The University of Arizona has a considerable collection of Fred Astaire sheet music from his earliest days partnering with sister Adele Astaire through his golden period with RKO Pictures.
Fred Astaire (May 10, 1899 – June 22, 1987) was considered the most graceful partnered dancer in vaudeville, theater and movie history. He was not, as is often thought, the greatest technical dancer of all time, not the greatest tapper or acrobatic or eccentric dancer but rather the dancer who raised cinematic partnered dancing to a true art form with his partner Ginger Rogers. In the 1930s in particular he was a symbol of elegance and modern streamlining of form which reflected the contemporary Depression Art style as developed by industrial designers such as Norman Bel Geddes, Raymond Loewy and Russell Wright and displayed at the 1933 Chicago Century of Progress, the same year that Astaire’s popularity really took off.
Fred was born in Omaha, Nebraska to an Austrian father and an American mother. Early on Fred’s two years older sister Adele showed a remarkable talent for all kinds of dancing and also was a creditable singer and Fred apprenticed her and the two worked up an act together in which sometimes Fred also played piano, accordion and clarinet. The family, sensing that they had extraordinarily talented children, moved to New York City and enrolled them at the Alviene Master School of the Theatre and Academy of Cultural Arts.
As a pre-teen act they scored a big success everywhere they performed and immediately so that it was necessary to simplify and Americanize their family name which was changed to Astaire. By 1910, they had a major contract to play the Orpheum Circuit and were even appearing on sheet music. When Adele had a growth spurt in her teens it made their paired dancing look awkward and the bookings declined. A major influence of the time was the craze for dramatic dancing which swept the country. High society dance stars became all the rage with such names as Vernon and Irene Castle and Maurice and Florence Walton topping the famous duos. Both of these paired dancers had begun to incorporate various forms of dancing into their acts and the Astaire kids decided to do this too in order to give their act greater variety. Fred was influenced by Bojangles Robinson and Buck and Bubbles, the tap dancing team. Aurlio Coccia, a dancer in vaudeville in shows with them, taught them the popular tango dance of the time. The Astaires became the juvenile form of the Castles, even imitating them at times, and finally in 1917 reaching Broadway in a World War I salute program called Over the Top.
Fred was becoming known for his hard work of preparation of dance numbers, his desire to match every step and hand gesture of his sister’s clearly and precisely and his graceful movement. Throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s the Astaires won acclaim in the theater world with legendary shows such as Lady Be Good (1924), Funny Face (1927) and The Band Wagon (1931) in America AND London where they also became increasingly famous. But in 1931, Adele met and quickly married (1932) British Lord Charles Cavendish and moved to Ireland to live in a huge castle, fulfilling a childhood dream of hers. But this left Fred alone to explore a world of dancing possibilities but also to seek new partners to continue the partnered dancing for which he had become already famous.
Fred’s next triumph in America and London was called The Gay Divorce, later made into the movie The Gay Divorcee. This eventually led to secondary leads in movies for MGM and RKO Pictures. He was first, regrettably, partnered with Joan Crawford, an undisciplined dancer who could not be matched in skill to Astaire. This was followed by Flying Down to Rio which featured some dancing with Dolores Del Rio that was unexceptional but which introduced him to Ginger Rogers with whom a series of extraordinarily successful films were made in which Fred’s streamlined look and curvilinear dancing patterns dovetailed with the Depression Modern sets and Bakelite floors to create not only delightful entertainment but a particular look and stylization for these movies such as The Gay Divorcee and Top Hat.
RKO worried about Fred’s lack of good looks but by pairing him with the stylish Ginger Rogers he was given sex appeal. Fred, Ginger and choreographer Hermes Pan devised fluid and graceful numbers not necessarily a 10 on the scale of difficulty to execute but which required extraordinary congruency of form in order for each to match the graceful movements of the other exactly. The slow motion dancing sequence in Carefree (1938) shows this exactly and also shows how Ginger’s gowns were actually the third partners in each scene as her accessories, even flowing scarves, were incorporated into the dance.
