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Astaire, Fred (originally Frederick E.Austerlitz Jr.)

film songs hit parade

Astaire, Fred (originally Frederick E.Austerlitz Jr.), debonair American dancer, actor, and singer; b. Omaha, May 10, 1899; d. Los Angeles, June 22, J987. Though Astaire’s talent as a dancer—displayed in vaudeville, on Broadway, and in films—overshadowed his other abilities, he was a favorite of such songwriters as Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and George Gershwin, and introduced many of their best- known songs. His phrasing, intonation, and timing matched the sophisticated work they did, especially for the movie musicals in which Astaire starred. At the height of his popularity in the mid-1930s, he scored a series of best-selling records with such songs, among them “Night and Day” (Porter), “Cheek to Cheek” (Berlin), and “The Way You Look Tonight” (music by Kern, lyrics by Dorothy Fields).

Astaire was the second child of Austrian immigrant Frederic E. Austerlitz and Johanna Gelius Austerlitz; his older sister, Adele (b. Sept. 10, 1897; d. Jan. 25, 1981), would become his dancing partner for the stage half of his career. Adele took dancing lessons as a child in Omaha, and her parents recognized her potential for a professional career. The children and their mother moved to N.Y. in 1905, where Astaire and his sister were enrolled in Claude Alvienne’s dancing school. They made their professional debut in 1907, and toured as a child act until 1909, when they attended grade school in N.J. for two years. They studied at Ned Wayburn’s dancing school, then returned to the stage in 1911 and eventually became vaudeville stars. They crossed over to the legitimate theater with the Broadway revue Over the Top (N.Y., Nov. 28, 1917), subsequently appearing in another revue, The Passing Show of 1918 (N.Y., July 25, 1918), then in the operettas Apple Blossoms (N.Y., Oct. 7, 1919) and The Love Letter (N.Y., Oct. 4, 1921).

Neither of the 1922 shows in which the Astaires appeared was a hit on Broadway, but they began to be noticed, first in For Goodness Sake (N.Y., Feb. 20, 1922) and then in Kern’s The Bunch and Judy (N.Y., Nov. 28, 1922). In 1923 they took For Goodness Sake to England, retitled Stop Flirting (London, May 30, 1923). It was a much bigger hit there, running for 418 performances, and they made their recording debut, cutting the songs “The Whichness of the Whatness” (music by William Daly and Paul Lannin, lyrics by Arthur Jackson) and “Oh Gee! Oh Gosh!” (music by Daly, lyrics by Ira Gershwin) from the show.

By 1924 the Astaires had become sufficiently well known to be the stars of Gershwin’s Lady, Be Good! (N.Y., Dec. 1, 1924), which ran for 330 performances in N.Y., then went to London in April 1926, where the team again made recordings, this time with Gershwin at the piano. This pattern was repeated with Gershwin’s Funny Face (N.Y., Nov. 22, 1927), which ran for 250 performances in N.Y. and then moved to London in November 1928. Among the songs from the show that Astaire recorded was “My One and Only” (lyrics by Ira Gershwin), which became his first popular record in April 1929.

The Astaires next appeared in the Florenz Ziegfeld-produced flop Smiles (N.Y., Nov. 18, 1930), followed by the successful revue The Band Wagon (N.Y., June 3, 1931), which had songs by composer Arthur Schwartz and lyricist Howard Dietz. During its 262-performance run, Astaire, as the featured vocalist for Leo Reisman and His Orch., had a two-sided hit record with its songs “I Love Louisa” and “New Sun in the Sky.”

Despite his success onstage and on records, Astaire was considered the less- talented member of the dancing team, since Adele was also a gifted comedienne. When she retired to marry Lord Charles Cavendish, the son of the Duke of Devonshire, in 1932, her brother’s future seemed doubtful. But he found success with the Cole Porter show Gay Divorce (N.Y., Nov. 29, 1932), which ran 248 performances on Broadway and featured “Night and Day.” Astaire’s recording of the song (again with Reisman) became a massive hit in December 1932. On July 12, 1933, he married divorced socialite Phyllis Livingston Baker Potter. They had two children and remained married until Mrs. Astaire’s death from cancer on Sept. 13, 1954.

Astaire signed a film contract with RKO, which immediately loaned him out to MGM for a cameo in Dancing Lady (1933), his movie debut. Within weeks of that movie’s opening in December, Astaire’s first RKO film, Flying Down to Rio, appeared. He was second-billed, but he and Ginger Rogers stole the picture with their dancing. Astaire also had a double-sided record hit in April 1934 with two songs from the film, the title tune and “Music Makes Me” (both music by Vincent Youmans, lyrics by Edward Eliscu and Gus Kahn). After appearing in the London production of Gay Divorce, Astaire returned to Hollywood permanently.

Astaire and Rogers repeated their success with 1934’s The Gay Divorcée, based on the similarly titled Porter show though retaining only “Night and Day” from the original score. Their third movie outing was Kern’s Roberta (1935), followed by Berlin’s Top Hat (1935), which featured “Cheek to Cheek”; Astaire’s recording topped the hit parade in September and October, and he also reached the hit parade with the title song, “Isn’t This a Lovely Day,” “No Strings,” and “Piccolino,” all from the film, which became the biggest financial success of any of the Astaire-Rogers pictures.

