Fred’s Better Half
The Screen Legend Played Second Fiddle To His Supremely Elder Sister When He Was An Extremely Young Vaudevillian, But According To Her, He Was Always A Diligent Craftsman Who Would Prep The Stage And Rehearse The Pit Orchestras
By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine
Oct. 13, 2014 — Decades before Fred Astaire tripped the light fantastic in a series of Arcadian Art Deco musicals with Ginger Rogers — who mimicked his every move more effectively than Fred’s own giant silhouette triptych did in the “Bojangles of Harlem” number from Swing Time — there was another partner in Astaire’s orbit.
Her name was Adele and more than just another dance partner, she was also his sister.
Adele and Fred were joined at the hip from their first childhood vaudeville appearance together in 1905 in Keyport, NJ, in an act billed as “Juvenile Artists Presenting an Electric Musical Toe-Dancing Novelty” until 1932 when, after a successful career on the Broadway and London stages, Adele retired from show business to marry into British aristocracy.
Indeed, by his own admission, throughout their storied partnership, Fred played “second fiddle” to Adele, a perennial audience favorite who generated enough onstage charisma in those days to power every trans-Atlantic steamer the Cunard Line floated.
Of course, her little brother, Fred, became a showbiz legend enshrined in the pantheon of performers through three decades of groundbreaking musical films. But attention must be paid to that time when Fred was just beginning to formulate his insouciant, effortless, outlaw style – a time when big sister Adele was with him every step of the way.
Recently, we came across a letter Adele wrote to us in 1981 (a year before she died) in response to several questions we asked her about when she and Fred performed on the Orpheum Vaudeville Circuit. At the time, Adele was long-retired and living in the Biltmore Estates area of Phoenix, just about a stone’s throw from the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired Arizona Biltmore Hotel.
Here now a couple of snippets from an era that’s been consigned to the history books and the fuzzy memories of a few octogenarians who saw acts like master juggler W.C. Fields, the angular Astaires, the Marx Brothers and countless others that had to prove their bonafides each night and twice on Sundays.
RtoR: We’ve read that Fred used to sneak onstage just before you were to perform in vaudeville and sprinkle rosin around so that you wouldn’t lose your footing during dance routines?
Adele: From the very beginning of our stage career, my brother would sprinkle rosin on the floor to prevent falls. He also rehearsed the pit orchestra in whatever town we were playing. He was the diligent one, even when we were very young.
RtoR: Did you ever face a particularly tough vaudeville audience?
Adele: Audiences throughout the Orpheum Circuit were always good and very receptive to our acts which included a bride and groom number where my brother dressed in his first costume of top hat and tails. Later in the act, I dressed as a glass of champagne and Fred was a lobster.
RtoR: What would you do between shows?
Adele: Between performances, my brother and I were tutored by my mother who was a school teacher. We also played games like any kids do.
RtoR: How much salary did you and Fred make on the Orpheum Vaudeville Circuit?
Adele: To the best of my recollection at that time (around 1909), our salary was $175 a week which was big money in those days.
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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