Fred Astaire is a renowned Hollywood performer from the Golden Age of cinema, who is still remembered fondly today for his remarkable talent. Astaire’s mastery of the stage was the result of his relentless hard work, which enabled him to achieve the grace and elegance that made his dancing so famous. However, even with all his accomplishments, Astaire faced failure at some point. Despite experiencing setbacks, he refused to be defeated and ultimately proved his worth to those around him.
Astaire’s Early Life
Frederick Austerlitz, who later became known as Fred Astaire, was born on May 10, 1899 in Omaha, Nebraska to parents Frederic “Fritz” Austerlitz and Johanna “Ann” Austerlitz. Astaire had an older sister named Adele, who was a talented singer and dancer from a young age.
Ann wanted to use her children’s talents to move the family out of Omaha, so she created a brother and sister act for Fred and Adele. Although Fred initially resisted dance lessons, he quickly learned to mimic his sister’s moves and became proficient in playing the clarinet, piano, and accordion.
In 1905, the family moved to New York City after Fritz lost his job. Ann decided to change their surname to Astaire, as she felt that “Austerlitz” was too closely associated with the Battle of Austerlitz. Fred and Adele enrolled in the Alviene Master School of the Theatre and Academy of Cultural Arts to develop their singing, dancing, and speaking abilities.
The siblings’ first act consisted of Fred wearing a top hat and tails in the first half and a lobster outfit in the second half. With the help of their father’s salesmanship, they secured a major contract and were able to perform on the Orpheum Circuit throughout the South, West, and Midwest.
Fred and his sister were both involved in show business, but because Fred was shorter than his sister, they took a two-year break to allow him to grow and avoid issues with child labor laws. Upon their return, they added tap dancing and ballroom dancing to their repertoire, and Fred became responsible for the music at age 14.
Their act became more popular over time, and they performed on the London stage and Broadway in the 1920s. Fred was highly regarded as a talented tap dancer during this time. Eventually, they went to Hollywood for a screen test at Paramount Pictures after the close of the stage musical Funny Face. However, Paramount did not think they were suitable for film roles.
The Split of the Siblings
After Fred’s brother-sister dancing act ended, things became difficult for him as his sister Adele was planning to get married to Lord Charles Cavendish. With no partner, Fred had to pursue success on his own. He found success in London and on Broadway with Gay Divorce and began receiving offers from Hollywood.
The split from his sister was difficult for Fred, but it also pushed him to expand his range. He partnered with Claire Luce and took a more romantic approach to his dancing. He felt that Cole Porter’s Night and Day, written for Gay Divorce, was the perfect piece to showcase his new style. However, he was still used to dancing with his sister and had to be encouraged by Luce to be more romantic. She told him, “Come on, Fred, I’m not your sister, you know.”
Rejected by Several Producers
In addition to the challenges of ending his partnership with his sister, Fred Astaire also faced setbacks in his pursuit of a career in movies. He underwent several screen tests that ultimately led to multiple rejections from film producers. In fact, RKO Radio Pictures released one of his screen test reports publicly, which read, “Can’t act. Slightly bald. Also dances.”
Despite the negative feedback, Astaire eventually broke into the film industry thanks to David O. Selznick, who signed him to RKO and commissioned his screen test. Selznick wrote a memo that acknowledged Astaire’s physical flaws but also praised his charm and screen presence.
RKO still had plans for Astaire, and he made his film debut in the musical Dancing Lady. He went on to make nine films at RKO with his new partner, Ginger Rogers, including The Gay Divorcee, Roberta, Follow the Fleet, Top Hat, Shall We Dance, Carefree, and Swing Time.
After making nine films with RKO, Fred Astaire left the studio in 1939 to look for other film opportunities as a freelancer. He had mixed results, but he did partner with Eleanor Powell, who was considered the best female tap dancer of her generation.
Astaire went on to appear in several other movies, including Holiday Inn and Blue Skies with Bing Crosby. Although he wasn’t pleased with some of the roles where he lost the girl to Crosby, the films were successful.
Over time, Astaire appeared in many more films, and he became known as one of the greatest dancers in film history. However, on June 22, 1987, Astaire passed away from pneumonia.
Fred Astaire’s success in dancing and film was not without its challenges. The end of his partnership with his sister and being rejected by multiple film producers were difficult times for him. However, he persevered through the obstacles.
Astaire’s story teaches us an important lesson: even in times of despair and failure, we should keep pushing forward. With determination and persistence, our efforts will eventually pay off. Astaire never gave up on his passion for dancing or his dream of making it in films, and his persistence eventually led to his triumph.