Just Dance

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Fred Astaire in Swing Time (1936).

Friday, May 10, 2024. Partly cloudy with otherwise fair weather yesterday in New York. 68 degrees but warm. And more of this plus some rain moving through. At least that’s the forecast.

Today is also the 125th anniversary of the birth of Fred Astaire who many have believed to be the greatest male dancer of his age and era. I am only one of the hundreds of millions who still love watching him dance. There is a quality of his movement he naturally conveyed to the viewer watching that he was just “foolin’” around; making up all those dance steps as he went along with the song he was performing.

Adele and Fred Astaire in 1911. Courtesy Antoine Dutot Museum & Gallery

I had the distinct pleasure of meeting him at a small dinner given by Edie Goetz who was the eldest daughter of Louis B. Mayer, founder of MGM, at her palatial home in Holmby Hills. There were only 7 at table. Fred was with his wife Robyn with whom he had a very happy May/December marriage.

Fred was born on this day (May 10) in Omaha, Nebraska in 1899. Named for his father, Frederic Austerlitz, he had a sister Adele who was a little more than three years older. By the time Fred was four and his sister was almost eight, their mother had enrolled them in classes to learn to dance.

Whatever the objective of Johanna — Mother Austerlitz — by the time Fred was 10 and Adele was 13, she was preparing them for vaudeville, and by the 19-teens brother and sister had their names changed and were working in vaudeville as dancing children. The rest is a film glorious history. Film made him famous throughout the world and “dance” assures his memory, thanks to film.

Naturally I was fascinated to be at table with him, having seen all his movies, knowing all of his recordings of famous songs from shows and films written for him, and admiring his dancing and his general public presence.

However, off-camera, off-stage, Fred — who was then in his eighties  was a quiet man, seemingly even a bit shy, that reflected a natural modesty. After the superb dinner, as was the custom in Mrs. Goetz’ evenings, everyone adjourned to the living room, a long and wide room with its ample wall space hung with Picasso, Renoir, van Gogh, Manet, Monet, Degas and many more.

Fred Astaire and his wife Robyn, 1985. Photo by John Barrett.

As everyone was taking a seat in comfortable cushion chairs and sofas, the room began to slowly dim with the sounds of an orchestra in the distance, and as the music grew louder, and the lights began to slowly dim, a very wide floor-to-ceiling motorized projection screen dropped to cover the entire far wall of the living room. And when it had stopped and the orchestra stopped, and the room was black, the film lit up the screen. And the room.

It was a British film with Jeremy Irons playing a young husband in a marriage that is going astray; very proletarian young British couple in marital distress. Meanwhile in Mrs. Goetz’ Billie Haines designed majestic living room, watching the feeble marriage about to break on screen, with Fred Astaire and Robyn seated comfortably six feet in front of me facing the film screen, the only question that arose for me was: What is Reality? This living room evening or the story up there on the screen.

Edie in her library. She never changed Billy Haines’ original designs or furniture and despite the formality of her evenings, the mood was always convivial and relaxed. Everybody, no matter who they were in the world, were simply A Guest of Mrs. Goetz, the ultimate hostess.

Meeting Astaire under such informal circumstances, I couldn’t resist suggesting the possibility of me interviewing him. It would have been awkward to ask him already aware of his natural (off-screen) diffidence. But in chatting with Robyn Astaire, I asked her what would be the possibilities.

She understood my curiosity but said that Fred would never agree to be interviewed. He never liked doing it when he was a young man and at his age he had NO interest. But she suggested that I contact Hermes Pan who had worked as a choreographer with Fred for his entire career in films — from the very beginning and all of the films with Ginger Rogers that made both Fred and Ginger big stars forever.

And so it was …

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