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Friday, May 10, 2013

My May-December Romance

I can't remember for certain exactly when it happened. I must have been about eleven when I started to fall for an older man. And I don't mean I was eleven and had a crush on a fourteen-year-old. This man was sixty years older than me. It was a pure and unrequited love for a man named Fred Astaire. My Gram had spent some years working in movie theaters where her husband was the projectionist, so she had no problems with me watching the old movies that were often broadcast on television on the weekends, especially on Saturday nights. Little did I know then how much these old black-and-white movies would mean to me.

I realize now that a lot of kids would not have been allowed to stay up on a Friday or Saturday night to watch a movie, no matter what the quality. Maybe it was because Gram had experienced these movies when they were new. She knew that they were fairly innocent, and that they were wonderful entertainment. They weren't going to lead me astray. They were just there for the sheer joy of watching. And Fred Astaire wasn't the only person whose movies I watched. I knew the names and acting, singing, and dancing of dozens of stars and supporting players. I saw their films, dramas, comedies, and musicals, in scratchy black-and-white, and their later films in "glorious Technicolor." I'm sure that not many of the neighborhood kids or my school classmates knew some of the names that were so familiar to me. 

When the newspaper arrived on Sundays, I'd check the television schedule supplement, looking for films starring my favorites. Yes, I was always on the lookout for Mr. Astaire, but oh, the lists of people I grew to appreciate! There were Jeannette McDonald and Nelson Eddy in lovely operettas. Jimmy Cagney as a song and dance man, and as a gangster or psychotically criminal mama's boy. William Powell, Myrna Loy, Shirley Temple, Eleanor Powell, Irene Dunne, Jimmy Stewart, Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, the impeccable Adolphe Menjou. Lionel Barrymore, Boris Karloff, Henry Fonda, Rita Hayworth, John Carradine, Peter Lorre, and dozens more. I could go on for ages, but you'd likely get tired of reading!

Some of the stories were happy and some were sad. There was comedy as well as extreme sadness, and often accompanied by lovely music and dance. I think that a child like me who had seen such ugliness found beauty, hope, and perhaps some healing in these lovely films. One of the best to give balm to my soul was Fred Astaire. Even though I consider myself pro-female and a supporter of girl-and-woman power, it really irritates me to hear people say, "Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, and she did it backward and in high heels!" Sorry, it just isn't true. Yes, they made ten films together, and she was an incredible partner for him. But did she ever do an entire dance number partnered with a coat rack, or climb up the walls to dance on the ceiling? Did she dance next to magic shoes that had wings or dance a number dozens of times like he did so that he could do a number with himself as the chorus-boys? Mind you, she isn't the one who made that statement, someone else did.

A lot of people have made jokes about Fred Astaire's singing voice. Surprisingly, many songwriters, people who wrote for singers from Frank Sinatra to Nat King Cole and numerous others in between, described Astaire as the best singer they ever wrote for. Irving Berlin, whose birthday is tomorrow, May 11th, wrote the song Cheek to Cheek specifically for Astaire's voice. Fred sang some of the most charming and heartfelt love songs I have ever heard. His delivery of songs can still make me cry because of their gentle sweetness and emotion. Just imagining him singing them can make the world a gentler place. Astaire, in his autobiography, tells that he was stunned and humbled when he heard that the great composer George Gershwin's last words were, "Fred Astaire."

We seem to live in an era in which our stars of the big and small screens, sports, and music are as often known for their bad behavior as their talent. There have always been stars who indulged in bad behavior. I have never heard anything like that about Fred Astaire. I have read the words of the incredible dancer and choreographer Bob Fosse, who was walking on the back lots of the studios (way before he became famous) and saw Astaire walking in his general direction. He was excited to see one of his heroes and thought, "Hey, he doesn't know about a nobody like me." He was thrilled when Fred said, in passing, "Hiya, Foss!" A simple, generous, and gracious gesture by one of the amazing talents of his time gave Fosse a wonderful moment and a wonderful memory.

Another story I like was told by the woman who was his housekeeper, in the 1960's, I believe. She said he was always a kind and genuine person and would chat with her about her mother back in Ireland. He was never demanding, and didn't ever want to inconvenience the household staff in any way. There was a story she told about him giving the staff the evening off because he had been invited to a dinner party. She was walking through the house and heard some noise. When she went into the bar area of the house, she found Mr. Astaire sitting in his casual clothes, eating some potato chips. When she asked him what was going on, he told her that the dinner had been cancelled, but he didn't want to bother anyone. He didn't even ask anyone to fix him a sandwich. But she did, of course. In direct contrast to the "Do you know who I am?" attitude we see a lot of these days, he described himself by saying, "I'm just a hoofer with a spare set of tails."

Well, I've gushed on and on, as I sometimes tend to do. Today, May 10th, is Fred Astaire's birthday, and I wanted to share some of the joy he brought to my life with all of you. No, I would not say that I worship him. Let's just say that his work is a beautiful gift that lives in my heart forever.