Fred Astaire’s Silent Partner,
Part One: Hermes Pan, Was More Than Fred Astaire’s Dance Assistant, He Helped Create The Iconic Choreography That Defined The Best Performances Of Astaire
By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine
June 15, 2015 — Of all the stars manufactured in the great Hollywood dream factory, no one, with the possible exception of Charlie Chaplin, has given more sheer joy to more people than Fred Astaire. In particular, the movies he made with Ginger Rogers remain as testaments to a golden era of filmmaking, a time in our history when movies could be innocent, witty, elegant, exuberant and fun – and still attract a mass audience.
Even today, the nine landmark musicals that Astaire and Ginger Rogers made at RKO Pictures retain a freshness and vivacity that are astonishing. During the Great Depression, they helped people escape the harsh realities of unemployment and breadlines. Today, they still have the power to transport us out of our own time. The Astaire-Rogers movies didn’t just break old, shopworn molds of how to portray dance on film; they became a measuring rod of excellence by which all other dance films were – and still are – compared.
What many moviegoers may not realize is that the Astaire-Rogers duo owes a large measure of its success to Fred’s silent partner – Hermes Pan.
With Astaire, Pan choreographed all of the Astaire-Rogers pictures from Flying Down to Rio in 1933 to The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle in 1939. In 1988, we interviewed Pan about his career and how he helped Fred Astaire become legendary.
Pan was born in Memphis, Tenn., in 1910 and a couple of years later moved with his family to Nashville, where his father was employed as Greek Consul to the southern states. On the side, he also operated a restaurant that Pan remembers as one of the best in the area. In Nashville, Pan was exposed for the first time to jazz dance, rhythms and riffs.
“Sam Clark was a black kid who was our houseboy and drove for us,” Pan said. “He was a little older than I was and he used to teach me all kinds of shuffles, the Black Bottom and the Charleston. From those beginnings, I got my show business start, dancing in speakeasies in the 1920s at the age of 16.”
Young Hermes also squired his sister in a dance act that landed the team specialty spots in a few Broadway shows.
“My sister’s name is Vasso. It was taken from our hometown of Vassiliki in the Peloponnesos,” Pan said. When he wasn’t gigging with his sister, Pan danced in the chorus of Animal Crackers, starring the Marx Brothers.
“Groucho was sarcastic, I never did like him,” Pan said. “Chico was alright, but he was always skirt-chasing. Harpo was the nicest.” Zeppo Marx, the brother whose presence amounted to a bit part in most of their shows and movies, became Pan’s agent in Hollywood.
“He never did a damn thing for me,” Pan recalled. “Everything I ever did I got on my own.”
That included getting up the gumption to motor west for a shot at the movies.
“I drove out to Los Angeles in 1930 with my mother and sister,” Pan remembered. “Busby Berkeley was doing things along with such dance directors as LeRoy Prinz and Seymour Felix. I had worked for Felix back on Broadway in Top Speed and I thought it would be a cinch to land a job.”
Unfortunately for Pan, in the early 1930s, the camera covered more ground than most chorus lines did.
“I never got picked once,” Pan said. “I remember Berkeley would line all the boys up and say: ‘You, you, you and you … the rest of you can go home.’ Half the time the selectees didn’t even have to audition. In those days choreographers weren’t dancers. Busby Berkeley couldn’t dance a step; he was an idea man. They let the camera move for them. They’d have 500 pianos floating around or girls with violins in geometric configurations. It wasn’t dancing at all.”
In 1933, Pan got his big break as dance assistant to Dave Gould in Flying Down to Rio, a picture featuring a fresh young dance sensation from back east – Fred Astaire. Pan himself had just “happened” back into town after an abortive road trip with a traveling dance troupe.
“We had played one-night stands up and down the California coast,” Pan said. “We were stranded every other week. In fact, one time we were stranded in Modesto and we had a booking in Antioch for three days. We told the hotel management that we would come back and pay the bill, but they wouldn’t budge. I had to leave my mother for security. Years later, when I won my Academy Award for dance direction on A Damsel in Distress, one of the kids came up to me and said: ‘Don’t forget, I remember when you had to hock your mother.’”
Fortunately for Pan, he was able to pay the bill, retrieve his mother and follow a tip that led to Dave Gould’s office at RKO.
“I had gotten together with my sister and worked out about a chorus of steps to ‘The Carioca,’ a tune from the movie. I showed the routine to Dave and he liked it and I was in.”
On his first day of work, Pan was told to, “Go over to stage eight and see if Fred Astaire needs any assistance.”
A daunting proposal to anyone, the idea terrified Pan.
“It scared the life out of me because Fred was already an international star,” Pan said. “I introduced myself by saying my name is Pan. Fred called me by my last name from that moment on. He had been working on a solo tap dance which he hadn’t quite finished. He was stuck for a little break step and asked me if I had any ideas. At that moment something clicked in my mind and I remembered a break that Sam Clark had taught me back in Tennessee. I showed it to Fred and he loved it. After that he always called for me, never for Dave Gould, who had two left feet. Fred would yell: ‘Pan, Pan, where is Pan?’”
(Next week: Hermes Pan on Ginger as a dancer and helping Fred on his classic solo numbers.)
David Fantle & Tom Johnson have been entertainment journalists for more than 30 years and co-authored the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV. Fantle teaches film and television at Marquette University in Milwaukee and Johnson is a former senior editor for Netflix. They can be reached at www.reeltoreal.com
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