PEOPLE IN AMERICA -- a VOA Special English program about famousAmericans of the past. Today, Harry Monroe and Kay Gallant tell thestory of dancer and movie star, Fred Astaire.Graphic Image
The year is Nineteen Thirty-Two. The United States is sufferingthe greatest economic depression in its history. Jobs are hard tofind.
One young man is attempting to get a job dancing in the movies.Earlier, he and his sister had made a short film showing how theydanced and sang. A motion picture company official watches the film.He writes this about the young man: "Can't act. Can't sing. Slightlybald. Can dance a little."
Even with this poor report, the young man still gets a job in themovies. And -- in time -- his acting, singing and dancing changedthe American motion picture musical. His name was Fred Astaire.
((TAPE CUT One: "I Want to Be a Dancing Man"))
Fred Astaire was born in the middle western city of Omaha,Nebraska, in Eighteen Ninety-Nine. He was the second child of anAustrian beer maker, Frederick Austerlitz, and his wife, Ann GeliusAusterlitz. Fred and his sister, Adele, learned to dance when theywere very young. Their mother took them to New York to study dance.They performed in their first professional show when Fred was tenyears old and Adele was twelve. Later, as teen-agers, the two dancedin many shows throughout the United States.
p>Their first big success was on Broadway in Nineteen-Seventeen.One critic wrote that Fred danced as if he had no bones.Graphic Image
The Astaires -- as they were known -- quickly became Broadwaystars. During the Nineteen-Twenties, they sang and danced in elevendifferent shows. They also performed in England.
In Nineteen Thirty-Two, Adele Astaire married a British man, andstopped performing. Critics had always considered her a betterdancer than her brother. But Fred did not give up. He would go onalone ... in the movies. Many years later in the film, "TheBandwagon," he played a man in a similar situation.
((TAPE CUT Two: "By Myself, Alone"))
One of Fred's first films was called, "Flying Down To Rio." Itwas in this movie that he first danced with a young woman namedGinger Rogers.Graphic Image
Fred and Ginger were not the starsof the picture. But when they danced this dance, The Carioca,everyone knew that something important was happening in the world ofmovie dancing.
((TAPE CUT Three: "The Carioca"))
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made nine movies together. Theirdancing was considered -- and still is considered -- the bestballroom dancing in the world.
Dance critic Arlene Croce wrote: "Astaire and Rogers became themost popular team the movies have ever known. Their dancing was avehicle of serious emotion between a man and a woman. It neverhappened in the movies again."
Many great American song writers wanted to write songs for Fredand Ginger. Among them were Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter,and George and Ira Gershwin. They liked the way Fred sang a song. Hedid it simply, with respect for the words. One of these songs wasCole Porter's "Night and Day." Fred sang it to Ginger in the movie,"The Gay Divorcee."Graphic Image
((TAPE CUT Four: "Night and Day"))
Fred Astaire made forty other films. In addition to GingerRogers, he danced with many other talented women. Rita Hayworth.Eleanor Powell. Judy Garland. Cyd Charisse. Leslie Caron.
Fred also danced alone in some very unusual places. He danced upwalls and on the ceiling in the film, "Royal Wedding". He danced onrooftops in "The Belle of New York". He danced on roller skates in"Shall We Dance?". And he danced with firecrackers exploding at hisfeet in "Holiday Inn".Graphic Image
Fred Astaire made all this look easy. But it was not.
Critics have said his technical skill was the greatest in thehistory of the movie musical. He said: "Dancing is a sweat job. Youcannot just sit down and do it. You have to get up on your feet. Ittakes time to get a dance right, to create something memorable. Ialways try to get to know my dance so well that I do not have tothink, 'what comes next?'. Everything should fall into line. Andthen I know I have got control of the floor."
Before each movie was filmed, Fred Astaire and his partner workedfor as many as six weeks to plan each step and movement. He alsoplanned how the cameras would photograph them, so that as muchdancing as possible could be filmed at one time.
Earlier, movie directors had photographed dancers showing onepart of their body at a time as they danced. Fred would not permitthis. He wanted movie-goers to see his whole body at all times. Andhe would not permit any camera tricks to make his dancing appearsmoother or faster than it was.
In Nineteen Forty-Nine, Fred Astaire won a special award for hisfilm work from America's Motion Picture Academy. He also won awardsfrom the television industry for a number of his televisionprograms.
Fred stopped dancing in Nineteen-Seventy. He was more thanseventy years old at the time. He said a dancer could not continuedancing forever. He said he did not want to disappoint anyone, evenhimself. He danced again in public only once after that. It was withanother great male dancer, Gene Kelly, in the movie, "That'sEntertainment, Part Two".
Fred did not always appear as a dancing man. He had a dramaticpart in the movie, "On The Beach", in Nineteen Fifty-Nine. And hestarred in a non-dancing television series called, "It Takes aThief".
Fred Astaire and his first wife, Phyllis, raised three children.Phyllis died in Nineteen Fifty-Four. Twenty-five years later, Fredmarried race horse rider Robyn Smith.
Fred Astaire died on June Twenty-Second, Nineteen Eighty-Seven.He was eighty-eight years old. He was called the greatest dancer inthe world. His dancing was called perfect. And movie-goerseverywhere will remember him as a great performer whose work willlive forever in his films.
((TAPE CUT Five: "I Want to Be a Dancing Man"))
You have been listening to People In America -- a program inSpecial English on the Voice of America. This program was written byNancy Steinbach. Kay Gallant and Harry Monroe were the narrators.I'm Shirley Griffith.