Astaire was never the magical talent that he was in the thirties because he got older and seemed more and more incongruous being paired with much younger women in his romantic story entanglements (the movie version of Funny Face being a prime example as his relationship with Audrey Hepburn in that film seems rather squiffy). The second problem was that it was difficult to find partners for Fred who could match the incredible ability to follow his steps that Ginger Rogers had. Besides noting her great beauty, it is difficult to overestimate her ability to match Fred gesture for gesture and her knack for reflecting the set design behind her– blonde, curvilinear and streamlined. As Katherine Hepburn once reportedly said– “She gives him sex and he gives her class.”
Some of his partners were quite woeful– Joan Leslie, Audrey Hepburn, Joan Crawford, Dolores Del Rio– but others were quite good even though the material and set design wasn’t always up to RKO standards. Rita Hayworth, daughter of the famous dancing Cansino couple, provided surprisingly excellent support for Fred in two lower budget Columbia Pictures. At MGM Cyd Charisse was too large for him and really primarily a superb ballerina, while Eleanor Powell, a great tapper in her own right, was never a paired dancer and failed dismally at matching his movements or getting him to match hers. The best of all the movie dancers with Fred, even including Ginger, was unquestionably Vera-Ellen. Vera was, simply put, one of the greatest and most versatile dancers who ever lived and the Astaire-Vera-Ellen version of songs such as Thinking of You from Three Little Words (1950) is arguably the finest short piece of partnered dancing ever put on film. On television, although by now well into his fifties, Astaire partnered with young Barrie Chase in a series of well-done television specials but they could not approach the Astaire-Rogers or Astaire Vera-Ellen pairing. It should be noted that Vera-Ellen did an Astaire-type dance with, of all people, Donald O’Connor in the film Call Me Madam (1953) to the song It’s a Lovely Day Today which matches the Astaire-Vera-Ellen dancing in quality even though it is little known today. O’Connor credited Vera with “teaching me a lot about this kind of dancing”.
The University of Arizona School of Anthropology has a large collection of Fred Astaire sheet music including the following titles:
TIA-DA-DA TIA-DA DA MY CROONY MELODY 1914 – by Joe Goodwin and Ray Goetz. Inset photo of FRED AND ADELE ASTAIRE. Fred is 14 years old and already beginning to be noticed. Sister Adele is 17. It is their first known appearance on sheet music.
DANCING IN THE DARK and I LOVE LOUISA 1931 – by Arthur Schwartz. Both from The Band Wagon theatrical production with cover images of FRED ASTAIRE, ADELE ASTAIRE, HELEN BRODERICK, FRANK MORGAN and TILLY LOSCH. The show had a book by George S. Kaufman and Howard Dietz and featured dances by Albertina Rasch, set design by Albert Johnson and staging by Hassard Short.
YESTERDAYS, I WON’T DANCE, SMOKE GETS IN YOUR EYES, and THE TOUCH OF YOUR HAND 1933, all from the motion picture ROBERTA, with cover images of FRED ASTAIRE and GINGER ROGERS, and IRENE DUNNE. Music by Otto Harbach and Jerome Kern, for RKO Radio Pictures.
MUSIC MAKES ME, ORCHIDS IN THE MOONLIGHT (2 versions), CARIOCA 1933, by Vincent Youmans, Gus Kahn, Edward Eliscu, all from the motion picture FLYING DOWN TO RIO, with cover images of FRED ASTAIRE and GINGER ROGERS. Starring Dolores Del Rio, with Raoul Roulien. Directed by Thornton Freeland. Executive Producer Merian C. Cooper.
DON’T LET IT BOTHER YOU (by Mack Gordon, Harry Revel), A NEEDLE IN A HAYSTACK (Herb Magidson, Con Conrad), NIGHT AND DAY (Cole Porter), THE CONTINENTAL (Conrad and Magidson) 1934 with FRED ASTAIRE and GINGER ROGERS, “The King and Queen of Carioca) in THE GAY DIVORCEE.
