The Last Dance?

Before there was Fred and Ginger, there was Fred and Adele, and during the 1920s and early 30s Fred and Adele Astaire were brother-sister dancing royalty and the toast of Broadway.

April 21, 1928 cover by Ilonka Karasz.


Fred and Adele Astaire were born a year apart in Omaha (she the eldest, born in 1898). Their mother wanted the siblings to learn professional dance at an early age, so in 1903 she moved with the children to New York City, leaving their Austrian-born father in Nebraska to work at the Storz brewery. By 1905 the brother-sister act were already popular on the vaudeville circuit, making their way to the Broadway stage by 1917.

EARLY BLOOMERS…Left, Fred and Adele Astaire in a photo taken around 1906, three years after they left Omaha and began their vaudeville career. At right, Fred and Adele in 1911. (Pinterest/NY Times)

Fred became friends with composer George Gershwin the previous year, and in December 1924 the Astaires headlined George and Ira Gershwin’s first full-length New York musical, Lady, Be Good!, in which Fred and Adele played a brother-and-sister dance team down on their luck. In real life, however, their star soared above Jazz Age New York. So when rumor had it that the duo was on the verge of a break-up, “The Talk of the Town” weighed in:

NO, THE OTHER ASTAIRE…At left, Adele and Fred Astaire in the 1920s. At the time the gamine Adele was considered the undisputed star of the duo. At right, the pair in a 1931 ad for Chesterfield cigarettes that also promoted The Band Wagon, their last Broadway revue together. (NY Times/atticpaper.com)

Today you would be hard pressed to find anyone young or old who hasn’t heard of Fred Astaire, his legend so firmly attached to our cultural memory. But at the time it was Adele’s fun-loving ways and mischievous charm that captured the hearts of reviewers and fans alike. Brother Fred, on the other hand, was more interested in devising the duo’s clever routines.

The April 21, 1928 New Yorker was correct in noting that Adele had plans to marry and leave the country, but happily the magazine was wrong on the timing; Adele and Fred would perform together nearly four more years, capping their 27-year partnership with the successful run of The Band Wagon on Broadway.

In 1932 Adele would marry Lord Charles Cavendish and move to Ireland, not England. Home would be Lismore Castle in County Waterford. The end of the partnership with Adele was traumatic for Fred, who was indeed interested in producing and race horses, but that was not his immediate future as the New Yorker suggested. Instead, his movie career would take off like a rocket in 1933 in a string of hits with Ginger Rodgers including The Gay Divorcee (1934), Top Hat (1935) and Swing Time (1936).

Fred Astaire briefly turned his focus to horse-racing when he announced his early retirement in 1946, but he would soon return to the screen with Easter Parade in 1948 and enjoy another string of hits in the 1950s. Though separated by an ocean, the brother and sister remained close through the years.

MY SIS IS A LADY…A reunion of Astaires in Ireland, 1939. Fred Astaire and his wife, Phyllis Livingston Potter, with Lord and Lady Charles Cavendish photographed on the day brother Fred and wife arrived at Lismore Castle from America to stay with sister Adele and her husband at their home in County Waterford. (Pinterest)
SOARING CAREER…Ginger Rodgers swings with Fred Astaire in 1938’s Carefree. (Flickr)
TOGETHER AFTER ALL THESE YEARS…Left, Fred and Adele honored by the American Theater Hall of Fame in 1972 (celebrity promotor Earl Blackwell is in the center). Right, Fred and Adele at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, England, circa 1980. Chatsworth had been in the Cavendish family since the 17th century, so Adele, as Lady Cavendish, was a frequent visitor. In a recent article in The Cheshire Magazine (April 11, 2017) Duchess Mary recalled the family’s first meeting with Adele in 1932: “All gathered, like stone pillars, in the library… the heavy doors opened and there stood this tiny girl, beautifully dressed. We waited for her to approach us, but instead of walking, she suddenly began turning cartwheels. Everyone loved it.”(ATHF/thecheshiremagazine.co.uk)

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Not So Happy Feet

Frequent New Yorker contributor Morris Markey wrote several articles under the heading, “New York Interiors” (my last post featured his look at radio broadcasting). In the April 21 issue Markey took a look at the sad world of the “taxi dancers” in the ironically named “Happiness Hall.” This was the second time the New Yorker delved into the taxi-dancing world—Maxwell Bodenheim visited a Broadway dance hall in the June 12, 1926 edition of the magazine.

