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Fred Astaire:

That Nimble Thread

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Studio publicity still of Fred Astaire in the 1955 film Daddy Long Legs.
Meeting The Famous, Actor, Dancer, Choreographer And All-Around Great Guy Was A Symbolic Moment For Two Young Entertainment Journalists Who Found Their Love For Classic Cinema Through Astaire

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By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine

Oct. 26, 2015 — For us, meeting Fred Astaire in July 1978 was a both a genesis and a culmination.

It was the culmination of idolatry that bordered on obsession – a single-minded adulation so engulfing that as teenagers, before we even met Fred, we started a cinema society just to rent and see films in the Astaire canon that rarely popped up in movie theater retrospectives or aired as afternoon matinees on TV. It was also the defining event that started us down our decades-long path of entertainment journalism; although, in retrospect, we couldn’t possibly predict that “beginning” nearly 40 years ago.

After an implacable two-year campaign of “snail-mail” correspondence with Astaire (via his secretary Jaye Johnston), a brief window of availability for us to meet him in Los Angeles opened up the summer of our senior year in high school. Fred said that he’d be in town the whole month and that he’d be happy to see us if we could arrange transport from our home state of Minnesota out to L.A.

We got cracking.

At 18 years old, we weren’t legal to rent a car in California, so we reserved rooms at the Beverly Terrace Motor Hotel on Doheny Drive at the eastern edge of Beverly Hills. Fortunately, back then, even the rarified purlieus of Beverly Hills contained a few budget hotels with weekly rates and life-saving kitchenettes. Even better, our visit was scheduled to take place at the Brighton Way offices of Fred’s accountant and The Terrace was a short walk from there.

The man who had repeatedly been named as one of the world’s best dressed men was, when we met him, wearing a blue sport coat, wide, red Christian Dior necktie, blue cotton pants, a red and blue designer belt and Gucci black leather shoes. (We also noticed that some part of Astaire’s chic attire had the distinct redwood odor of being recently liberated from a cedar trunk.)

Fred greeted us with a “hi fellas, sit down” informality that mirrored his persona in films. It was just the kind of introduction that at once put us at ease and deflated any notions we might have harbored about exactly how to visit with a certifiable national treasure.

After all, Astaire is considered without serious exception to be the greatest dancer the movies have ever known. His 31 musical films spanning from 1933 to 1968 established a measuring rod of excellence by which all other musical comedy work is judged. Landmark movies such as the series of 10 films Astaire made with Ginger Rogers are enduring classics and have been acknowledged as a major influence in the work of dancer/choreographers such as Gene Kelly, George Balanchine and Bob Fosse.

Our visit with Astaire, though brief, was transcendent. Astaire’s protean musical exploits had attained a mythical status for us. In our star-struck minds, Fred wasn’t tethered to terra firma (we weren’t in a position to see him engaged in such prosaic pursuits as taking out the trash or trimming the hydrangeas). So, in a way, it was an eye-opener to interrupt Astaire in his accountant’s office while he was busily engaged, not in some artistic matter of the greatest urgency, but in the laborious chore of balancing his personal checkbook!

Did we experience even a momentary letdown at having our naive illusions shattered so completely? Hardly. Our appreciation for the hundreds of artists we’ve interviewed since only deepened knowing that they are indeed flesh and blood – some leavened, perhaps, like Astaire, with genius.

As Fred settled into a nearby chair, we noticed that his ankles swelled out of his shoes like a couple of globular ball bearings. The effect seemed odd until we comprehended that after the better part of a century stomping the hell out of rehearsal hall floorboards, any such ankles – bulbous or not – would be fortunate if they were still attached to legs, let alone be proportionately as slender as the rest of Astaire’s lithe frame.

To break the ice, we asked Astaire if he had ever visited Minnesota during his vaudeville days. “About all that I remember positively is that my sister Adele and I performed in Minneapolis and St. Paul around 1909 (when Fred was nine years old) on the Orpheum Circuit,” he said haltingly, almost apologetically. We certainly couldn’t fault him for not recalling 71-year-old specifics about two towns he probably only glimpsed from a stage door.

Astaire’s modesty and deference (which were unfailing and continuous) didn’t register completely with us during our visit. It would take months; even years, before we fully realized and appreciated that aspect of his character. During our careers we’ve interviewed many stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age and they often share a trait of genuine humility about their talent or film legacy. After being in the limelight and under public scrutiny for decades, most seemed to attain a placid, healthy perspective about their lives and careers.

That said, no one we’ve interviewed since Fred has ever surpassed his innate courtesy which, in practice, was as natural as a drawn breath.