Astaire’s next entry on the hit parade came with his own composition, “I’m Building Up to an Awful Letdown” (lyrics by Johnny Mercer), in February 1936. The following month, “Let Yourself Go,” “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” and “I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket”—all from Follow the Fleet (1936), all written by Irving Berlin—reached the hit parade. Kern and Fields wrote the songs for the sixth Astaire-Rogers film, Swing Time (1936). From it, Astaire’s reading of “The Way You Look Tonight” topped the hit parade in October and November, and “A Fine Romance” also made the list.

Astaire hosted his own radio program, The Fred Astaire Show, over NBC during the 1936-37 season. The Gershwins handled the songs for the next Astaire-Rogers film, Shall We Dance (1937), from which Astaire’s recordings of “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” and “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” were hit parade entries in May. But after seven straight screen pairings with Rogers, Astaire was costarred with nondancer Joan Fontaine for his next picture, A Damsel in Distress (1937). The Gershwin score featured “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” which entered the hit parade for Astaire in November, though the film was a disappointment at the box office. RKO reteamed Astaire and Rogers for Carefree (1938), with songs by Berlin including “Change Partners,” which topped the hit parade for Astaire in October and November 1938, but the film failed to return its relatively high production cost. The ninth Astaire-Rogers film, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939), was billed as their last; a screen biography rather than their usual formula, it was another box office failure, and Astaire left RKO.

Astaire freelanced for different studios in the early 1940s, continuing to sing the songs of the great songwriters. Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940) and You’ll Never Get Rich (1941) had scores by Cole Porter; Holiday Inn (1942) and Blue Skies (1946), in which Astaire costarred with Bing Crosby, were Irving Berlin films; You Were Never Lovelier (1942) was by Kern; The Sky’s the Limit (1943) by Harold Arlen; and Yolanda and the Thief (1945) was by Harry Warren.

Astaire announced his retirement in 1946, and the following year he launched a successful string of dance schools. But he stepped in for Gene Kelly in Easter Parade (1948) after Kelly was injured; the film also starred Judy Garland and had songs by Berlin. Set to appear opposite Garland again in The Barkleys of Broadway, which had songs by Harry Warren and Ira Gershwin, Astaire instead was teamed for a final time with Ginger Rogers when Garland became ill.

Astaire worked steadily in film in the early 1950s, always with top-flight songwriters. Three Little Words (1950) was a screen biography of songwriters Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmar; Let’s Dance (1950) had a score by Frank Loesser; the songs for Royal Wedding (1951) were by Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner, among them the popular novelty tune “How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Loved You When You Know I’ve Been a Liar All My Life,” which Astaire recorded with his costar, Jane Powell; The Belle of New York (1951) was by Warren; and The Band Wagon (1953) retained the Schwartz-Dietz songs, if little else, from Astaire’s 1931 stage triumph.

In December 1952, Astaire rerecorded four LPs’ worth of the popular songs from his film career backed by a jazz ensemble for the box set The Astaire Story . In 1954 he decided on another retirement that proved no more final than the first one. After Daddy Long Legs (1955), which had songs by Johnny Mercer, he made film versions of his stage success Funny Face and the Cole Porter show Silk Stockings, both released in 1957, but these essentially marked the close of his three-decade career in movie musicals. In 1959 he published his autobiography, Steps in Time .

Astaire turned to television in the late 1950s, making a straight acting debut on General Electric Theater with “Imp on a Cobweb Leash” in December 1957, and starring in three award-winning specials: An Evening with Fred Astaire (1958), Another Evening with Fred Astaire (1959), and Astaire Time (1960). (He did a fourth special, The Fred Astaire Show, in 1968.) From 1961 to 1963 he was the host and an occasional actor in the dramatic anthology series Alcoa Premiere . His only significant film role during this period was in the post-apocalyptic drama On the Beach (1959).

Astaire returned to film musicals with Finian’s Rainbow (1968), based on the 1947 stage production by Burton Lane and E. Y. Harburg. It was not a success, but the soundtrack album spent six months in the charts.

Astaire continued to appear occasionally on television and in unmemorable films in the early 1970s. In 1974 he was one of the hosts of the MGM anthology film That’s Entertainment!, reprising his role with That’s Entertainment, Part 2, two years later. Also in 1974, he had a supporting role in the disaster film The Towering Inferno that surprisingly earned him his only Academy Award nomination. (He had been presented with a special Oscar in 1949 for his contributions to film musicals.) He won an Emmy Award as Best Actor in a Drama Special for the 1978 TV movie A Family Upside Down .

A fan of horse racing, Astaire married one of the sport’s few female jockeys, Robyn Smith, who was in her mid-thirties, on June 24, 1980. He made his final acting appearance in a film with Ghost Story in 1981, though he also appeared in the documentary George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey in 1985. Astaire died of pneumonia in 1987 at age 88.

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