14 Toe-Tapping Facts About Fred Astaire

Fox Photos/Getty Images
Fox Photos/Getty Images

Born on May 10, 1899, Fred Astaire was an actor, dancer, vaudevillian, and movie star whose career spanned nearly eight decades. Here are 14 toe-tapping facts you might not know about the legendary dancer.

1. HE STARTED DANCING AT AGE 4 AND PERFORMING PROFESSIONALLY AT AGE 6.

As a toddler, Astaire’s mother would bring him to pick up his sister Adele from ballet class. In his autobiography, Astaire recalled:

“The story goes that one time when I had gone with my mother to fetch Adele, I put on a pair of ballet slippers. I found them in a corner while I was dawdling around the place, killing time, waiting for Adele to finish her lesson. I had seen other children walk on their toes, so I put on the slippers and walked on my toes. It was as simple as that.”

By the time Fred was six and Adele was eight, the family had moved to New York City, where the siblings were enrolled in a performing arts school and began performing professionally.

2. HE WAS IN A VAUDEVILLE ACT WITH HIS SISTER—AND WAS INITIALLY CONSIDERED THE LESS TALENTED SIBLING.

Fred and Adele Astaire
Fox Photos/Getty Images

The brother-sister dance team made their vaudeville debut with an act called “Juvenile Artists Presenting An Electric Musical Toe-Dancing Novelty.” They continued to perform together into their thirties, only separating when Adele quit dancing to marry a British nobleman. Throughout this time, according to The New York Times, Fred consistently played second fiddle to his glamorous and talented sister. While audiences loved the siblings, critics tended to focus more on Adele than Fred. One critic even went as far as to profess his love for Adele in a headline for The Chicago Herald-Examiner which read, “Falling in Love With Adele Astaire. In Which It Is Told How the Well-Known Heart of Ashton Stevens Is Stricken by the Deftest of the Dancing Girls.” When Fred began performing without his sister, critics were initially dubious (“two Astaires are better than one” wrote one critic of Fred’s first musical performance without Adele).

3. HE WAS CHILDHOOD FRIENDS WITH GEORGE GERSHWIN.

Astaire became friends with George Gershwin when he was 14 and Gershwin was 15. At the time, Gershwin was working for a music publisher and dreaming of composing his own music. According to The New York Times, “Gershwin was working for $15 a week, plugging other people’s songs, and the boys dreamed of George’s writing a musical for Fred one day.” That dream came true, multiple times, with Broadway shows like 1927’s Funny Face, and movies like Shall We Dance (1937), which was the first film George and Ira Gershwin scored.

4. PRODUCERS WERE UNIMPRESSED WITH HIS FIRST SCREEN TEST.

According to legend, producer David O. Selznick was out of town when Astaire shot his screen test for RKO. Whoever was filling in for Selznick was unimpressed by Astaire, jotting down a note that read, “Can’t Act. Slightly Bald. Also Dances.” But Selznick was ultimately so blown away by Astaire’s dancing that despite Astaire’s “enormous ears and bad chin line,” he gave him a contract at RKO.

5. HE MADE 10 FILMS WITH GINGER ROGERS.

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Between 1933 and 1949, Astaire and Rogers appeared in 10 films together, starting with Flying Down To Rio (1933) starring Dolores del Río, in which both had minor roles, and ending with The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), in which the pair reunited after a nearly 10-year hiatus. The Barkleys of Broadway was both their only film together outside of RKO—it was released by MGM—and their only film shot in Technicolor.

6. INITIALLY, ASTAIRE REFUSED TO WORK WITH ROGERS.

Though they became one of Hollywood’s most beloved on-screen couples, Astaire was initially wary of being paired with Rogers. He’d only recently ended his decades-long partnership with Adele and was reluctant to be officially linked to another dancer. He sent a telegram to his agent, Leland Hayward, which read, “What’s all this talk about me being teamed with Ginger Rogers? I will not have it Leland ... I’ve just managed to live down one partnership and I don’t want to be bothered with any more.”

7. HE CREATED A FORMULA FOR ALL HIS FILMS.

If Astaire’s movies with Rogers sometimes seem a little formulaic, that’s because they were—literally. Working with producer Pandro Berman and director Mark Sandrich, Astaire graphed out the structure he would use for all of his films, down to the minute. In the short documentary On Top: Inside The Success of 'Top Hat,' Astaire biographer Larry Billman explains that Astaire drew a chart for each of his films to follow, specifying how many minutes could elapse between the beginning of the film and its first musical number, how many minutes of comedy, romance, and drama there should be between dance numbers. “They really put all the elements down in terms of timing, and they followed that,” Billman said. “We have to meet our characters, he has to be enamored of her, and he sings and dances.”

