November 28, 2016

Astaire / Marx Bros. at Stanford Theater through year-end

THE career of the Astaires, as it has been told to us, is worth making some record of. Particularly since, April rumor has it, this year may be their last together. They are of course really brother and sister. They were born in Omaha. Adele is thirty and Fred is twenty-nine and they have been dancing together since she was six and he was five, professionally since they were nine and eight respectively. Their father’s name was Fred Austerlitz and he was a Viennese and a brewer. Being from Vienna he didn’t scoff when an excited lady who wrote pieces for a paper in Omaha announced in her columns that the two children—whom she had seen perform at an ice cream social or something— were clever and would surely go on the stage. Mr. Austerlitz looked his children over himself the next time they did their little dance together and decided the lady was right. 


The reason this season may be their last together, after twenty-two years in which they have never appeared separately, is because Adele expects to be married and will live in England and raise Scotch terriers. Fred also yearns to get away from the amber spot and out in the open. His ambition is to produce, but he also wants to own a great stable of horses some day. Knowing this, the management of “Funny Face,” in which the pair are now appearing, presented Mr. Astaire (and probably sighed as they did so) with a Copenhagen China horse and jockey the night the show opened. He keeps it on his dressing-room table. 

Their first appearance in this city was in 1907. They did a clog dance in a vaudeville house until the Gerry Society objected. In those years they were forced to play in Shamokin and Passaic and places like that in order not to be molested by societies who knew that dancing was terrible for children. 

Their first real chance in New York, after they got old enough to be let alone, came at the old Fifth Avenue Theatre and their hearts were high with hope. On the same bill was Douglas Fairbanks. He got over very well but after the first show the Astaires sadly noted that their names had been scratched from the call-board, which meant the management had given them, as Mr. James Gleason would say, the works. You couldn’t daunt the children, however, and they made their first big success not long afterwards in the revue “Over the Top.” Since then they have snapped their fingers at call-boards. 

One of their earliest friendships was with George Gershwin, then a piano player for Remick. He used to say he hoped some day to write a score which the brother and sister could dance to. That happened first in the production of “Lady Be Good.” Then came “Funny Face.” We were interested to learn that dancing shoes rarely last the Astaires morethan three weeks, which, to coin a statistic, means that each of them has used about four hundred pairs since they began to dance together. Fred is superstitious and on opening nights always brings to his dressing-room and wears a funny looking red and green bathrobe he bought in Bridgeport thirteen years ago. It hasn’t always brought him luck though. For instance, he was selected, not long ago, by a Columbia professor and a cigarette manufacturing company, to be blindfolded and to pick out, as the best of four cigarettes offered him, the kind manufactured by the company in question. He picked the wrong one. 

- James Thurber, 1928



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