The Kennedy Center

Fred Astaire


Fred Astaire
(dancer, actor; born May 10, 1899, Omaha, Nebraska; died June 22, 1987)

When one thinks of Fred Astaire, the words, grace, style, and elegance come to mind. He appeared in over 40 films from 1933 to 1977, ten of which also starred Ginger Rogers, including Swing Time, Top Hat, The Gay Divorcee, and Carefree. Astaire also captured audiences on the small screen with his television specials, "An Evening With Fred Astaire," "Another Evening With Fred Astaire," "Astaire Time," and "The Fred Astaire Show."

Born Frederick Austerlitz in Omaha, Nebraska, Astaire began his performing career at the young age of 4 when his mother carried him and his sister, Adele, to New York to study dance at the best school she could find. Adele and Fred made their professional debut in Keyport, New Jersey, after less than a year of school, as the Astaires. The local paper praised the duo as "the greatest child act in vaudeville." The Astaires enjoyed five years of success, but Adele soon grew and blossomed while Fred remained a skinny kid, making it difficult for the two to dance together. As they grew older, Fred caught up with Adele, and they began performing together again, this time in a string of stage hits on Broadway and in London. Suddenly they were hobnobbing with royalty in London, where Adele met her future husband Lord Charles Cavendish.

Adele quit the stage upon marrying Cavendish in 1932, leaving Fred alone to figure out his future plans. Astaire married Phyllis Potter, a New York socialite, and headed for Hollywood. An earlier trip to Hollywood had ended with a disappointing screen test when a Paramount executive wrote about Astaire's performance: "Can't act. Can't sing. Balding. Can dance a little." The next visit transformed Astaire into a screen star. His second film, Flying Down to Rio, paired him with Ginger Rogers, whom he had met in New York. Their performance dazzled audiences across the nation and sent the twosome dancing their way through eight more movie musicals.

Astaire was voted Money-Making Star in the Motion Picture Herald Fame Polls for three years in a row from 1935 to 1937, and in 1949, he won an honorary Oscar for "raising the standards of all musicals." His fancy footwork also earned him nine Emmy Awards in 1958 and 1959--very impressive for a man who once said, "I never thought a funny-looking guy like me would be suitable for pictures."

In the later years of Astaire's life, he led a very private life. Crushed by the death of his wife, he became even closer to his children. In 1973, he met Robyn Smith, a jockey, who filled the empty space left by his wife's death. The two were married in 1980, and many credit Smith for Astaire's happiness in his last years. He died in her arms at age 88 of pneumonia.

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