TOP HAT, WHITE TIE AND TAILS (American and British sheet music), CHEEK TO CHEEK (2 versions), ISN’T THIS A LOVELY DAY (TO BE CAUGHT IN THE RAIN)?, THE PICCOLINO 1935 by Irving Berlin. Cover FRED ASTAIRE and GINGER ROGERS. RKO Radio Pictures.
BOJANGLES OF HARLEM, THE WAY YOU LOOK TO-NIGHT 1936 by Dorothy Fields, Jerome Kern. Cover photo of FRED ASTAIRE, GINGER ROGERS in SWING TIME.
BUT WHERE ARE YOU?, I’M PUTTING ALL MY EGGS IN ONE BASKET, LET’S FACE THE MUSIC AND DANCE, WE SAW THE SEA, LET YOURSELF GO 1936 by Irving Berlin. Cover FRED ASTAIRE, GINGER ROGERS in FOLLOW THE FLEET. Produced by Pandro S. Berman. Directed by Mark Sandrich for RKO Pictures.
LET’S CALL THE WHOLE THING OFF, THEY CAN’T TAKE THAT AWAY FROM ME 1937 by George and Ira Gershwin. Cover FRED ASTAIRE, GINGER ROGERS in SHALL WE DANCE. Produced by Pandro S. Berman. Co-starring Edward Everett Horton, Eric Blore, Harriet Hoctor.
NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT by George and Ira Gershwin, 1937. Cover image of FRED ASTAIRE, GEORGE BURNS and GRACIE ALLEN, JOAN FONTAINE in A DAMSEL IN DISTRESS, with Reginald Gardiner and Ray Noble. Produced by Pandro S. Berman. Directed by George Stevens. RKO Radio Pictures.
CHANGE PARTNERS (2 versions), I USED TO BE COLOR BLIND, THE YAM 1938 by Irving Berlin. Cover FRED ASTAIRE, GINGER ROGERS in CAREFREE.
TOO MUCH MUSTARD CASTLE WALK 1939 by Cecil Macklin. Cover FRED ASTAIRE, GINGER ROGERS in the motion picture THE STORY OF VERNON AND IRENE CASTLE.
I’VE GOT MY EYES ON YOU, BEGIN THE BEGUINE by Cole Porter. Cover FRED ASTAIRE, ELEANOR POWELL in BROADWAY MELODY OF 1940. A Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Picture. This marked the beginning of Astaire’s move to MGM.
LIMEHOUSE BLUES (Douglas Furber, Philip Braham) and THIS HEART OF MINE (Arthur Freed, Harry Warren). Cover FRED ASTAIRE, LUCILLE BREMER in the motion picture ZIEGFELD FOLLIES. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures.
COFFEE TIME, ANGEL, THIS IS A DAY FOR LOVE by Harry Warren, Arthur Freed, 1945. Cover FRED ASTAIRE, LUCILE BREMER in YOLANDA AND THE THIEF, with Frank Morgan, Mildred Natwick, Mary Nash, Leon Ames. Directed by Vincente Minelli. Produced by Arthur Freed.
THEY CAN’T TAKE THAT AWAY FROM ME (2 versions) by George and Ira Gershwin, 1949. Cover FRED ASTAIRE, GINGER ROGERS in THE BA
RKLEYS OF BROADWAY, with Oscar Levant, Billie Burke, Gail Robbins, Jacques Francois. Screen play by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Produced by Arthur Freed. From MGM.
BABY DOLL by Johnny Mercer and Harry Warren, 1952. Cover FRED ASTAIRE, VERA-ELLEN in the motion picture THE BELLE OF NEW YORK, with Marjorie Main, Keenan Wynn, Alice Pearce, Clinton Sundberg, Gail Robbins. Produced by Arthur Freed. Directed by Charles Walters. Screen play by Robert O’Brien, Irving Ellinson.
Here’s a short clip from Three Little Words (1950), an MGM classic musical in which Fred Astaire and Vera-Ellen (and Vera’s dress) all participate in one of the most beautiful short dance routines ever put on film. Many dance afficianados believe that his work with Vera was the technical and aesthetic high point of his partnered dances: