Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Dancers and the dance

Lighting up. Photo: JH.
Wednesday, February 8, 2017.  Very cold rain falling most of the day yesterday in New York, ending with a heavy fog and warmer temperatures at the midnight hour.

Dancers and the dance. The Oscar nominations for the film “La La Land” is one of only 43 films to be nominated in all the Big Five categories in the 88-year history of the Academy Awards. The Big Five nominations are Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay.  Of the 43 nominated for those five categories, only three – “It Happened One Night” in 1936, with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert; “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” in 1976, with Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher; and “Silence of the Lambs” in 1992, with Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins and Scott Glenn.

I haven’t seen “La La Land” which is the name I always used to refer to Los Angeles, a land where I lived for 14 years and loved. I know several people who’ve seen the film and expressed their pleasure in seeing it. I know others who’ve seen it and left the theater thinking: whaaa?
I had no idea what it was like or what it was about until I saw the trailer. I figured it was about LA, which is always an attraction to me.  I had already got the impression that it was a musical from the still shot of Ryan Gosling and Emily Stone looking like they were sort of dancing. Then I saw the trailer and indeed, they were “dancing.”  That vaguely, very vaguely reminded me of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in one of their now immortal musical films.
That reminded me of course of Fred and Hermes Pan, the two men who put those famous dance numbers together. I’d met Fred and I knew Hermes quite well. So I went back to my archives ...

I wrote the following about Hermes on his centenary December 10, 2009:

Hermes Pan was born on this day in 1909 in Memphis, Tennessee. He was an especially dear man with a sweet personality and easy to laughter. As much as it sounds like hyperbole, he was almost angelic.

He and Astaire met in an RKO rehearsal studio in 1933.
Fred and Hermes hamming it up for a studio publicity shot at RKO, circa 1935.
Hermes had been hired by the studio Dance Director (there were no choreographers in those days) Dave Gould to work with Fred since Gould didn’t know how to dance. “Dance Directors” including the most famous Busby Berkeley, so they always had an assistant who could.

Everything Hermes knew about dance he learned as a kid. When he reported for his first day of work on the RKO lot, Dave Gould told him that Fred Astaire was working in a dance studio upstairs and suggested maybe Hermes could help him. Hermes first thought was: “what could I do for Fred Astaire?” This was a seminal moment in the movie careers of both men whose background was Broadway. Fred was being paired with Ginger Rogers (for the first time) in a picture called “Flying Down to Rio.”

Fred Astaire and his choreographic partner Hermes Pan making the jump, at RKO Radio Pictures, circa 1935.
Born in Tennessee, the son of a Greek candy manufacturer and distributor, as a little boy his “mammy,” as black housekeepers were called in those days, would sometimes take him home at night to the part of town known as Black Bottom, a common name for the black ghettos in Southern cities.

The influence of the culture of Black Bottom is incalculable historically: great music and dancing emerged from these communities. Not coincidentally, in the Jazz Age of the 1920s, there was a popular dance and song – like the Charleston, called “Black Bottom.” Hermes would recall late in his life how those trips to Black Bottom were always exciting to the child because there was nightlife in the streets and musicians with metal tubs, broomsticks and strings that played what was then called “gut bucket jazz.” Today it would be called Rock-n-Roll.

Hermes remembered that music as getting into his bones. He recalled that its effect on him was almost sensual (probably was entirely). It was accompanied by a dance movement that began with The Shuffle. He took that with him to New York as a teenager after his father had died suddenly, and he put it to work. It was the mid 1920s and he and his sister supported themselves and their mother with song and dance jobs in the city’s speakeasies and in the chorus of shows on Broadway.
Ginger Rogers and Hermes.
One of his chorus jobs was a show called “Top Speed” with a newcomer named Ginger Rogers (born Virginia McMath). Ginger told Hermes she was going to Hollywood where they were looking for musical comedy talent, including dancers. So after “Top Speed” closed in 1931, the Pans bought an old Model T and with $75, they drove across the continent to Hollywood.

