Fred and Ginger Before the Cameras

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

From Flying Down to Rio (1933)
Before the world knew them as that legendary dancing duo, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers had individually taken the Broadway scene by storm. But what some people might be surprised to know is that the two performers saw quite a bit of each other before ever making it to Hollywood for their respective film debuts.

Fred and Ginger first met in the year 1930. By that time, Fred had found enormous stage success with his sister Adele, his first dance partner.  Thanks to Alexander Leftwich, Fred and Ginger's first encounter occurred earlier than anyone would suspect. Ginger, after receiving permission from Paramount to appear at the Alvin Theatre for "Girl Crazy," began rehearsals that August. Leftwich was directing the staging for the show at the time, but according to Ginger's account, didn't seem to be doing that swell of a job. For this reason, producers Alex Aarons and Vinton Freedley called up Fred Astaire to have him come in and assist with the dances.

So it was during a cool summer evening on the stage of the Alvin Theatre in New York that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced for the first time. Fred was 31 years old, and Ginger was only 19. They danced to what is now known as a timeless classic: "Embraceable You." The song was written by George and Ira Gershwin, and Ginger would soon introduce it to the world on opening night. As she tells in her 1991 autobiography, "We stopped and started a dozen times while he added little steps here and there. Finally, Fred said, 'Here Ginger, try it with me.' That was the first time I danced with Fred Astaire." On a personal note, there is never a time in which I don't listen to that song and dream about how those rehearsals must have looked. Oh to have a window into the past to peek into and witness moments like those that are practically lost to time.

Ginger in "Girl Crazy." Source: gershwin.com
With the dance routines cleaned up thanks to Fred's expertise, the show went on. "Girl Crazy" opened in October of 1930 and ran for 272 performances. Ginger became an overnight sensation, as did the female lead, Ethel Merman. At that time, Fred was gearing up for a Ziegfield show titled "Tom, Dick and Harry" which eventually became changed to simply "Smiles."

At some point between the rehearsals and June of 1931, Ginger's mother Lela received a call at home with a familiar voice at the other end. It was the voice of Fred Astaire, calling Ginger to ask her out on a date. Ginger recalls that she was caught off guard, as the only time they had encountered each other was in a professional atmosphere during those rehearsals at the Alvin. She was pleasantly surprised, and agreed to see him the following week. The couple shared a romantic night out at the Central Park Casino, a charming memory which Ginger vividly describes in her book right down to what she was wearing.

"Ginger and I went out occasionally after that, to a night club, or a movie. Our favorite spot was the Casino in Central Park, which had been converted into a flashy night spot featuring Eddy Duchin and his orchestra."  -Fred Astaire: Steps in Time

Fred and Adele in 1930.
From Ginger's account, we get the impression that they only went out together once, but from Fred's account, published decades earlier and foreworded by Ginger herself, he frequently mentions that they had a few dates. Either way, it is clear that the two shared a sweet bond during their time in New York.

In June of 1931, Charles R. Rogers of RKO-Pathe reached out to Ginger after viewing the films she made at Paramount in Long Island. He wanted her for the film The Tip-Off (1931), to be made in Hollywood. Soon enough, for Ginger it was goodbye Broadway and hello motion picture cameras. Shortly before her departure, Harold Ross, family friend and founder of The New Yorker, invited Ginger to attend Fred and Adele's new show "The Band Wagon." Ginger excitedly accepted, as she had not yet seen them perform together and was hoping to bid farewell to Fred before she left for Hollywood. She accompanied Harold to the New Amsterdam Theatre that summer and enjoyed Fred and Adele's captivating performance, as well as that of Tilly Losch. It is important to note here that Helen Broderick also appeared in the original stage production of "The Band Wagon." She would soon become part of the glowing list of talented character actors featured in a few of the Astaire-Rogers musicals.

To conclude the period in which they dated, Ginger states in her book a peculiar quote: "If I had stayed in New York, I think Fred Astaire and I might have become a more serious item." This, to me, more so confirms Fred's account of the frequent dating. I find it to be an interesting quote, but one thing is for certain: mid-1931 marks the last traces of any romantic relationship between the two. By the time they reunited for Flying Down to Rio (1933), Fred was happily married to his darling wife Phyllis, and Ginger was soon to be married to quiet, charming actor Lew Ayres. Those few months in which they dated seem to be a delightful memory for both parties. One can only imagine having that window into the past and watching it all play out. Next time you listen to "Embraceable You," be sure to remember that song marked the first dance between two legendary performers that have given us the gift of enjoying their timeless artistry and charm on screen for decades to come.


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