Read about what you can’t see
“We’ll urge Alan to resist the temptation to cover Astaire’s many television appearances, vacations, meetings, with agents, etc.” — Gary Morris
Fat chance, Gary. As long as Fred’s dancing, I’m on it. It’s not my fault that you can’t see it. The fact is, Fred did a lot of TV before he hung up his pumps, but none of it is available except on the tiny YouTube screen. Whether anyone gives a damn is another question.
The year 1958 marked a turning point in American popular culture. Throughout the fifties, the price of television sets had been falling, the incomes of American workers had been rising, and transmission towers had been spreading across the country. By 1958, if you didn’t have a TV set, you were probably too poor, or too “principled” (that is to say, too much of a pussy), for advertisers to give a damn about reaching you.
Network radio disappeared. You couldn’t listen to Gangbusters or The FBI in Peace and War or Jack Benny any more. Hollywood began to contract in the presence of the new giant as well. The big sword-and-sandal epics of the early fifties disappeared.1 The year 1957 saw four major musicals — Pal Joey, The Pajama Game, Les Girls, and Silk Stockings — while 1958 saw only one, Damn Yankees!, Gwen Verdon’s first and last big Hollywood role. Big Hollywood wasn’t quite as big as it used to be.
In a case like this, well, what can you say but if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em? In 1958, Fred signed up with NBC, the only network producing shows in color, and starred in An Evening with Fred Astaire, featuring himself with Barrie Chase, backed with the “Hermes Pan Dancers,” a troupe assembled by Fred’s longtime collaborator, as well as the Jonah Jones quartet.2 TV critics, an excitable crew back in those days, fell all over themselves in delight, and the show picked up nine Emmys.
Watching clips from the show today, it’s easy to see why it was such a hit. Facing a live audience for the first time in decades, Fred danced with the same energy and confidence that he had showed in Silk Stockings. Chase looked terrific and showed off some impressive technique as well. If not quite another Cyd Charisse, she came close enough for television.
Not too surprisingly, a year later Fred did Another Evening with Fred Astaire, but, apparently, evenings with Fred Astaire were so 1958. I can’t really remember what was happening on the tube in ’59, but it wasn’t Fred. The show was only nominated for two Emmys, and it didn’t win any.
In fact, there was a definite falling-off in the second show. Fred does more posing than dancing, and, with Fred toning down his act, Barrie had to do the same. It wouldn’t look right for her to be flying around the room while Fred just stood there.
If Emmy shutout stung a little, Fred didn’t show it. He was back with Barrie in 1960, with Astaire Time. Jonah was replaced by Count Basie and his band, including singer Joe Williams. The show did better with the Emmy thing this time around, winning two. Barrie was clearly doing most of the dancing now, giving nice performances in “Miss Otis Regrets” and “Oh, You Beautiful Doll.” Fred, though he didn’t want to admit it, was clearly slowing down.
I don’t know if it was Fred who got tired or Barrie, but after 1960 Fred switched pretty steadily to the hosting thing, which made sense now that he was in his sixties. But “sense” and “movie star ego” are not quite the same thing. Fred wanted to be Fred Astaire, goddamnit! And Fred Astaire dances!
In the mid-sixties, a show that I never remember seeing, Hollywood Palace, made a point of mixing geezers with “young talent,” more or less. Fred hosted four episodes, and did some singing and dancing as well. The first, in October 1965, was a remarkable mélange featuring Rudolf Nureyev and Dame Margot Fonteyn; the “We Five,” specialists in close-harmony sixties crap; Paul Lynde; jazz organist Jimmy Smith; and, of course, Jackie Mason.
In Fred’s next outing, in January 1966, the mélange got even thicker. Rudy and Dame Margot were gone, but Barrie Chase was back; along with the Black Theatre of Prague (a mime troupe); the Rudy Lenze Chimps; Petula Clark; Mickey Rooney, working as a comedy team with dancer Bobby Van; and an English comedy troupe called the Nitwits.
Think it couldn’t get any worse? Well, I don’t know. The next Fred episode featured Marcel Marceau (love those mimes!), singer Jack Jones, “comedian” Pat Morita, and two acrobatic troupes, the Handy Family and the Rogge Sisters. To keep Fred’s sanity, Ethel Merman showed up, and the two probably held hands, trying to pretend the year was 1936 instead of 1966. For Fred’s fourth and final outing, he brought back Barrie Chase, along with Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, big band singer Helen O’Connell, comedian Louis Nye, and a juggler and a lion tamer.
By now, it was about time for Fred to grow up, and he probably did try for about two years, but unfortunately in 1968 mega-film director Francis Ford Coppola, lusting after the glories of old Hollywood, talked Fred into appearing in the film Finian’s Rainbow. Fred couldn’t, or at least didn’t, resist the temptation to put on yet another Fred Astaire TV special, The Fred Astaire Show, with Barrie Chase, of course, along with Simon & Garfunkel, Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66 (certainly as bad as the We Five and probably worse), as well as Young Holt Unlimited (also pretty bad).
After that, Fred had danced his last dance, though he never stopped working. A few similar obsessive-compulsives, like Katherine Hepburn, were lucky enough to be able to ride out their lives in vehicles especially designed for them. Fred wasn’t always so fortunate, appearing in such lame trash as The Over the Hill Gang Rides Again and The Amazing Dobermans, last appearing in Ghost Story (1981) when he was 82.
In 1980, David Heeley put together a two-part documentary on Fred’s career for PBS, Fred Astaire: Putting on His Top Hat (the films with Ginger Rogers) and Fred Astaire: Change Partners and Dance (the rest). Fred himself didn’t sit for an interview, for whatever reason, but many of the people associated with him did, including Ginger, and Barrie Chase, and Hermes Pan. Most PBS specials have been rerun to death, but these still aren’t available. Again, it’s a bit of a mystery.
If you want to check out Fred and Barrie on YouTube, an index is here.
Editor’s Note: Next issue: Fred goes to the bathroom, and Alan is there to cover it! — G.M.
- Well, for the most part. Hollywood couldn’t swear off big entirely. When I saw Ben-Hur in 1959, I thought it was the worst movie I’d ever seen. When it won twelve academy awards, my trust in adults, already severely shaken by the popularity of Liberace and Milton Berle, disappeared entirely. [↩]
- Jones was black, so give Fred two points for “integration.” Jones, an excellent trumpeter, very much a Louis Armstrong acolyte, worked in other people’s big bands throughout the Swing Era, but in the fifties he somehow reinvented himself and became one of the most popular jazz acts in the country, releasing dozens of successful lps. [↩]