by Terry Pearson
In June 1975 I read an article in the press stating that Fred Astaire would be in London during the summer to make some new recordings - these I would eventually identify as the three albums with the Pete Moore Orchestra, including one with Bing Crosby.
I resolved there and then that I would write to request an autograph from the man whom I had worshipped for so long. At that point, the possibility of actually meeting him in person would have seemed remote.
I wrote initially to the recording company mentioned in the press article (Liberty-United Artists Records Ltd) asking if they would pass on a letter to Mr Astaire. This they readily agreed to do - adding that he would be in London from the middle of that month (July) for a couple of weeks.
I duly wrote to Fred, mentioning that I had a copy of the 1952 Norman Granz 'Astaire Story' collection which I would very much like him to sign for me. In fact, the album was already signed by Fred as copy No 289 of a limited edition of 1384 copies. However, this was the prize item in my collection of Astaire material and was one which I felt worthy of submitting, as evidence, perhaps, of my 'status' as an admirer.
Eventually, I received in the post, a small scrap of paper from a Connaught Hotel notepad - written by hand, but not by Astaire himself - could it possibly have been daughter Ava carrying out secretarial duties in the absence of travelling staff? - acknowledging receipt of my request and stating that if I left the album at the reception desk of the Connaught Hotel, it would be signed and left for me to pick-up at a later date. I think it was at this point that it occurred to me that, having located an address, I would be able to possibly get a glimpse of Fred coming or going from the hotel at some point during his stay. Let me say that I would have been more than satisfied to achieve even that close a contact.
So, bright and early one morning in July (strangely enough, the actual date escapes my memory) I set off by rail from Birmingham to London (120 miles approx) with my 'Astaire Story' album and my copy of the Stanley Green/Burt Goldblatt 'Starring Fred Astaire' book, for good measure.
On arrival at the Connaught Hotel, I showed the note, which I had received from Fred, at the desk and delivered the album and book to be signed. I knew that, if I waited long enough, I was certain to see Fred arrive or depart. Staff at the hotel politely, but quite firmly, denied all knowledge of Mr Astaire's presence, and in the nicest possible way, suggested that I should leave and return the next day. I politely, but equally firmly, declined their offer of advice and determined to stay put - which I did - taking up residence in a chair, which gave me a good overview of the hotel reception area. Hours ticked slowly by. Members of hotel staff again suggested, on a number of occasions, that I was wasting my time and that Mr Astaire would not be there on that day. Nevertheless, I waited on, in the hope that eventually someone would collect my items from the desk.
I can't be sure, at this distance in time, but I think I did risk a brief departure to snatch a sandwich for lunch, returning as quickly as possible, to be told that nothing had happened during my absence. So, my vigil continued, well into the afternoon.
I stared hard at every passing hotel resident, wondering - would I recognise him? (!) - had I already missed him? - I would still have been more than delighted simply to watch him walk by.
Then, at long, long last, the waiting was rewarded. Fred Astaire walked (the word seems hopelessly inadequate) in through the main entrance, paused slightly, and headed towards the reception desk - it was, as expected, a magical experience to see him in person. The setting of a London hotel lobby somehow made it seem all the more likely that Edward Everett Horton or Eric Blore would scamper across the floor to greet him! But no - on this occasion, it would be me enjoying that privilege. It has subsequently occurred to me that I was so fortunate that Fred was alone at the time - had he been accompanied by some personal entourage, it would have been more than likely that the unsolicited attentions of a lone fan would have been actively discouraged!
I showed him the well-crumpled note, which seemed to 'ring a bell' with him. He politely asked that I wait a moment or two while he checked for messages at the desk. Again, details elude me here - I can't remember if I had already collected the album and book from the desk or if I did so at this point while Fred was in conversation with the receptionist. In any event, he eventually joined me at a table in the hotel lobby.
I resolved to take in every possible detail to form an indelible memory of these precious moments. Why had I not taken a camera? In retrospect, I am happy that I did not. The photographs in my mind are as clear as can be - the awkwardness of subjecting Fred to trial by camera might well have ruined those happy few minutes. My specific memories include the weathered texture of his skin, the slightly watery eyes, those amazing Astaire hands, the sheaf of music under his arm ('Wailing of The Willow' - presumably his homework for the next day's session on the 'Fred Astaire - Attitude Dancing' album) - but above all, the unhurried way in which he spared those moments to exchange pleasantries and to sign, with meticulous care, both items which I had taken to London. He even went back to fill-in the tiniest of loops, which he had made in the 'y' of my name, as he dedicated the autograph. On seeing the 'Astaire Story' album, he remembered that I had mentioned it in my letter to him. He queried my request for an autograph, saying that he was sure it had already been signed once before! He seemed quite genuinely puzzled that I should want him to sign it again! In fact, he compromised by adding a dedication for me, which he initialled! Even in those few short moments, there was no mistaking the self-effacing, modest manner so often referred to by colleagues and contemporaries of this most exceptional man.
Referring to his current recording work, I commented that it was in London that he had made his first recordings with his sister Adele. 'Yes', he chucked ruefully, 'that was about a million years ago!' I vaguely remember spotting some hand-written journey times and a Cork telephone number on the piece of paper which he had collected from the reception desk. Doubtless, visits to sister Adele and daughter Ava would have been on the Astaire schedule when the current recording work was completed.
All too soon, our meeting was at an end. He politely finished the conversation and gathered up his papers. As he walked towards the lift, he turned, and giving a typical Astaire wave of the hand, left me with a friendly 'Good luck, Terry!' I knew that I had had more than my share of 'good luck' on that day in July 1975.
I 'floated' back to Birmingham - pausing to tell anyone and everyone en route that I had just met Fred Astaire. Many years have now passed. My appreciation of his work and of his life is boundless. I am so lucky to have my own personal memory of our all too brief meeting - and They Can't Take That Away From Me!
© 1999 TERRY PEARSON