutton, Royal Wedding (1951) with Jane Powell, Three Little Words (1950) and The Belle of New York (1952) with Vera-Ellen, and The Band Wagon (1953). At the end of 1952, Astaire re-recorded his catalog of by-then standards with Oscar Peterson, Alvin Stoller, Flip Phillips, Charlie Shavers, Barney Kessel, and Ray Brown. The result was the four-LP set, The Astaire Story (1953 Mercury). In 1954, Phyllis died from lung cancer, at the age of 46. A devastated Astaire attempted to drop out of Daddy Long Legs (1955), even offering to pay the production costs, but ultimately stayed on. Afterward he appeared in Silk Stockings (1957) with Cyd Charisse, and Funny Face (1957) with Audrey Hepburn. After that, he primarily turned his attentions away from dancing to just acting -- aside from a handful of televised specials.



In 1957, Astaire appeared in the comedy Imp on a Cobweb Leash. He returned to dancing for the televised An Evening with Fred Astaire (1958) with new partner, Barrie Chase. His first purely dramatic film was On the Beach (1959). His album, Now (1959-Kapp) consisted primarily of re-recordings of his old hits. Another Evening with Fred Astaire (1959) followed. Another television event, Astaire Time (1960), was followed by the release of the soundtrack album, Three Evenings with Fred Astaire (1960), released on his own Ava Records. He returned to film with The Pleasure of His Company (1961) and The Notorious Landlady (1962). At the same time, starting in 1961, he hosted Alcoa Premiere, an anthology series of one-hour teleplays, several of which he acted in. In 1964, he and Chase appeared in "Think Pretty," an episode of Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theater. In 1965 he appeared in several episodes of Dr. Kildare. In 1966, Astaire and Chase made a series of appearances on The Hollywood Palace. His fourth TV special was The Fred Astaire Show, aired in 1968. That year he returned to musical films with Finian's Rainbow (1968) which resulted in a soundtrack on Warner Bros. In 1969, he appeared in Midas Run.


In 1970s, Astaire again semi-retired. In 1970 he co-starred in The Over-the-Hill Gang Rides Again, he had a continuing role on the series It Takes a Thief, and narrated the Rankin-Bass special, Santa Claus is Comin' to Town. In 1972, he appeared in the Gershwin tribute, 'S Wonderful, 'S Marvelous, 'S Gershwin, the soundtrack of which was released on Daybreak Records. The same year he hosted Make Mine Red, White and Blue. He was nominated for an Oscar for his appearance in The Towering Inferno (1974). In 1975, he recorded three albums, Attitude Dancing, They Can't Take These Away From Me, and A Couple of Song and Dance Men, the latter with Bing Crosby. Astaire appeared in That's Entertainment! (1974) and That's Entertainment!, Part II (1976), in which, aged 76, Astaire performed a number of  routines with Gene Kelly, his last dance filmed performance. In 1976, he appeared in The Amazing Dobermans. 1977's The Purple Taxi failed to find an American distributor. In April, he again voiced an animated character in The Easter Bunny is Coming to Town. In 1978, he starred in A Family Upside Down. He took a guest role in Battlestar Galactica in 1979, to please his grandchildren. He appeared in his final Christmas-themed movie in 1979, The Man in the Santa Claus Suit. It provided a song, "Once a Year Night," which released by Dick Clark Productions, proved to be his final recording.


At 81-years-old, he remarried in 1980 to 35-year-old horse jockey, Robyn Smith. His final film role was the 1981 adaptation of Peter Straub's novel Ghost Story. After contracting pneumonia, Fred Astaire died on June 22, 1987. He was buried in the Oakwood Memorial Park Cemetery in Chatsworth, California. Astaire insisted that he never be portrayed on film, saying, "However much they offer me — and offers come in all the time — I shall not sell" and "... I have no particular desire to have my life misinterpreted, which it would be." Nevertheless, in 1996, his widow, Robyn, allowed footage of him to be used in a commercial for Dirt Devil in which he dances with a vacuum. His daughter stated that she was "saddened that after his wonderful career he was sold to the devil."



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