One day in 1935, two men met on the set of the film TOP HAT and became lifelong best friends. They were very much alike: reserved, intensely private, dedicated to their wives, workaholics, perfectionists…and supremely talented. They were Fred Astaire and Irving Berlin.
TOP HAT was the fourth film that paired Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. They had small parts in FLYING DOWN TO RIO in 1933 (their first film together) and were given a dance number. No one at RKO expected much from the film, but audiences raved about Fred and Ginger. They loved their chemistry and great dancing. David O. Selznick, Head of Production at RKO Radio Pictures, put them in eight more films, six of which became RKO’s biggest moneymakers at that time—TOP HAT grossing the most.
TOP HAT marked the first time Berlin wrote the score for an Astaire film…and every one of his five songs became a hit, including Cheek to Cheek, Isn’t This a Lovely Day, and Top Hat, White Tie and Tails. Between 1935 and 1948, Berlin wrote 20 tunes for six Astaire and Rogers films—more than any other composer. They worked together very well. Astaire loved Berlin’s music, and Berlin said of Astaire: “Fred knew the value of a song and his heart was in it before his feet took over.”*
In an article entitled Irving Berlin Tips Top Hat to Fred Astaire by John S. Wilson that appeared in the November 19, 1976 issue of The New York Times, Berlin said: “He’s just as good a singer as he is a dancer—not necessarily because of his voice, but by his conception of projecting a song.”
Oscar Levant agreed in his 1965 The Memoirs of an Amnesiac: “Fred Astaire is the best singer of songs the movie ever knew. His phrasing has individual sophistication that is utterly charming.”
Astaire was highly complimented. “It’s nice that all the composers have said that nobody interprets a lyric like Fred Astaire,”* he said.
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
In a sense, both men’s lives—that would lead to great success—began when they were five years old. That was the age that Astaire started dancing professionally with his sister Adele, 18 months older than Fred.
And five years of age is when Irving Berlin, with his mother, father (a cantor) and seven brothers and sisters, left the Russian Empire, which was ruled by the Tsar in 1893, and fled to New York City.
ASTAIRE’S GREAT CAREER BEGINS
Fred and Adele Astaire danced in vaudeville shows across the country, and during the 1920s they appeared on Broadway and the London stage. In 1924, Fred and Adele had their big break when they appeared in Lady Be Good, the first Broadway musical by George and Ira Gershwin.
In 1932, sister Adele fell in love and married Lord Charles Cavendish. That left Fred alone to continue dancing and continue he did. He went back to Broadway until he was called out to Hollywood to do a screen test ordered by David Selznick. A talent agent said of Astaire’s screen test: “No screen personality. Can’t act. Can’t sing. Balding. Dances a little.” But Selznick still signed Astaire to a contract saying”…his charm is so tremendous that it comes through even in this wretched test.”
Selznick allowed Astaire to make his film debut in 1933 in Metro Goldwyn Mayer’s Dancing Lady starring Joan Crawford and Clark Gable. Then Astaire returned to RKO where he and Ginger Rogers became legends. They danced in 10 films from 1933 till 1949.
Astaire left RKO in 1939 and between 1948 and 1957, he made several musicals for MGM—The Barkleys of Broadway in 1949 with Ginger Rogers (their last and only film in color), Funny Face with Audrey Hepburn, Easter Parade with Judy Garland, and The Band Wagon and Silk Stockings (his last MGM musical) with Cyd Charisse.
Astaire changed the way musicals were produced. He believed that the dance number should move the film’s story forward—not just drop it anywhere in the film. And he insisted that his dance numbers be filmed in long takes and wide shots so that the audience would feel as if he’s dancing on a stage in front of them.
HOW IT STARTED FOR BERLIN
Berlin began his career as a song-plugger for a publisher and as a singing waiter in New York’s Chinatown. In 1909, he was hired as a staff lyricist by the Ted Snyder Company (becoming a partner four years later), and appeared in vaudeville and on Broadway in 1910. Berlin enlisted in the US Army Infantry during World War I and was awarded the Army’s Medal of Merit in1945 for his show This is the Army, which toured the US, as well as Europe and South Pacific battle zones during World War II.
Irving Berlin was a composer and lyricist, but couldn’t read music; he only played the black keys in F-sharp and had a specially equipped piano that allowed him to play other keys when needed. (He had two such pianos—one is in the Smithsonian Institution‘s Museum of American History.) In spite of this, he wrote more than 1500 songs, including scores for 20 Broadway musicals, such as smash hits Call Me Madam and Annie Get Your Gun—and music for 15 Hollywood films.