The first two years were tough and they practically starved but then came the day that changed his life forever, when he was hired (at $75 a week) to work with Fred Astaire in “Flying Down To Rio,” only Astaire’s second picture and the first teamed with Ginger Rogers.
Fred and Ginger in “Flying Down To Rio."
The two men had very different personalities but compatible sensibilities when it came to dance and music and humor. Actually when it came to music, Hermes being ten years younger, was naturally more in tune with the “latest” and Fred who was nothing if not shrewd about his business, recognized that. It was a collaboration that lasted for the rest of the men’s lives. Of all of Fred’s few real friendships, his bond with Hermes had an additional quality because of the dance.

John Bubbles, the father of rhythm tap.
Reflecting on his career, Hermes acknowledged that the dancing that the world knew as Fred Astaire was mainly African in its roots. Astaire was very drawn to percussive sounds and rhythms. There were rumors that he took some lessons from John Bubbles of Buck and Bubbles. Mr. Bubbles was a vaudevillian, a song-and-dance man, and known in the business to be the father of rhythm tap. He played “Sportin’ Life” in the original production of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” and he was regarded by many as a genius. No surprise that Astaire was a follower.

The movements and ideas that Hermes brought to the dance floor for Fred Astaire were those that he’d acquired beginning as a small child in Black Bottom -- thanks to his mammy and the boys who played gut bucket jazz in the streets. No one knew at the time, but it was all headed for Fred Astaire and the American dance musical.

Hermes had the longest career as a dance director/choreographer and hired a number of major American dancers for their first Hollywood jobs including Bob Fosse and Jack Cole. He won an Oscar for“A Damsel in Distress” (with score by George and Ira Gershwin) in 1936. After Astaire and Rogers broke up as a team in 1939, Hermes was hired by Darryl F. Zanuck and went over to 20th Century Fox where he worked with Betty Grable, who was on her way to becoming the the number one box office star in America. And then in the 1950s he joined the Joe Pasternak unit at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. In 1961, Joe Mankiewicz hired him to stage Elizabeth Taylor’s version of Cleopatra entering Rome. The project took more than two years just to get underway.
Gracie Allen, Fred Astaire, and George Burns in "A Damsel in Distress," 1937.
“Dancers,” he once said; “are like children. That’s the only way they can move unselfconsciously.”

He died at his home in Beverly Hills on September 19, 1990, a few months before his 81st birthday. He’d got up that day and fed his cat and made his bacon and eggs, toast and coffee.

Hermes a year before his death. Photo courtesy of Jan Deen.
After he finished his breakfast he sat down in his favorite chair in his living room overlooking his patio and swimming pool. Later that afternoon, a family member who hadn’t been able to reach him, found him still sitting there, already having departed for higher places.

Fred Astaire was born Frederick Austerlitz in Omaha. Ten years older than Hermes, he started out in vaudeville at age five, dancing with his sister Adele who was three years older than her little brother. In short time the Astaires were a successful vaudeville act. Vaudeville in those days, before film and television, was like TV today – big time popular, nationwide entertainment.

The Astaires grew up in Show Business, making the often difficult transition from child performers to adult even more successfully, becoming big stars on the Broadway and London stages. Delly, as Adele was known to friends and family, was always known as the better dancer. When she decided at age 36 to marry Lord Charles Cavendish, the second son of the Duke of Devonshire, people wondered what would happen to “poor” Fred’s career – never considering what became obvious – within a year or two, Hollywood beckoned and it was hello Ginger. The rest is history.
Fred and Adele Astaire, age 7 and 10.
Many years later when Fred and Hermes were in their late 60s and 70s respectively, Michael Jackson introduced himself to both men and sought their friendship. The two, Pan and Astaire, thought he was greatest popular dancer they’d ever seen. They also recognized some of their work in his steps. It became a mutual admiration society for all three men. Astaire and Pan both believed that Jackson was Fred’s true successor.

I’ve been a big Fred Astaire fan all my life. In childhood, it was the style and the way he danced. I felt like I was dancing too. And so it has remained. I have since learned more about him because of a long book writing association with Pan recalling his lifelong close work and social relationship with Fred.
MJ and Fred.
I met Fred and his wife Robyn one night at dinner at Edie Goetz’ house in Holmby Hills. After dinner we watched the film of Pinter’s “Betrayal” which was about to be released. Watching the film sitting on a sofa a few feet behind Fred and Robyn Astaire, I couldn’t help thinking that the “reality” on the screen was ironic compared to the reality in the room that night.

He was then in his early 80s and a rather quiet, if attentive personality, unlike the screen persona. This didn’t surprise me because I knew through Pan that Fred was basically a very serious, highly motivated, naturally dedicated artist and musician. He possessed warehouses of self-discipline. But he also had a wicked sense of humor which he shared in common with Pan. A boyish-wickedness, especially about dancers who either didn’t cut it or were pretentious.
Fred and his wife Robyn.
They both could lose it over some small matter in a performance they were watching. It would sometimes happen watching a film or a performance together. One might point out to the other some idiosyncrasy in a performance. That could set them off into gales of muffled laughter – which made it difficult for them to control themselves (and made it funnier) like two boys who couldn’t control the hilarity they felt. This was also the secret, Pan believed, of Fred’s happy second marriage late in life; he and Robyn laughed a lot.

Hermes "pulling" Fred's leg.
When preparing for a film, the two men met every morning, five days a week, sometimes seven, in a dance studio on the lot with piano accompanist Hal Borne (and later with a drummer — Fred loved percussion). They broke for an hour for lunch and then continued until five in the afternoon. For many years it was the same man — who for the first forty-five minutes would riff at the keyboard while Hermes and Fred would dance around improvising separately. It was a kind of contest to see who could out do the other creatively.

They had fun, which was how Hermes recalled those days. Improvisation completed, the pianist Hal Borne would then start riffing with the music that would be in the film they were rehearsing for. When they found an arrangement that worked for them, they’d begin to create and finally set the dance. Many of the final arrangements seen on the screen were devised by Hal Borne, improvising along with the two men dancing. Fred would play Fred’s role, and Hermes would take Ginger’s. Once the dance set – which might be a couple of weeks later, Fred would withdraw and Hermes would teach Ginger her role, while he took on Fred’s.

There were other women who danced with Fred, as we know. Each had a different personality and style. There were some who were not quite up to Fred’s talent and the two men often had a nicknames (that only they shared) for them. One leading lady, for example, was like “dancing with concrete.” Another was referred to in their correspondence as “old sandbags.”

The favorite partner of both was Rita Hayworth. The two men loved her shoulders. Hermes said she had the most beautiful shoulders in the business, and used them in her dancing like nobody else. He and Rita became close friends early on in her career, before she became a star. On Sunday afternoons a lot of “the kids” would often gather by Hermes' pool up on Cherokee Lane in Beverly Hills, turn on the radio and dance. This was how they relaxed – more dancing. Rita used to come too, even after she’d become a big, big star.
Rita and Hermes.
Hermes recalled one afternoon when everybody was up and dancing except for Rita and an actor who’d been one of the Munchkins in “The Wizard of Oz.” So Rita asked him to dance, and so they did. “That was Rita,” Hermes said.

Hermes is credited with working with Fred on 17 of his 31 films as well as Fred’s television specials, although they had such an intensely agreeable collaboration that Hermes often had input to projects he was not credited for. Fred was obsessive about his work habits. Hermes was more relaxed and followed his leader even at times when he wished Fred would let up a little schedule-wise. But the point was to create routines that when they were finished would be not only sensational but appear to be almost improvised. The result was a masterpiece.

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