Monday, December 10, 2018. Cold and grey, temperatures in the mid- to upper 30’s, yesterday in New York. A quiet Sunday in my neighborhood with few out on the sidewalks in my neighborhood, except to walk their dogs.
Today is the 109th anniversary of Hermes Pan who was born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1909. Hermes, if you didn’t know, was the choreographer who worked with Fred Astaire for his entire film and television career. He also choreographed more films than any other. It turned out to be a golden career that he enjoyed. He loved the Hollywood small-town life. He’d laugh when he’d recall a memory of someone he once knew and worked with, describing its ending as “I loved ya honey, but the show close…”
“Dancers.” he said, are children,” referring to himself as well; “they have to be to let themselves move like that.”
In 1930, he’d driven in an old Ford across America with his mother and his sister Ditty. He and Ditty had been working as a dance team in speak easies, and Hermes eventually got work in the chorus of Broadway shows including “Animal Crackers” starring The Marx Brothers and “Top Speed” with Ginger Rogers. It was during the run of that show that Ginger — who was cast as the ingenue — suggested to Hermes that he might try Hollywood for work as they were starting to make movie musicals with the new “talkies” and there was work for dancers. After the show closed, Hermes, sister Ditty and their mother bought an old Ford for $75 and drove out to the West Coast. There were no highways in those days although there were developing roads. There was no luxury of any kind along the way, and the trio were traveling with a very limited budget.
Brother and sister found gigs in traveling shows (very low budget) up and down the Coast, moving frequently, often one day away from eviction. It was the Depression and the moves were made late at night so the landlord couldn’t catch them. They collected milk bottles for the deposit and limped along with the optimism of youth and naivete supporting them.
One day in early 1933, back in Los Angeles, Hermes heard from a friend that the dance director, Dave Gould, over at RKO Studios, needed a choreographer/dancer (Dance Directors, including Busby Berkeley, couldn’t dance). Hermes went over to the studio where he met Dave Gould. Gould told him he might have something in a couple of weeks; that he’d call Hermes.
Two weeks went by, not a word. Hermes was dejected because the family needed money for food. However, he was a Roman Catholic, and very devout. So he made a Novena each day of those two waiting weeks, praying that he’d get the job.
On the day of the third week, since he lived not far from the studio he decided he’d go over and see Dave Gould. On his walk he ran into a dance friend who was coming from the direction of the studio. The man was elated, telling Hermes that he’d just got a job with Dave Gould at RKO! Hermes, the gentleman, congratulated the man but was personally crestfallen. After the man departed Hermes, thinking he was just wasting his time, decided that in the name of his Novenas he would still go down to the studio telling himself that at least acquainting with the Dance Director might be good for his future needs.
Arriving at the studio (the reception was a one room office with a phone on the wall to call around the lot), Hermes called Dave Gould and asked if he could see him. Gould was available. Without Hermes asking, Gould told Hermes that Fred Astaire was in a dance studio upstairs and needed some help; maybe Hermes could help him.
Fred Astaire, at that time in his about-to-bud film career, was internationally famous as a dance team with his sister Adele. Back in New York when Hermes was working in the chorus of the Marx Brothers show he was often told that he “looked” like Fred Astaire who was starring with Adele at the Alvin Theater nearby. Out of curiosity, wanting to see who/what he, Hermes, “looked like”, he went over to the theater to look at the billboards. Fred, who was ten years older than Hermes, was, Hermes could see, already losing his hair. The young chorus boy was not impressed that he was being compared to an “older” man going bald.
Nevertheless, when Dave Gould directed him to go up to “help” Fred, Hermes could only wonder what he could do to “help” Fred Astaire, already a great dancing star. Nevertheless, he followed the direction. Astaire was working on a step but was stuck for a solution to a movement. Hermes, off-handedly demonstrated an idea to Fred who liked it, and from that day a fifty-year career and lifelong friendship began for Hermes and Fred.
I wrote a memoir for Hermes (“as told to”) in 1985-86, which I entitled “The Man Who Danced With Fred Astaire.” It did not find a publisher. Hermes had a long and interesting career and a good time working with some of the greatest talents of the day including Astaire. Many of them he knew intimately as a close friend. His reputation grew into a kind of mystery where many believed that Hermes Pan was a creation, a name Fred Astaire made up so it looked like he had a choreographer he worked with. Also because of their physical resemblance when they were out in public together, fans often mistook Hermes for Fred. Fred loved it because he hated being confronted for autographs. The two men shared a sense of humor that was more adolescent, even childish in its expression – they could see something at the same time that amused both and they could fall into laughing fits. It was usually a performance they were watching.
