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The house at 2326 South 10th Street, Omaha, Nebraska. Picture provided by Marian Allard.

Frederick Austerlitz was born in a clapboard house at 2326 South 10th Street, Omaha, Nebraska, on May 10, 1899. There are no family tales of sudden storms, or sightings of Terpsichore or anything unusual that day in Nebraska to herald his arrival. This deceptively quiet beginning, though, heralded the birth of the man who would become the greatest entertainer of the 20th Century. 

Fred Astaire's father Fritz E. Austerlitz (1869- 1924) was born Friedrich Emanuel Austerlitz in Linz on September 8, 1868 into a Roman Catholic family of brewers in Vienna, Austria. His parents were Stephan Austerlitz and Lucia Marianna Heller. Fritz's second name Emanuel was given after Lucia's father name Emanuel Heller born in 1806.

Fritz loved to quip, "There are two kinds of Austrians...rascals and musicians. I belong to the second group." As a young man he was a subaltern in the Austrian Army, along with two elder brothers. Otto and Ernest. He explained his emigration to America with the tale (possibly apocryphal) that when he failed to salute superior officer (and brother) Ernest, he was jailed for misconduct. Upon release, he left immediately for the United States, severing contact with his homeland forever.

Research has shown that Fritz arrived at Ellis Island on Oct. 26, 1892 at 24 years old after departing from Antwerp, Belgium.

In Nebraska, he met and became infatuated with Johanna Geilus (1878-1975), a seventeen-year-old girl of Alsatian parentage. Well-educated in a parochial school in Omaha, she was a beautiful, intelligent and spirited young woman, ten years younger than her husband-to-be and working as a store clerk. Both Frederic and Johanna enjoyed music and the theater and Frederic often displayed his musical talents at the piano. While her parents were against the marriage- especially since he was almost ten years older, Johanna's pregnancy forced them to accept Fritz. Fritz and Johanna were married on Nov. 17, 1894 at the Erste Lutheran Kirche in Omaha by Rev. Freese. Johanna's first child as stillborn, but within four years they would have two more children who would change their lives forever.

Born on September 10, 1896, their first child. Adele Marie (called "Delly" by the family), was a vivacious youngster who was soon taking dancing lessons at Chambers' Dancing Academy on West Fourteenth Street in Omaha. Proud of her accomplishments and notoriety as a prodigy in school recitals, Frederic and Johanna encouraged their daughter's natural talents, investing much of father's hard-earned money in lessons. Frederick arrived into the family 18 months later.

The new temperance movement put pressure on all of the breweries in Nebraska and the Storz Brewery closed, leaving Frederic Austerlitz without work. Adele's talent became the catalyst which encouraged Johanna to take the children to New York, where Adele could get the advanced training not available in Nebraska. Johanna and Frederic had the intuition that they had a special child - not realizing little Frederick's potential at that time. "It was basically my father's idea that we should go to New York. He thought it would be good because my sister had talent," Fred later recalled.

 

Fred at 5.

After arriving in New York in January 1905, the family checked into the Herald Square Hotel and Adele was promptly enrolled in Claude Alvienne's dance school in the Grand Opera House building at Eighth Avenue and Twenty-Third Street. Frederic, who arrived later, selected the school from an ad in the New York Clipper, a theatrical newspaper they subscribed to in an effort to immerse themselves in the show business world. Fred never recalled having any particular interest in dance or theatrics at this time, but described a fateful incident at the Alvienne school: "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 comer 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".

The dance and acting classes at Alvienne's school did not particularly impress young Frederick and years later he mostly recalled the stick which Mr. Alvienne used to beat out time on the back of a wooden chair for the dance lessons. The most .lasting evidence of those classes is a photo of the children in a dramatic scene from Cyrano De Bergeroc with Fred, because of his diminutive height, unhappily cast in the role of "Roxanne," while the taller Adele played "Cyrano." For many years Fred would remain shorter than his sister. While Professor Alvienne was creating a vaudeville act for the youngsters, Frederic and Johanna decided that Austerlitz would simply not do on a marquee and changed their name. Biographers have written that Johanna's mother's maiden name was Astaire or that they tried variations of Austerlitz: Auster, Astier and finally, Astaire: "It sounded like the fabulously wealthy Astor." Ava remembered Grandmother Ann telling how she herself combined the name Austerlitz with the name of an Aunt Claire. The family had an Alsace- Lorraine uncle named L'Astaire and Fred believed that is where the propitious moniker came from, saying, "Austerlitz sounded too much like a battle." It is probably at this time that Johanna took the name "Ann," for it went so well with Astaire. Due to the family's traditional European background regarding male superiority, Fred received first billing over his older sister. "Fred and Adele Astaire" were born.