His first big hit was Alexander’s Ragtime Band in 1911, which sold a million copies of sheet music. Since then, his many songs have become part of our American heritage: There’s No Business Like Show Business, Easter Parade, God Bless America, which is still sung at baseball games, and White Christmas. Nominated eight times for an Oscar, he was awarded the 1943 Academy Award for Best Original Song for White Christmas introduced by Bing Crosby in Holiday Inn. And in 1951, he won the Tony Award for Best Score for Call Me Madam.
Berlin, with Sam H. Harris, even helped build a theater on Broadway—the Music Box Theatre on West 45th Street. In 2007, the Shubert Organization assumed full ownership and the Music Box is still a theater today.
ASTAIRE STOPS DANCING
During his career as a dancer, Astaire made 30 musicals in 25 years. Three films that he appeared in have been selected for the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant: Top Hat, Swing Time, and The Band Wagon.
Astaire retired from musicals in 1958 to concentrate on dramatic roles beginning with On the Beach in 1959. He did perform in one last musical film—Finian’s Rainbow in 1968. And between 1958-1968, Astaire produced four TV specials that won nine Emmy Awards. His last film appearance was in the 1981 Ghost Story.
He retired from all forms of entertainment in 1981 at the age of 82. He once said: “I have never had anything that I can remember in the business—and that includes all the movies and the stage shows and everything—that I didn’t enjoy.”*
ASTAIRE’S OTHER INTERESTS
Astaire was also a terrific musician on drums and piano. In his late 70s, the indomitable Fred Astaire took up skateboarding and was granted lifetime membership in the National Skateboard Society. And he had a lifelong love of thoroughbred racing. He owned several thoroughbreds and Blue Valley Ranch, a thoroughbred breeding facility in California.
He was especially proud of his racehorse, Triplicate, that had13 wins, including the prestigious 1946 Hollywood Gold Cup. The horse meant so much to him that he had a painting of Triplicate hanging in his home.
BERLIN RETIRED BUT NOT FORGOTTEN
When his Broadway show Mr. President closed in 1962 after a short run, Berlin realized that the public’s taste for music had changed and he decided to retire to his townhouse in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. But in spite of this, he was not forgotten.
In 1988, a very special event occurred—Irving Berlin’s 100th Birthday Celebration at Carnegie Hall. Berlin was unable to attend, but his life, career and music were celebrated live with his songs sung by Tony Bennett, Ray Charles, Rosemary Clooney, Billy Eckstine, Frank Sinatra, and many more. The program was televised and won two Emmy Awards. The concert benefitted Carnegie Hall and the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) of which Berlin was one of its founders in 1914.
ASTAIRE AND BERLIN HONORED
Both Astaire and Berlin were greatly acclaimed for their life work. Astaire was honored with more than 30 awards, including the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science Honorary Award in 1950 “for his unique artistry and his contributions to the technique of motion pictures;” the Golden Globe Cecil B. DeMille Award “for lifetime achievement in motion pictures” in 1960; and in 1978, he was one of the first recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors.
Astaire was nominated for several acting roles and won the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor for Three Little Words in 1950; the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor for The Towering Inferno in 1974; and an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor for A Family Upside Down, 1978.
Voted 19th of the Greatest Movie Stars of All Time by Entertainment Weekly, Astaire was also named the fifth Greatest Actor by the American Film Institute’s 50 Greatest Screen Legends.
Both Astaire and Berlin were inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame—one performed on Broadway, the other composed music for Broadway shows.
Berlin also won many, many awards, including a Special Tony Award for his many years of distinguished contribution to the American musical theatre in 1963; the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1968; and in 1978, he was awarded the Lawrence Langer Tony Award for Distinguished Lifetime Achievement in the American Theatre. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Jewish-American Hall of Fame. Berlin was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1954 for God Bless America, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977, and the Medal of Liberty in 1986.
THE GREAT FRIENDS PASS AWAY TWO YEARS APART
When Astaire died in 1987 at the age of 88, he was called “the greatest dancer in the world” by George Balanchine, choreographer and for more than 35 years, Artistic Director of the New York City Ballet, which he co-founded.
A man of genuine charm, talent, and elegance, Astaire is still a much loved show business legend. A modest man, Astaire said of himself: “I’m just a hoofer with a spare pair of tails.”+
Berlin passed away in 1989 at the age of 101, two years after the death of his lifelong friend. The New York Times said that Berlin had “set the tone and the tempo for the tunes America played and sang and danced to for much of the 20th century.” Composer Jerome Kern said: “Irving Berlin has no place in American music—he is American music.” Kern said it all.
The passing of these two men has not diminished their great talent. We still enjoy Astaire’s dancing and charm—and we still hum and dance to Berlin’s great tunes.
Two men met in 1935 and remained close, best friends throughout their long, illustrious, exceptional lives. Berlin said: “The song has ended, but the melody lingers on.”* He was right…their melodies do still linger on.