8. HE REDEFINED THE WAY DANCE SEQUENCES WERE FILMED.

Before Astaire hit Hollywood, musical movies were shot very differently, with lots of fast cuts and close-ups during dance sequences. “Before him, particularly because of the influence of Busby Berkeley numbers in the Warner Bros. films, there was a feeling that you needed to have a lot of cuts to focus on specific aspects of the dance, like the dancer’s feet, and so forth,” film historian Rick Jewell explained in On Top. “Once Astaire becomes the creative genius behind the films, you see a movement backwards toward a much more simple, pure, classical kind of way of shooting films so that you seen the dancers in full figure.”

Astaire insisted that his dances be filmed in long takes and wide shots, with as few cuts as possible, allowing audiences to feel as though they were watching a dancer on stage. He famously told his cameraman, “Either I’m gonna dance, or the camera’s gonna dance—and I’m gonna dance.” In most of his films, Astaire’s dance sequences seem as though they’re filmed in one long take, giving the sense that the audience is watching a live performance. “What that did is it forced directors and cameramen and choreographers to think differently,” film critic Leonard Maltin said in On Top. “It was not about fragmentation, it was about performance.”

9. HE INFLUENCED THE WAY JACKIE CHAN CHOREOGRAPHS HIS KUNG FU SCENES.

Novelist Donald Westlake once wrote, “Jackie Chan is Fred Astaire, and the world is Ginger Rogers.” Jackie Chan, himself, cites Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly as two of the primary influences on his fight choreography. “Right now you can see a lot of dancers on MTV. When they move, bup ... bup ... bup. You have 20 cuts. Camera tricks, camera movements, with special effects,” Chan once told Kung Fu Magazine. “When you look back in the old days with Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire: five minutes without editing. Just singing, dancing, moving to the piano or the light pole … That's what I want.”

10. HE WAS A BIG FAN OF MICHAEL JACKSON.

Michael Jackson—who dedicated his autobiography to Astaire—wrote in Moonwalk about the time Astaire called to congratulate him after a particularly impressive television performance. Jackson wrote, “He said—these are his exact words—‘You’re a hell of a mover. Man, you really put them on their asses last night.’ That’s what Fred Astaire said to me. I thanked him. Then he said, ‘You’re an angry dancer. I’m the same way. I used to do the same thing with my cane.’” Astaire may even have seen Jackson as a successor. He’s quoted in Michael Jackson: The Golden Book of Condolence as saying, “Oh God! That boy moves in a very exceptional way. That’s the greatest dancer of the century. I didn’t want to leave this world without knowing who my descendant was. Thank you Michael!”

11. HIS LAST ON-SCREEN DANCE WAS IN AN EPISODE OF BATTLESTAR GALACTICA.

At age 80, in 1979, Astaire performed a brief disco-inspired dance alongside actress Anne Jeffreys on an episode of Battlestar Galactica. Astaire, who agreed to appear on the show because his grandkids watched it, guest starred as an alien prince, and wore an “an ascot (probably his suggestion), a vest, and a space costume,” according to biographer Peter Levinson.

12. HE WAS ADDICTED TO SOAP OPERAS.

According to The New York Times, Astaire was “addicted to television serials such as The Guiding Light and As the World Turns," and would “telephone his housekeeper if he could not watch the soap operas to find out what had happened.”

13. HE WORKED WITH THE SAME CHOREOGRAPHER ON 17 FILMS.

Throughout his career, Astaire collaborated with choreographer Hermes Pan on 17 movies. Before shooting began on his collaborations with Ginger Rogers, Astaire and Pan would spend six weeks choreographing and rehearsing dance sequences, with Pan filling in for Rogers (who was often busy shooting another film). According to biographer Larry Billman, Astaire and Pan weren’t just artistic collaborators and best friends—they also looked almost exactly alike. “Talk about an alter ego,” Billman said in On Top. “If you saw Fred and Hermes together, you’d swear they were brothers, identical twins.” In On Top, Astaire’s daughter Ava even admits to occasionally confusing the two, explaining, “I, myself, even made a mistake one day in the rehearsal. Somebody came in and said, ‘Where is Fred,’ and I pointed and said, ‘Over there.’ But it was Pan I was pointing to.”