The twelve-minute act Professor Alvienne conceived was a bride-and-groom routine performed around a large wedding cake set piece. The act created a sensation at the school recital, so Professor Alvienne told the proud parents that their children were now ready for their professional debut.

A theater on a pier at the summer resort of Keyport, New Jersey, was the scene of the Astaires' debut in November, 1905. Without showing their nervousness, the children made a great success, with a local reviewer writing; "The Astaires are the greatest act in vaudeville." This successful, debut led to further bookings in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York, with Frederic making contacts with important theatrical figures. He invited Frank Vincent, the head hooker from the prestigious Orpheum Circuit, to see the children in Paterson, New Jersey. The result was a twenty-week contract at $150 per week for the team plus trainfare for the children and Ann.

The Orpheum circuit engagements took them across the country: Pennsylvania, Iowa, Colorado, Washington, California, Utah, Minnesota, Wisconsin and triumphantly back to Omaha, Nebraska. Ann traveled with the youngsters, making all of their travel and performance arrangements while Frederic remained in New York. The children's billing at one point was "Juvenile Artists, presenting an electric musical toe dancing novelty." During these years, the highly contrasting aspects of Fred's and Adele's personalities were to grow and gel. Adele enjoyed practical jokes, zany improvisations onstage, outspoken and outlandish behavior as her extroverted persona grew to dazzle everyone around her while Fred began to retreat inside himself, creating the work ethic with which he would strive toward perfection. Adele said about these times, "When he was off dancing by himself, he sort of invented things. I was the clown. I mean, I liked to be funny. I couldn't be bothered learning all of those steps".

Fred and Adele were signed to a second Orpheum tour, where they came under the scrutiny of the Gerry Society. Founded by Elbridge Thomas Gerry, a seventy-year-old lawyer and philanthropist, the Society's goal was to protect children from cruel treatment. I hrough the Society's efforts, the age of fourteen or sixteen (depending upon the city) became the age limit for performing children. While appearing in Los Angeles, the Astaires were told they could not perform until Ann patiently argued with a Society representative and they were allowed to continue their engagement.

 

Fred and Adele at 9 and 11 respectively.

But, it wasn't the Gerry Society which brought about the end of this First phase in the Fred and Adele Astaire story. It was simply puberty. Adele was now a blossoming young woman and Fred, with his changing voice and still trailing behind Adele in height, had outgrown their laddie "Wedding Cake Act." One of the Orpheum theatre managers had even noted, "The girl seems to have talent but the boy can do nothing." The lack of bookings gave them their one and only respite from performing.

Frederic rented a house in Highwood Park, a suburb of Weehawken, New Jersey, across the Hudson River from Manhattan and, from 1909-1911, Fred and Adele Astaire enjoyed the lives of average youngsters; even attending Hamilton Grammar School. Because of Ann's excellent tutoring and Fred's knowledge gained from traveling across the country and Canada, he was promoted from the fourth to the fifth grade. While enjoying this "normal" life, however, the dance and French lessons continued.

In 1911, the between engagements segment of their lives was over and Adele and Fred were enrolled in Ned Waybum's school on West Forty-Fourth Street in New York. Wayburn was a successful stage director on Broadway and his school was one of the first important theatrical "Training Factories" in America. The Wayburn curriculum included musical comedy dancing, tap and step dancing, acrobatic dancing, exhibition and modernized American ballet classes.

Waybum also specialized in creating acts for his professional students. In his "The Art of Stage Dancing, written in 1926, Waybum expounded on his theories for success: "And since each individual has a distinct personality it is advisable to select the type of dancing best suited to that personality. It is because of this quality that the performance of stars like...Fred and Adele Astaire leaves a lasting impression. Every step, every movement is designed to drive home the characteristics of their individuality". Ann paid him the then- substantial fee of $1,000 for a new twelve-minute act for Fred and Adele called "A Rainy Saturday" (or "The Baseball Act").

 

A Rainy Saturday

When Wayburn felt that the new act was ready, he arranged a Premiere in a benefit program he was producing at the Broadway Theatre. The act was well-received and the new grown-up Astaire's made their professional Broadway debut at Proctor's Fifth Avenue vaudeville theater. This one-week engagement, however, was cancelled after they flopped in the difficult opening spot at their First performance. The sparsely populated audience barely paid attention to Fred and Adele's songs, dances and dialogue.