We mentioned that we had recently shown his 1948 musical Easter Parade, co-starring Judy Garland, to a St. Paul nursing home audience, and that immediately after the screening an elderly resident innocently asked us if it was one of our home movies.

The statement flabbergasted Astaire. “You mean she thought that you guys filmed it yourselves?” he asked incredulously. Fred cracked a thin, impish smile and gamely fought to retain a measure of self-control. But his composure finally shattered into convulsive laughter. Eventually he collected himself and said that after a 45-year career of fielding detailed questions on every aspect of his films, this was the first time anyone ever mistook his work for someone else’s home movie.

With disco dancing the national rage at the time, we asked if he ever tripped the light fantastic in local Los Angeles nightclubs. Astaire replied that disco was just free-style fun and could not possibly be compared with exhaustively rehearsed choreography of musical films. As if to make that point emphatic, he improvised a couple of dance steps (still seated in his chair). Fred did a kind of scissors step crossing his feet back and forth while he thrust one arm out front. At the same time, he twisted his other arm around the back of his neck; his long, tapering fingers sprouting up behind his head like five giant eagle feathers on a Sioux war bonnet.

The agility of those legendary feet – even at the age of 78 – and his marvelously expressive hands which seemed to have no end, demonstrated that Astaire had lost little of the precision that characterized numbers like his adagio with the wooden coat rack in Royal Wedding or his synchronized golf dance from Carefree.

“After seeing Saturday Night Fever, I voted for John Travolta as Best Actor at the 1978 Academy Award ceremony,” Astaire said. Travolta’s tense, sexually-charged dancing was, according to Astaire, an interesting extension of the delinquent character he portrayed.

We talked about the nostalgia craze for old movies that seemed to grip the nation a few years before and which had been partly fueled by That’s Entertainment!, the artful 1974 compilation of some of the finest moments from MGM musicals. The movie heralded a re-reckoning of the work of Astaire, Gene Kelly, director Vincente Minnelli and many others. However with that popular rebirth, came innumerable requests for interviews and a rash of unauthorized biographies about the artists that gave those glorious movie musicals their special luster. It was a subject that didn’t really interest Fred who liked to live in the present and would much rather discuss instead the “good new days.”

“My 1959 autobiography Steps in Time is, and can only be, the definitive source on my career,” Fred explained. He told us that because of the “rediscovery” of his films, he was continually hounded by interviewers and authors intent on asking questions for which he says he has long since forgotten the answers. Astaire said that one author in particular, British writer Michael Freedland, was quite insistent on getting – quite literally – some face time with Fred.

“He kept telephoning for days wanting a posed photograph of the two of us for the dust-jacket of a book he was writing about me. When I finally agreed to a short photo session, he arrived at my house with his wife and kids, but luckily without his overnight luggage.” Freedland got his selfie (taken by the small pool in Fred’s backyard) which subsequently adorned the back cover of his 1976 illustrated biography on Astaire.

As if in prescient acknowledgement of the distance we had traveled just to chat with him about his movies, Fred did tell us about how his famous gravity-defying number in Royal Wedding was filmed – the one where he danced (seemingly weightlessly) on the walls and ceilings of his London hotel suite to the Alan Jay Lerner-Burton Lane tune, “You’re All the World to Me.”

“The room was a square set built inside a barrel that could be rotated like a hamster treadmill,” Astaire told us. “I, of course, never left the ground, but it looked like I did. The cameraman rotated with the room and was upside down and sideways and all kinds of ways. That was the trick.”

Astaire’s tireless perfectionism is the stuff of legend and has been recognized with a trunk full of awards from an honorary Oscar and Emmy Awards to Kennedy Center and American Film Institute honors. But Fred told us that he found his greatest pleasure in the victories of several racehorses he owned. As a discussion topic, Astaire’s thoroughbreds won by a country mile over his classic movies.

“My filly Triplicate won the 1946 Hollywood Gold Cup,” he said proudly and then added conspiratorially, “She beat Louis B. Mayer’s mare when I was under contract to Mayer at MGM.”

Our visit at an end, Astaire ushered us out of the office as unassumingly as he had greeted us. It reminded us of a certain air of nonchalance that we had seen in a 1933 film called Flying Down to Rio when Fred coaxed a lissome gal named Ginger onto a dance floor for the first time to “try out” a new dance called “The Carioca.” In that instant, musicals became airborne in a way that they had never been before.

In 1978, walking back out onto sun-bleached Brighton Way, we were levitating a bit too!

David Fantle & Tom Johnson have interviewed more than 250 celebrities, mostly from “Hollywood’s Golden Age.” They are co-authors of the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV and are currently writing a biography of songwriter and legendary MGM musical producer Arthur Freed. Reach them at david.fantle@gmail.com or tjohnsonca@aol.com
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