14. OVER THE COURSE OF HIS NEARLY EIGHT-DECADE CAREER, HE WORKED WITH EVERYONE FROM AUDREY HEPBURN TO FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA. 

Though Astaire is best remembered for his films with Rogers, he worked with a wide range of film and theater legends throughout his eight-decade career. Just a few of those collaborators include Francis Ford Coppola, who directed Astaire in the musical Finian’s Rainbow (1968); Audrey Hepburn, who appeared with Astaire in the 1957 film adaptation of Funny Face (a musical originally written specifically for Fred and his sister by George Gershwin in 1927); Irving Berlin, who composed the music for many of Astaire’s films; and Bing Crosby, with whom he co-starred in three films. Though he was best known for his dance films, Astaire also appeared in a handful of non-musical films, including The Notorious Landlady (1962) which also starred Kim Novak and Jack Lemmon, and The Towering Inferno (1974). His final film, the 1981 horror movie Ghost Story, was also the final film of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

10 Dramatic Downton Abbey Fan Theories

Jim Carter as Mr. Carson in Downton Abbey (2019).
Jim Carter as Mr. Carson in Downton Abbey (2019).
Focus Features

Despite its exhaustively polished veneer, Downton Abbey was always a soap opera. Julian Fellowes's historical drama about a family of aristocrats and their many servants could never resist a good shocker, and it deployed plenty of them over the course of six seasons. The valet was suspected of murder (twice). One of the Crawley sisters got knocked up by her older married boyfriend, who promptly went missing. And another sister’s first sexual encounter ended in death. Considering all this, it should come as no surprise that fans have developed similarly wacky theories about the show. These fan theories include secret parentage, undercover spies, and, of course, poison.

Brush up on the best of them before the Downton Abbey movie hits theaters—just in case the whole miscarriage curse comes up.

1. Mr. Carson is Lady Mary’s father.

This theory all comes down to eyes. As you may recall from science class, certain genes are dominant and others are recessive. This is perhaps most easily understood through eye color, where brown eye color, a dominant gene, is expressed as BB and blue eye color, a recessive gene, is expressed as bb. A parent with brown eyes might carry the recessive blue eye gene (i.e. Bb), but if you plot out genetic probabilities on a basic Punnett square, two blue-eyed parents with double bbs have seemingly no shot at producing a Bb baby. Now, what does any of this have to do with Downton Abbey? Both Lord and Lady Grantham have blue eyes, but their eldest daughter, Mary, has brown eyes. This has led some fans to speculate that Lady Mary is actually the daughter of Carson, the family’s beloved butler who has always acted as as sort of second father to Mary. As debunkers have noted, two blue-eyed people can have a brown-eyed child, because recessive genes aren’t that simple. But isn’t it wild to think of Carson and Cora having an affair?

2. Thomas Barrow poisoned Kemal Pamuk.

One of the soapiest subplots of Downton Abbey's first season involved “poor Mr. Pamuk,” the dashing Turkish diplomat who makes a fateful visit to the Abbey. After enjoying a day of fox hunting and an evening of sparkling conversation, Kemal Pamuk drops dead ... right in Lady Mary’s bed. The cause, it is later revealed, was a heart attack, but many viewers suspected something more sinister. Earlier in the episode, the Crawleys’ closeted footman, Thomas Barrow, made a pass at Pamuk, which the diplomat rejected quite forcefully—so much so that he threatened to get Thomas fired. That placed the footman in a tricky situation, but it was nothing a little poison couldn't fix, and that’s exactly why some fans believe Thomas slipped something into Mr. Pamuk’s dinner.

3. Lady Grantham’s miscarriage started a curse.

In the Season 1 finale, tragedy strikes. The newly pregnant Lady Grantham slips on a bar of soap, falling onto the bathroom tiles and inducing a miscarriage. It’s a sad moment, but it’s also, Reddit claims, the source of the house’s future misfortune. According to this theory, the miscarriage kicks off a curse of deadly pregnancies: Lady Sybil dies in childbirth; Matthew Crawley dies in a car accident soon after the birth of his son; and when the maid Ethel Parks becomes pregnant with Major Bryant’s child, he dies, too.

4. Mr. Bates is actually a bad guy.

Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggatt in Downton Abbey (2019).
Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggatt in Downton Abbey (2019).
Focus Features

Downton Abbey invests a lot of time and effort in convincing us that John Bates, Lord Grantham's trusty, is a great guy—despite his checkered past and multiple murder allegations. But what if everyone’s assumptions about Bates are exactly right? Some Redditors believe Bates is just a remorseless serial killer, pointing to his intense hatred of his first wife and “creepy vibes” as evidence. Anna had better watch out.