In both cases, the writers described a pathetic ritual for dancers and patrons alike, and both underscored a cruel illusion we still have today that the Roaring Twenties was an age of prosperity and good times for all. Excerpts:

NO FREDS OR GINGERS HERE…Taxi-dancers awaiting customers at a Broadway dance hall in the early 1930s. The image was scanned from an article in Weekly Illustrated (Oct. 6, 1934) that described new regulations banning the vocation.

Later in the article, Markey described a dance with a red-haired girl who showed him the ropes…

…and described the less than elegant environment of “Happiness Hall”…

NO FUN IN THE MOVIES EITHER…Footsore taxi-dancers including Barbara Stanwyck, third from left, in 1931’s Ten Cents a Dance. (imdb)

Markey concluded his visit by attempting to talk, rather than dance, with a graceful, yet hardboiled dancer:

In the 1920s Americans in general were poorer than they are today (money-wise) and lacked the safety nets that we have come to depend on in modern life. In 1929 economists considered $2,500 the income necessary to support a family. In that year, more than 60 percent of the nation’s families earned less than $2,000 a year—an income necessary for basic necessities—and more than 40 percent earned less than $1,500 annually.

For single women, such as the taxi dancers, the situation was just as bad or worse. Retail workers in U.S. faced long hours, poor working conditions and low pay, especially before the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. A clerk selling those beautiful clothes at Bloomingdale’s couldn’t afford those clothes herself, let alone make a living wage from the job. As Markey’s article made clear, taxi dancing was nothing but additional toil, 10 cents a pop.

From Our Advertisers…

We’ve seen cigarette advertisements featuring celebrity endorsements, but how about this one for Marlboro that suggested Christopher Columbus would have preferred their smokes…

…and then there were the ads for Fleischmann Yeast featured in nearly every issue of the early New Yorker magazine. According to Thomas Kunkel’s book, Genius in Disguise, Raoul Fleischmann was the wealthy scion of a New York yeast and baking family and a frequent guest of the Algonquin Round Table. He hated the baking business, so when founding editor Harold Ross pitched the idea of investing in his new magazine, Fleischmann obliged with $25,000. Ross and his wife, Jane Grant, together put up the other $25,000 (which included some IOU’s), but after the magazine was launched and struggled during its first months, Fleischmann was further obliged to pour in many hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep the magazine afloat (and in spite teasing from his friends that he might as well dump the money in the river).

The magazine was actually killed as early as May 8, when Fleischmann called Ross and other magazine directors together after Ross lost a large amount of money in a poker game (money he’d plan to invest in the magazine). Fortunately, the following day was fellow Round Tabler Franklin P. Adams’ wedding, and in the convivial atmosphere Ross and Fleischmann agreed to give the magazine another go. If Fleischmann was going to pour money into the magazine, he might as well get a little “free” advertising for his product. Hence the ads in the New Yorker promoting the generous consumption of fresh yeast cakes as a laxative and health tonic…

…and with that background information, this cartoon in the April 21 issue by Peter Arno makes a lot more sense

And finally, Leonard Dove takes a look at life in a growing metropolis…

Next Time: Back to Broadway…

 

 

 

Good Vibrations

A decidedly new sound reverberated in the ears of New Yorkers who attended a Feb. 1928 performance of the New York Philharmonic that featured guest artist Leon Theremin, a Russian inventor who played music by moving his hands through the air, or more accurately, a magnetic field.

February 4, 1928 cover by Gardner Rea.

