Nebraska's Fred Astaire

Monday, November 10, 2014
Fred Astaire

(Note: Nebraska has a wealth of folks who have become famous on the American scene, in virtually all walks of life, including the silver screen. Today we'd like to take a look at one with ties to Plainview, Neb.)

Fred Astaire, that symbol of elegance and grace, with his top hat, white tie and tails, can often be seen dancing with his favorite dancing partner, Ginger Rogers on the Old Movie Channels yet today. Occasionally something is said of his roots in Nebraska (Omaha), but I like to remember a dear lady in Plainview, Nebraska who remembered Fred and his older sister, Adele, in Plainview, before they were either sophisticated or famous.

Like so many of us, my parents, wanting to expose me to some of the finer things in life, arranged for me to take piano lessons when I was a boy. It was a difficult project. I would like to blame my failure to learn to play the piano on my music teacher, but my sister took lessons from the same teacher and the experience led her into a life of music, so I can't use that excuse.

Though I hated to practice at home, I liked to go to my piano lesson. My teacher, Mrs. Andy Hansen, was a fine lady who had begun giving piano lessons after her husband died, sometime in the early 1920s. She would scold me for my lack of practice, but she could also get distracted when I asked her about the early days in Plainview. She had wonderful stories to tell and I know we both enjoyed that much more than her correcting all the wrong notes I struck when I struggled through my lesson.

Mr. and Mrs. Hansen had come to Nebraska shortly after the turn of the century. Mr. Hansen had gone to work for a fellow named Austerlitz, an immigrant brewer from Austria, who operated the downtown hotel and adjoining saloon.

Mr. Austerlitz lived in an upstairs apartment in the hotel, and each summer his son's family would visit in Plainview, from Omaha. Sometimes the younger Mrs. Austerlitz and her two children, Adele and younger brother Freddie, would stay in Plainview for several weeks. During this time the children were a familiar sight around the hotel, and according to Mrs. Hansen, sometimes were something of a nuisance. They rocked their chairs too violently in the lobby, they bothered the cooks in the kitchen, and they threw things from the upstairs balcony on unsuspecting passers-by on the sidewalk below. But mostly what Mrs. Hansen recalled was how the two children loved to dance. Adele was taking dancing lessons in Omaha and delighted in showing Freddie the steps she had learned -- leaps and plies and prancing -- from her ballet class, which they regularly performed on the sidewalk in front of the hotel. Mrs. Hansen said she would like to say that she had seen their dancing potential even then, but the truth was that what she saw was that the children all too often took up too much of the sidewalk in front of the hotel with their "dancing" and bothered the folks passing by.

Freddie was only 5 or 6 when Mrs. Austerlitz moved with the children to New York, where Adele could obtain more and better dance lessons. (Mr. Austerlitz stayed in Omaha to work and sent the family money.) Mrs. Austerlitz changed the family name to Astaire, and began to push the youngsters to a career on the Broadway stage. During the 1920s Fred and Adele were something of a sensation as a dancing duo, not only in New York, but in London as well. During this time the pair mingled with royalty, and Adele was smitten with the life the English royalty led. In 1932 she broke up the team of Astaire and Astaire, when she married Lord Charles Cavendish, effectively leaving the family in America to live in England.

On his own, Fred traveled to Hollywood, deciding that his future lay in making motion pictures. Even though he had been successful on the stage, the studios were at first less than encouraging. After his first screen test, for Paramount Studios, one executive wrote, "He can't sing. He can't act. He's slightly balding. He dances a little."

Two things happened in 1932 for Astaire -- 1. He signed a contract with RKO Studios, where most of his top musicals of the day were filmed, and 2. He teamed up with Ginger Rogers. It seemed to be a partnership made in heaven, for the two proceeded to become the most popular dance team of all time. Said Katharine Hepburn, "He gives her class, and she gives him sex appeal." Whatever it was, the two starred in many of the top musicals of the 30s, a decade especially rich in musicals, on stage and screen, bringing a bit of the glamorous life to depression America.

Astaire was a virtuoso dancer -- a stickler for detail. He would insist on as many retakes of a scene as it took to get that scene perfect. Yet the finished product showed Astaire dancing effortlessly, with great joy, or deep emotion, as demanded by the script.

Fred Astaire drew from various influences in his dance -- tap, or Afro-American styles, like Bo Jangles, as well as the classical styles of Vernon and Irene Castle -- even classical ballet. He had great influence on other dancers, from ballet star, Beryshnikov, to tap dancer, Gregory Hines. Beryshnikov once said, "When you see him (Astaire) dance, you think that the rest of us are in the wrong business."

Astaire was modest by nature and did not consider himself to be a singer, yet he popularized songs by composers such as Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, and Cole Porter, who wrote music just for him. The Great American Songbook said that Astaire had introduced more songs for their songbook than any other singer.

Though his screen partnership with Ginger Rogers was the most famous, the list of performers he teamed with reads like a Who's Who of Hollywood -- Bing Crosby, Eleanor Powell, Paulette Goddard, Rita Hayworth, Joan Leslie, Lucille Bremer, Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Petula Clark, Vera Ellen, Cyd Charisse, Bill Robinson, Leslie Caron, and Barrie Chase, among others -- in some 30 musical over a 25 year period.

Toward the end of his career he tried to give up dancing and concentrate on a serious acting career. Although he was successful, notably in "On the Beach" and "The Towering Inferno," for which he received an Academy Award nomination, he is remembered chiefly for his dancing and those musicals he popularized -- from the 1920s and 30s.

He received an honorary Oscar in 1950 for "His unique artistry and contributions to the technique of musical pictures." He won TV Emmys in 1961 and 1978. In 1978 he was awarded a Kennedy Honors Award. In 1981 the American film Institute awarded him their "Lifetime Achievement Award".

Astaire was something of a male fashion icon, with his trademark top hat, spats, white tie, tails, and cane -- a far cry from his Nebraska roots certainly. But the truth was that he despised that fancy image. He much preferred a casual style of slacks and rather splashy sports jackets. The formal wear he considered "his work clothes".

Astaire was married twice. His first wife was a New York Socialite, Phyllis Livingston Potter, who passed away with cancer in 1954. The couple had two children, neither of whom followed their father into a film career.

Astaire was ever the practical joker, and a lifelong horse racing fan. He even had his own stable of horses. His friend, David Niven told how after one race, in which his horse won, Fred mischievously painted all of his Beverly Hills neighbors' mailboxes with his racing colors.

In 1979, at the age of 80, Astaire astonished his friends, when he married for the second time. His bride, nearly 50 years his junior, was Robyn Smith, an actress turned horse jockey (successfully). The two lived happily together until his death in 1987.

Fred Astaire returned to Nebraska seldom, after leaving in 1904, perhaps to Omaha, but never again to Plainview. This is too bad. He certainly would have returned to a hero's welcome. For Plainview still considers Fred as a native son, even if it was just for summer vacations. Today, in the original saloon of the former Austerlitz Hotel (now a very friendly restaurant), hangs a picture of (adult dancers) Adele and Fred -- top hat, white tie, cane and all.

Source: Wikipedia, the Internet encyclopedia and Conversations with Mrs. Hansen

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