5. Michael Gregson is a spy.

Lady Edith’s boss and lover Michael Gregson is the publisher of a London magazine, The Sketch. Thanks to his job, he knows tons of important people, travels all over the world, and speaks multiple languages. He eventually disappears inside Germany in season 4, and later dispatches to the Crawley family imply that he was a victim of Adolf Hitler’s “thugs.” (The show timeline places Gregson in Munich right around the time of the Beer Hall Putsch.) Or at least, that’s the official story. Another one suggests that Gregson was a British spy gathering intel on the insurgent Nazis—and he might not have died at all. His superiors simply needed to feed Edith a lie that would discourage her from poking around, so they made up a cover story that someone who follows the news would believe.

6. Lady Rosamund Painswick is Lady Edith’s mother.

When Lady Edith becomes pregnant with Michael Gregson’s child, she finds a strong support system in her aunt, Lady Rosamund Painswick. Upon learning Edith’s secret, Rosamund travels to Downton Abbey to help her niece through her pregnancy, and suggests adoption options as the due date draws near. Some fans have interpreted this empathy as a clue that Rosamund, not Lady Grantham, is Edith’s true mother. It could also explain why Edith looks (and behaves) so different from her sisters. Or it could just be a sign that Rosamund cares about her niece.

7. Lady Mary’s “operation” was IVF.

In season 3, Lady Mary claims to have undergone a “small operation” that will help her start a family with Matthew. It’s maddeningly unclear what this operation entails, but one wild guess is that she had an early version of IVF. The complete crackpot theory is that this was a cover for Matthew’s infertility, which the doctors wouldn’t disclose to him, presumably to preserve his 1920s masculinity.

8. Lady Mary’s son George becomes a Royal Air Force pilot in World War II.

Lady Mary’s son George is only five years old in the series finale of Downton Abbey. But that means he would theoretically be 18 in the fall of 1939, which is exactly when World War II broke out in Europe. He would almost certainly enlist, as show creator Julian Fellowes himself has suggested. But Decider has more specifically theorized that George would join the Royal Air Force (RAF), “with a desire to rebel against his emotionally distant mother and find purpose in a greater cause.” Sounds like George would be taking part in some dangerous missions, putting the entire family’s future at risk.

9. Public tours keep the estate alive.

The Crawleys spend much of Downton Abbey fretting about the future management of their estate—partially because Lord Grantham is kind of bad at it. But Lady Mary has taken over when the series ends, and Fellowes believes she’d find savvy ways to keep her family’s home in their hands. “She would probably have opened the house to the public in the 1960s, as so many of them did,” Fellowes told Deadline. “And she’d have retreated to a wing, and maybe only occupied the whole house during the winters. My own belief is that the Crawleys would still be there.”

10. The Dowager Countess keeps Denker and Spratt around for the drama.

Gladys Denker is a maid to the Dowager Countess. Septimus Spratt is her butler. These two do not like each other, and they’re quite public about it. Denker and Spratt’s unprofessional squabbles would’ve gotten plenty of other servants fired, but fans believe the Dowager Countess keeps them employed for her own amusement.

You Can Rent This Wizard of Oz-Themed Cottage in North Carolina

Airbnb
Airbnb

This year marks the 80th anniversary of The Wizard of Oz, the classic 1939 adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s book. In addition to watching the film, you can opt for a more immersive way to celebrate the occasion. As Travel + Leisure reports, a cottage in West Jefferson, North Carolina offered on Airbnb is perfect for any traveling Oz fan—and it’s only $35 a night.

The studio cottage is considered a glamping destination and is slim on amenities—it has a breakfast nook, porch, sofa bed, and a Porta John—but the Oz-themed details more than make up for the lack of luxurious perks.

A pair of stockinged feet are visible under the home, hinting at a witch’s untimely demise; a character mural of Dorothy and her three escorts, the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion, appears on the side of the cabin; inside, various other decorations pay homage to Baum's books, including a pair of ruby slippers and a few stuffed Totos.

A cottage with a 'Wizard of Oz' theme in West Jefferson, North Carolina is pictured
Airbnb

If you go, you’ll have to act quickly. The cottage is open only in the spring, summer, and fall, as it has no heat.

The Airbnb listing has a perfect score across 16 reviews. You can book it here.

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER