Everyone knows Fred Astaire, the screen legend who made more than thirty musical films, ten with famous partner Ginger Rogers. His honors and awards are legion, and many consider him to have been the greatest dancer of the twentieth century. He was also an actor, comedian, and singer, although no one would rank him at the top of those categories. No, Fred Astaire was a dancer and choreographer par excellence.
Few remember his vaudeville origins with his original partner—his older sister Adele. Fred and Adele Austerlitz began as a brother and sister kiddie act, dancing and hamming it up on the Small Time vaudeville circuit. The year was 1905 and Fred was six years old. Look how cute they are in this picture! Their parents changed their name to Astaire for a more elegant sound.
The children’s talents allowed them to move quickly up to the prestigious Orpheum Circuit where they played Big Time theaters. They performed a “Donny and Marie” sort of show, with some sibling banter, music, and dancing of all sorts, notably ballroom and tap. Adele was older, taller, and—hard as it is to believe today—widely acknowledged to be the more talented dancer.
Adele and Fred reached Broadway in 1917 where they played in many shows, including several George Gershwin musicals. The duo split in 1932 when Adele married the son of an English duke and retired from the stage. Fred went on to further stardom in the movies.
Fred and Adele Astaire’s age and vaudeville background make them perfect minor characters in my vaudeville mysteries.