A few years ago I got a call from a writer who was working on a biography of Hermes. He’d met a nephew of Hermes who gave him a copy of that manuscript I wrote. He also took the title for his own. I objected to that but was frankly told that I didn’t own it since it wasn’t published. Ironically Hermes didn’t like the title. It expressed the problem with the story. Hermes and Fred were very close friends and Hermes was homosexual. This was not a secret to anybody but it was Hollywood of another era, and Hermes knew that Fred would not like a title that might appear to some as having another meaning. Hermes wouldn’t like it either. His private life was conventional for a single man, a man with many friendships in the world famous community. And they danced a lot too, even off-camera.
I personally liked the title when I thought of it. Because, in fact, Hermes and Fred did dance together when they created all of those dozens of dance numbers. It was a collaboration where the two men competed in coming up with new ideas for the dance. Hermes acknowledged that their relationship was karmic in aspects. It was one of respect and self-respect. When I think of Hermes, as I do now writing about him, I think of the man, his face in a wide grin, recalling another time in movieland life, “I loved ya honey, but the show closed.” It was kind of a chortle, like a kid. A great man also.
One week ago on this night, Glenn Close was honored by Museum of the Moving Image at its 32nd annual Salute at 583 Park. This is a good one. Here are some of its past honorees: Annette Bening, Warren Beatty, Tom Cruise, Clint Eastwood, Robert DeNiro, Robin Williams, Goldie Hawn, Dustin Hoffman, Tom Hanks, Hugh Jackman, Steve Martin, Julianne Moore, Al Pacino, Sidney Poitier, Julia Roberts, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and Jimmy Stewart.
Those attending are always movie fans when it comes to the major names. It’s not like the Oscars. It’s like spending an evening with the honoree. And the Museum delivers a great night for the guests as well as the honoree.
The Museum of the Moving Image advances the understanding, enjoyment, and appreciation of the art, history, technique, and technology of film, television, and digital media. It presents exhibitions; screenings of significant works; discussion programs featuring actors, directors, craftspeople, and business leaders; and education programs. The Museum also houses a significant and comprehensive collection of moving-image artifacts. For more information, visit movingimage.us.
Ivan L. Lustig, Co-Chairman of the Museum’s Board of Trustees in announcing this year’s honoree stated: “Glenn Close is one of the most acclaimed actresses of our time, with nominations for 6 Academy Awards, 12 Golden Globes, 12 Emmys, and 4 Tonys. Whatever the role, from her star-making performances in The Big Chill and Fatal Attraction to her unforgettable portrayal of Patty Hewes in Damages, she commands our attention through the brilliance and emotional power of her work.” She sure does.
The evening began with cocktails and then dinner, and the award presentation. That featured friends and colleagues introducing clips from Close’s career. Off-stage/off-camera, the star is very much what you might expect from seeing her perform. She’s a very accessible, living in this world kind of person; like the rest of us. She also possesses the diffident charm of a well-brought up lady who retains the girl in herself at all times.
Carl Goodman, the Museum’s Executive Director, pointed out her “special place in the cultural life of New York, balancing her work, as she does in movies and television, along with her devotion to live theater.” She also co-founded the charity Bring Change to Mind, which confronts the stigma and misunderstanding around mental illness; and is co-chair of the Panthera Conservation Council, dedicated to the conservation of the world’s 36 species of wild cats.
Among the evening’s guests: Ethan Hawke, Christian Slater, Bob Balaban, Jim Dale, Dennis and Coralie Charriol Paul, Cheryl Henson, Kevin Huvane, Michele Herbert, Linda LeRoy Janklow, Angela and Rhett Turner, Michael Barker.
It’s finally down to that time of the year; party time. For the next ten days in the lives of New Yorkers there are festivities. One of the great annuals was held last week at the Upper East Side townhouse of John Demsey who hosted this one with his great friend Cornelia Guest. They’re the old-fashioned kind – cocktails and conversation and more than a hundred guests moving through the rooms. 6:30 to 8:30 and on to dinner at your favorite restaurant in the neighborhood.
Photographs by Amber De Vos/PMC (Dempey)