Theremin’s eponymous instrument had neither keys nor strings, but rather two metal antennas attached to an electronic oscillator. Music was produced by moving one’s hands between the antennas, which sensed the relative position of the players hands—one antenna controlled for pitch while the other adjusted the instrument’s volume. The sound produced is best described as “otherworldly.” The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town,” found Theremin’s performance intriguing, but of even greater interest was the great Russian pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff—who was in attendance—and his reaction to the strange instrument:

HMMMM…At left, Sergei Rachmaninoff in 1921, as photographed by Kubey Rembrandt. At right, Leon Theremin plays his eponymous instrument at a demonstration concert in Paris on December 8, 1927. (Wikimedia)

The New Yorker’s voyeuristic account of Rachmaninoff continued, with the great man now becoming more engaged in the performance…

The Theremin would grow in popularity, however more as a novelty than a serious instrument:

ON THE AIR…Alexandra Stepanoff playing the Theremin on NBC Radio in 1930. A Russian immigrant to the U.S., the former concert singer was Theremin’s first student in the United States. (Wikimedia)
VIRTUOSO…The Russian-born Clara (Reisenberg) Rockmore holds a unique place in music history as the virtuoso performer of the Theremin. Leon Theremin built a custom version of his instrument for Clara, which added greater range and sensitivity. Clara would sometimes perform concerts with her sister, accomplished pianist Nadia Reisenberg. Photo circa 1930. (YouTube)

Theremin would be granted a U.S. patent for the instrument in 1928, which was marketed and distributed in the U.S. by RCA during the 1930’s in either DIY kit form or as a finished instrument:

(120years.net)

Interest in the instrument as a novelty continued into the 40’s and 50’s in the DIY market…

(120years.net)

Robert Moog, pioneer of modern electronic music and inventor of the Moog synthesizer, made and sold a transistorized version of the Theremin in the 1950s.

The Theremin would become best known to mass culture through its use in producing “eerie” sound effects in 1940s and 50s films, including Bernard Herrmann’s use of the instrument for the soundtrack to the 1951 sci-fi thriller, The Day The Earth Stood Still. And nearly everyone on the planet has heard the Theremin-inspired sound of the Beach Boy’s song Good Vibrations, created by an electro-Theremin that was developed in the late 1950s to mimic the sound of the original Theremin.

As for Leon Theremin himself, he would also gain notoriety as the inventor of The Thing, a listening device most famously used by the Soviets to bug the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. The device was hidden behind a wood carving of the U.S. Great Seal, which in 1945 was presented by Soviet schoolchildren to the U.S. ambassador, who subsequently hung it in his office.

GOTCHA…American Ambassador to the UN Henry Cabot Lodge displays The Thing before the UN Security Council in 1960. At right, the device which was hidden behind the seal. The Americans discovered the bug in 1952, but didn’t reveal its existence until 1960 in the wake of the U-2 spy plane incident. The Soviet Union had convened the meeting of the United Nations Security Council to accuse the Americans of spying with the U2; in response Cabot displayed The Thing as proof spying between the two countries was a mutual endeavor. (crytomuseum.com/Wikimedia)

The reasons why Theremin developed The Thing for the KGB are a mystery. When he suddenly disappeared from New York in 1938 it was rumored that he had been kidnapped and possibly executed by the KGB. What we do know is that Soviet spooks put him to work in a secret laboratory in the Gulag camp system, where he developed The Thing.

In 1991, filmmaker Steven Martin brought Leon Theremin back to New York to film a documentary about his life. Theremin gave one last performance in 1993, and died that year at age 97.

Wild Kingdom

The New Yorker’s review of the hit film Simba showed a very different approach to the natural world 89 years ago, when the wilds of Africa were exploited purely for adventure and thrills rather than for any real understanding of natural systems and the animals and humans that inhabited them. Martin and Osa Johnson were celebrated for their filmed exploits in the wilds, including Simba; they touted their movie—shot in Kenya—as being made under the auspices of the American Museum of Natural History, although much of the film was staged or edited in ways to maximize the thrills.

