Before Twi-hards, Potter-mania, and High School Musical Menageries, Fred Astaire shuffle-ball-changed onto the movie screens of America and vaulted into stardom as a celebrity icon of dance and song in an age of innovative filmmaking with happily-ever-after endings. Throughout the 1930s and 40s Astaire integrated dance onto stage and film as more than merely a spectacle of miscellaneous mass-mechanized choreography. Instead, lengthy solos and steady-shot cameras offered dance numbers that served as a device to move the plot along and to shift focus to the individual actors, creating a public persona that imparted a gentlemanly elegance to an otherwise conventional “nice boy meets girl, boy dances with girl, boy and girl live in a magical world of music forever” storyline. By the 1950s Astaire was a celebrity in the new ‘popular’ culture of mainstream American media, alongside heartthrobs like James Dean and Roc Hudson. A short, simple guy with a receding hairline and less-than-powerful voice had become a household name associated with a bevy of young beauties and sigh-inducing romance...
So every guy with a fast car and a Hair Club for Men membership wants to know – how did he do it? Hard work, intelligence, and P.E.R.S.O.N.A.L.I.T.Y. While Hudson and Dean could offer a set of broad shoulders or a moody pout to captivate audiences, Fred Astaire was the nice guy who cajoled and choreographed his way into the hearts of his audience. Height? Not a problem. Robbing the cradle for female partners? not a big deal. Why? Fred performed. Offering a saucy grin or an ‘aww shucks’ smile coupled with a gentle self-depreciating humor, this small statured leading man spun women around and whisked them off their feet by playing on the emerging American middle class desire for sophistication and elegance, while at the same time maintaining a connection with the rhythmic cadence of popular music.
While Astaire might always be best remembered for his film musical collaborations, this was a man who tapped into the changing trends of popular media. When jazz was in, he sang to jazz. When musicals boomed he took center stage. When big band came around he danced to the new beat. And in each appearance, you didn't have to care if the muscles were huge or the notes were soaring, but just that the nice guy danced and the women swooned.
After 30 musical films in 25 years Astaire attempted to publicly retire his dancin’ shoes twice, once in the mid 1940s and again in the late 50s. Although he pulled away from the film genre that had served as the initial platform for his fame, the demand for the little man with the fast feet and the big personality continued, and in 1958 Fred followed popular interests into television.
The second in a three part series, Another Evening With Fred Astaire employed the growing medium of television to reintroduce song, dance, and Fred Astaire to the public. Once again Astaire was a part of new media and technological innovation, recording the entire show live on color videotape. The production was considered something of a comeback for Astaire, whose limelight had naturally waned in his ‘retirement’ and the decline of big movie musicals. For those who had grown up with classics such as Singin in the Rain or Puttin’ On the Ritz, the broadcast specials offered a melodic stroll down memory lane. For those unfamiliar with the world of Astaire, the series invited a reinterpretation of old styles and a ‘nice’ family-friendly format accessible to all ages. Contrary to the musicals of Astaire’s early career, the structure of this program was based more on the popular American Band Stand model as a variety show with Fred serving as a participatory ringmaster or conductor who choreographed the show. Instead of a cohesive plotline, Astaire worked with various musicians and dancers to create a series of vignettes, short sketches oscillating between the sanguine dance numbers of his youth and the humor of his early vaudeville and stage days. Yet the program was not focused solely on the styles of the past, but incorporated music and comedy of the current time.
Although Astaire is still Astaire here (a big band dance man), the numbers such as Afterbeat played on the rock and roll rhythms sweeping the popular charts. Melding a classic partner dance with a drum heavy orchestration, Astaire lead a flock of fresh faced youths through steps based in the ‘off beat; like an echo beat or a back beat.” It may not have been Elvis or the Twist, but the slight modulation in beat and countenance alongside lyrics negating the “3/4 beat or the 4/4 beat” edged Astaire into the popular and the present. Not to mention the eager energy of the teenage dancers accompanying the aging Astaire.
Short comedy bits mixed with music portrayed situational misunderstandings handled with polite ease as the gentleman Astaire evoked laughs based in a satire of the present. A ‘beat poetry’ dance number with Barrie Chase mocked the stiff sincerity of the beatnik crowd and the nonsense expressions of their lyrical poems – not in a disparaging manner, but in the vaudvillian vein of sketch comedy. The show poked fun at the popular and yet invoked it to appeal to the new trends of the time in a classic style.
Despite the dramatic differences (yeah, big band with a snare is NOT rock and roll and a few conservatively dressed young dancers do not make a teenage craze) the odd juxtaposition of old and new, young and old works. And through it all Astaire ever remains the ‘nice guy’ leading the way. The odd pairing of Astaire and a gaggle of teenagers should have felt awkward or mismatched for the late 1950s, but the aging actor merely comes off as an elegant father figure or an honorable instructor. He handles each interaction, be it comedy or dance, with a genuinely abashed ‘nice guy’ attitude. When a flock of women repeatedly approach Astaire to tempt him “away from his baby” in a piece called The Nighttrain, the actor merely cowers in his hat or politely dances them away as he waits to meet his one and only lady love upon a bench. Through every step Astaire energetically participates yet remains above – maintaining a distance from his young cohorts that does not seem arrogant or awkward, but courtly and appropriate. As America approached the scandalous sexuality of the swingin’ sixties, the Evenings spent with Fred Astaire belied this evolution and yet made way for a satiric jaunt through the popular culture of the time. Instead of feeling like a tired attempt at capturing a former fame, the song and dance broadcast is more like a pleasant reinvigoration of memory melding into the reality of the present moment.
The Another Evening with Fred Astaire series won several awards for production and acting and relaunched Astaire onto television and film for another 30 years, further solidifying his status as a cultural icon and the hard working ‘nice guy’ that everyone continued to want to dance with. It seems that Nice Guys finish Last because they last and last and last.
Decker, Todd. “I’m Hep To That Step And I Dig it’: Johnny Mercer Writes For (And With) Fred Astaire” presented at the Conference Popular Music in the Mercer Era, 1910-1970. Georgia State University. 11-14-2009.
Hall, Dennis and Susan. American Icons: an encyclopedia of people, places, and things that have shaped our culture. Greenwood Publishing. 2006.
Shannon Butts is a beautiful Southern belle transplanted to the cold, bustling metropolis of Boston, MA. She enjoys talking to strangers, whose kindness she has always depended upon, and dancing to anything that has a lot of bass (whose kindness she has also always depended upon). While not busy pursuing an MA in English Literature, she builds scale models of legendary cities on the surface of pennies.