During 1912-1914, they played a series of dates with small-time circuits like the United Booking Office and the Gus Sun circuit, the bottom of vaudeville's barrel. The constant performance allowed them to reshape and refine "The Baseball Act," tightening and improving it over the next two years. Adele was garnering all of the positive mentions in their reviews and Fred (who Adele nicknamed "Moaning Minnie"), began questioning his contributions to the act... and his talent.

Ann managed to save money so that her children could relax and enjoy some sort of summer vacation at Delaware Water Gap, a resort area in Pennsylvania. When Frederic arrived to spend some time at Water Gap, discussions were held about "The Baseball Act" and how fifteen-year-old Fred and the almost seventeen-year-old Adele had already outgrown it. Fred, with his changing voice and new manhood, also did not want to dance on his toes any longer. He considered it "sissy stuff." He was drawn more to the tap styles of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and John "Bubbles" Sublett and the lyrical adagio ballroom routines of Vernon and Irene Castle. Frederic suggested that the youngsters needed a new influence.

The new coach, whom Astaire dubbed, "the most influential, as far as dancing goes, of any man in my career," was Aurelia Coccia. Cocoa and his wife, Minnie Amato, had a successful vaudeville flash act and Coccia introduced Fred and Adele to the tango and the waltz and worked on their showmanship. One day, Fred happened to overhear Coccia telling Ann that "the kids would have to forget everything they had ever learned and start over," which deflated and depressed him and Adele. Nevertheless, their intense six-month studies with Coccia produced dramatic results.

The new act eliminated all of the unnecessary dialogue which had slowed down "The Baseball Act" and contained straight song and dance, saving the best of the routines they already knew and creating new ones with Fred himself offering input about musical selections. Fred and Adele performed the act at summer resorts and after favorable reaction, they were back: on the road.

Their touring took them all over the United States and to Canada until a vaudeville actors' strike, led by a group called "The White Rats," put them out of work. Stranded in Detroit, Ann pawned a diamond lavaliere and a fur coat to keep food on the table and Fred often related how he remembered his mother cutting hard-boiled eggs in half for he and Adele to share.

Once the strike was over, the children returned to work on the prestigious Interstate Circuit in Texas. They now earned $ 175 a week, a new high for them, although their spot on the bill was often less than the best Next earner welcome tour on the Orpheum Circuit at $250. During this time, Fred worked with Bill Robinson, receiving praise for his dancing from the legendary "Bojangles" himself.

A lucky break occurred when they were called to be a replacement act in New Orleans at $350 a week. Not only was the salary the biggest one they had made, but they were a great success in an important position on the bill: number five. They stopped the show at each performance and moved to more important bookings. Back in the dreaded opening spot at the Palace Theater in Chicago, they once again stopped the show, something which was unheard of, causing comedy star Eddie Cantor (who was headlining the bill) to take notice. In Chicago they were moved to position number three and future bookings continued to reflect their new position and prestige.

When in New York, Fred would visit the local branch office of Remick's and it was there that he first met George Gershwin, a piano player demonstrating songs. Gershwin enjoyed watching and listening to Fred play the piano and their friendship grew. When Fred voiced the dream that one day he and Adele would move into musical comedy, Gershwin replied, "Wouldn't it be great if I could write a musical show and you two could be in it?" For the 1915-1916 tour, Fred selected new songs for the act, and after combing through what was available, went into the musical comedy field for the first time with tunes by Jerome Kern and Cole Porter. The appearances were a success, with the critics still picking out Adele and praising her for her talent and charm, often merely mentioning Fred. The spring of 1916 took them into their most successful vaudeville period. Booked into most of the major New York houses, they were featured on all of the bills. They still dreamed of playing the illustrious New York Palace, but this booking never materialized. Nevertheless, with all of the good reviews and word-of-mouth, Fred placed a full back-page ad in Variety in June, 1917, with the banner headline "Doing big in the West, what will the East say?"

The next week, they received a phone call from Rufus LeMaire, a prominent agent, offering them a contract to appear in a musical for the Shubert Brothers. The twelve years of travelling, rehearsing, refining and learning to transcend disappointment and failure were over.

On to Broadway...

 

Last Updated on Monday, 12 October 2009 10:49