The New Yorker found the film to be “darn good fun”…

Despite its flaws, the film does offer us a glimpse of Africa when wildlife hadn’t been hunted to near extinction, although the Johnsons didn’t hesitate to gun down animals left and right in the course of their movie-making.

According to a 2011 review from Wild Film History, “in stark contrast to the conservation-themed wildlife films of today, the Johnsons approached their subjects armed with both camera and rifle, with the production including provoked behaviour, staged confrontations and animals shot to death on film. Relying heavily on cutting in kills from professional marksmen, numerous hunting scenes culminate in a heart-stopping sequence where, with the use of clever editing, the adventurous Mrs Johnson appears to bring down a charging rhinoceros with one well-aimed shot.

NO DAVID ATTENBOROUGH…The Johnsons pose with local tribesman who appeared in Simba. (Corbis)
FUN WITH NATURE…Osa Johnson saddles up a hapless zebra. (Daily Mail)
BALI HAI…Osa shares a smoke with a local during one of the Johnsons’ filming excursions in the South Pacific. (Getty Images)

From the Advertising Department

There were three automobile ads in the Feb. 4 issue, all from long-gone companies—Pierce-Arrow, Hudson-Essex, and Nash, which featured this endorsement by the brother-sister dancing duo Fred and Adele Astaire:

This ad for Dynamique showcased the art deco stylings of its furniture line…

And finally, a Peter Arno cartoon of an upper class faux pas

Next Time: Literary Rotarians…

The Banqueting Wars

“The Talk of the Town” opened with musings on the “banqueting” ritual practiced by various celebrities in Manhattan, in this case the silent film stars Gloria Swanson, Pola Negri, and Tom Mix.

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April 25, 1925 cover by Ilonka Karasz (New Yorker Digital Archive)

The magazine noted that “Banquets are given upon a star’s departure and upon return, and each succeeding one must be bigger and better than ever.” Even the star of silent Westerns, Tom Mix, had a dinner in his honor when he visited the city with his fourth wife, Victoria Forde. “Talk” made this observation:

True, this cowpuncher, who sets fashion by wearing wine-colored evening clothes and with overcoats rimmed with brown leather for morning wear, did not elect to outdo Pola Negri. His was a modest affair held in the Hotel Astor, at which, however, Mrs. Mix was able to display the discomforts of being wealthy by having such an armful of glistening bracelets as made necessary treatment by a masseuse of muscles lamed by bearing such weight of jewels.

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Tom Mix and Victoria Forde (listal.com)
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Pola Negri

In Pola Negri’s case, a bon voyage banquet was given at the Ritz-Carlton (she was headed to Europe) and among the guests were the familiar faces of writer Michael Arlen and movie producer Jesse Lasky, who announced that Arlen would be writing “special stories” to be used as screen vehicles for Negri.

As for Gloria Swanson (returned from France, more on that below) she was “in the happy position of having a contract for one more year with the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, whose officials are greatly concerned lest Cecil B. DeMille wean from them their popular actress.” To ensure Swanson’s happiness, Lasky and Adolph Zukor hosted a banquet and dance in her honor at Park Lane. It was reported that Swanson “was signally honored” when she entered the room to greet her 300 guests:

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Gloria Swanson (United Artists)

The lights were turned off as she took her seat; a spotlight was thrown on her shingled head, and the orchestra struck up her new national anthem, “La Marseillaise”…Girls in Marie Antoinette costumes wended their way among the tables, passing around Napoleonic paper hats, singularly appropriate for the gentlemen who wore them.

“Talk” also offered the latest observations from the magazine’s “Prohibition Authority” regarding the Coast Guard’s inability to stem the flow of Scotch whisky into the city: “Human nature is frail and large operators can afford to offer rewards far above Government pay, all for a little blindness.” Despite a Coast Guard effort to stop smugglers, Scotch remained “plentiful and reasonably priced.”

