Fred and Ginger are the screen’s most famous dancing partners, yet each had careers beforehand on the stage. Fred Austerlitz (1899-1987) of Omaha, Nebraska partnered with sister Adele (initially the more famous of the two) in vaudeville and on the stage in musicals such as, The Band Wagon, before signing with RKO. Fred was not so great as a solo dancer despite popular belief. Rather it was his grace in partnered dancing that made him a world-wide phenomenon.
Astaire’s routines with Ginger Rogers (born Virginia McMath; 1911-1995), usually created by or with Hermes Pan as choreographer involved a mix of ballroom, tap and balletic dancing in which Ginger matched his body movements perfectly. Ginger had won a Charleston contest at age 15 that put her on a vaudeville circuit that brought her to Tucson’s Rialto Theatre in 1927 where manager Roy Drachman fell instantly in love with her, but found her mother was omnipresent.
Fred was pencil-thin and in a tuxedo that resembled the popular streamlined art (Depression Modern) of the time and Ginger had the thirties “look” – moon-faced, blonde (not naturally) and curvilinear. Ginger had played wise-cracking street-wise gals in early firms, prompting Katharine Hepburn to describe their pairing: “She gave him sex and he gave her class.” Astaire also introduced many popular song standards and occasionally wrote musical hits himself. The RKO films of the thirties with Ginger remain the gold standard for witnessing the magic of these two, often said to be a trio, since Ginger’s flowing dresses and scarves also helped to make up the composition of flowing curves and arm gestures that complemented their routines.