Thursday, December 10, 2009

The centenary of Hermes Pan

Today is the centenary of Hermes Pan the man who danced with Fred Astaire born on this day in 1909 in Memphis, Tennessee.

Hermes was an especially dear man with a sweet personality and easy to laughter. As much as it sounds like hyperbole, he was almost angelic.

Hermes with Betty Grable, whom he worked with at Fox in the 1940s
He and Astaire met in an RKO rehearsal studio in 1933 (Hermes was 24, broke, and moving in the middle of the night from house to house with his mother and his sister Ditty).

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.

Everything Hermes knew about dance he learned as a kid. His first thought was: what can I do for Fred Astaire?

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, used to take him home at night sometimes to the part of town known as Black Bottom, a common name for the black ghetto in Southern cities.

The influence of the culture of Black Bottom is incalculable historically: great music and dancing emerged from these communities. 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 tubs, broomsticks and strings that played what was then called “gut bucket jazz.” Today it would be called Rock-n-Roll.
Caught on camera having lunch with Rita Hayworth whom he met when she first signed on at Columbia Pictures. Rita and Hermes were lifelong friends. He said she had the greatest shoulders and knew how to dance with them.
Hermes remembered that music as getting into his bones. He recalled that its effect on him was almost sensual (probably was entirely). It was 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.

One of his 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.

Ginger Rogers and Hermes Pan on the lot of RKO in 1936.
A publicity shot of Astaire and Pan with a phony dance plan. The men made up all the Rogers/Astaire dances together, improvisationally with Fred doing Fred and Hermes taking the Ginger role. When it was set, Hermes would then take the Fred role and prepare Ginger for hers.
The first two years were tough and they practically starved but then came the fateful day when Hermes 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 Rogers.

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, Hermes’ bond had an additional quality because of the dance.

Reflecting on his career, he 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-n-Bubbles. Mr. Bubbles was a vaudevillian, entertainer, dancer. He played “Sportin’ Life” in the original Gershwin “Porgy and Bess” and he was regarded by many as a genius. Astaire was a follower.

The movements and ideas that Hermes brought to the dance floor for Fred Astaire were those that he’d acquired 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 “Damsel in Distress” in 1936. After Astaire and Rogers broke up, he went over to 20th Century Fox where he worked with Betty Grable, who was then the number one box office star in America. And then in the 1950s he joined the Pasternak unit at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. In the 1960s 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, and in the meantime Hermes had a lot of time on his hands to enjoy the pasta and the vino and everything Italiano. Hermes was always prepared for good times.

“Dancers,” he once said; “are like children. That’s the only way they can do what they do.”

He died at his home in Beverly Hills 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. After he finished his breakfast he sat down in his favorite chair in his livingroom 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.