April 8, 1925 NYT
April 8, 1925, New York Times

Other “Talk” items of note: “King” Babe Ruth, after eating his “fourth breakfast porterhouse and a rough train ride,” fell ill in Asheville, N.C. (he was taken to the hotel on a stretcher, clad in pink pajamas he insisted on wearing)…The Bronxville Golf Club “decided to go stag,” and bar women from membership…Noting that New Yorkers treat their city’s landmarks with amazing indifference, it was announced that the Brevoort Mansion was to be torn down. It was described as “a huge brownstone pile, of stern aspect. It looks like a mausoleum.”

When Henry Breevort Jr. built the mansion at Fifth Avenue and Ninth Street in 1834, it marked the beginning of the transformation of Fifth Avenue from a rutted road into the destination for old and new money alike. According to the excellent blog No Place For Normal: New York, in the 1860s Fifth Avenue’s growing renown as the “axis of elegance” was enhanced by the opening of Central Park in 1859 and by fortunes fattened by Civil War contracts.

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Cornelius Vanderbilt II House on “Millionaires Row” (nyc-architecture.com)

Then during the last several decades of the 19th century, known as the “Gilded Age,” brownstone mansions like Breevort’s were supplanted by ornate French chateau-style mansions, and “a flocking of Old and New Money alike to the Upper Avenue,” which came to be known as “Millionaires Row” (and famously known for the social wars between the Astors and Vanderbilts among others).

The early 20th century saw Fifth Avenue transformed from a place of elegant mansions to a place of elegant hotels and stores. The first years of The New Yorker would witness this transformation as one mansion after another fell to the commercial interests of the booming 1920s.

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“Profile” illustration

“Profile” examined the life of Samuel Goldwyn, “The Celluloid Prince,” whose rule of life was that “in order to live, is not to let live…(this) means outstripping the other fellow by any means possible that does not land one in jail.” His rise from a glove maker to fame and fortune began around 1915 after he “saw a picture show and saw himself a millionaire simultaneously. He took his vision to Jesse Lasky, his brother-in-law, who was a vaudeville man at the time.” In ten years time “a man without background, without education…by sheer urge of some divine spark within him, he was able to build up that colossal enterprise at Culver City.”

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Adele and Fred Astaire in Lady Be Good (nickelinthemachine)

Listings in the “Goings On” section (subtitled The New Yorker’s conscientious calendar of events worth while) included George Gershwin’s Lady Be Good at the Liberty Theatre, with the brother-sister dancing team Fred and Adele Astaire. Movies playing included Grass at the Criterion (“Remarkable film panorama of a primitive Persian tribe on its migration in search of food”).

And in continuing Gloria Swanson news, it was noted that Swanson was appearing in a new moving picture, Madame Sans-Gêne, playing the role of  “the Napoleonic lady of historical romance. Color—and real Parisian backgrounds.”

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Swanson and Émile Drain (as Napoleon) in Madame Sans-Gêne (1925)

According to the site A Lost Film, Swanson took the role to “get away from Hollywood’s frivolous roles in which she felt her talent was under-used and she was little else than a clothes horse.” The lavish production, filmed at various French locations including Fontainebleau and Compiègne, was said to be Swanson’s favorite film. Although the film was released in both the U.S. and France, it is now lost, save for a snippet from the film’s trailer.

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(New Yorker Digital Archive)

“Sports” offered this observation about the pantomime routine of Altrock and Schacht at a baseball game between Washington and New York (see clip at right).

Al Schacht’s ability to mimic other players from the coaching lines, and his comedy routines with fellow Washington coach Nick Altrock, earned him the nickname of “The Clown Prince of Baseball.”

If only the writer knew the extent to which his absurd suggestions would one day come true (and then some) in today’s jumbotron-dominated ballparks.

Ruth, as we know, did not play. By the Babe’s standards, it would prove to be a bad year for him, appearing in fewer than 100 games and batting .290. Somehow, though, this overweight wreck of a man still managed to score 25 home runs that year.

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Al Schacht and Nick Altrock in 1925 (Library of Congress)