The stars turn out for the legendary dancer
The London Palladium was packed to the rafters on Sunday 18 February 2001 when Ava Astaire McKenzie hosted a tribute to her father Fred, in aid of The Montserrat Foundation. The stars turned out in numbers, including several from the glorious days of the Hollywood musical.
The evening opened with a succession of dancers taking us quickly through the early days of Fred and his sister Adele Astaire as children and young theatre performers, before Adele marries Lord Charles Cavendish and foregoes the stage. The final couple portrayed Fred with Ginger Rogers in their musical heyday.
The format of the evening was Ava sitting at a table stage right, with a vacant chair for a succession of guests. During the evening she was joined by Brits Sir George Martin and Michael Parkinson, and from The States actors Robert Wagner, Tony Martin and conductor Elmer Bernstein. But most people were here to see the Glamour Gals, Jane Powell (Fred's partner in Royal Wedding), Ann Miller (Easter Parade) and possibly most of all, Cyd Charisse (Band Wagon, Silk Stockings).
The interviews were interspersed with song and dance numbers, as well as some film clips of the man himself, FA. For the three people who may still not know, Ava explained the secret of how Fred danced on the ceiling in Royal Wedding, adding that the first Astaire DVD is due in April, and will feature this film and Second Chorus. Additional footage will show the trick photography.
There were, of course, several clips of FA dancing, perhaps most notably at The 1969 Oscar ceremony, his last public dancing assignment. Elmer Bernstein, who conducted the orchestra on that night, was here to explain how it all came about. Everyone had been nervous to ask FA whether he would dance. He agreed, provided the music was something modern.
On the night there were a number of no-shows, notably Twiggy, Sir John Mills, Leslie Caron and Gregory Peck. Where on earth they would have found time for them all had they shown up is impossible to guess; the evening was a non-stop succession of song, dance and chat.
There were a vast number of routines to get through. Songs or dances from half of FA's 31 musicals were performed, including half of his movies with Ginger Rogers. Sadly, nothing from the Vera-Ellen or Rita Hayworth movies - but again, where could they have been fitted in?
Throughout the evening, Ava was utterly charming. It was as if you had been invited into her front room, and this whole performance was just for you. Clearly, she was very good friends with all her star guests, which showed in the warmth of the interviews.
Jane Powell was first in the chair, telling the story of her introduction to FA. "When did you last dance with your sister?" she asked him. "In 1929", came the reply. "Oh" said Jane, "That was the year I was born!"
There were 25 numbers performed during the evening. One of the highlights were Jimmy Johnston asking Jessica Martin "How Could You Believe Me When I Said Loved You When You Know I've Been A Liar All My Life". Clive Carter delivered a wonderful One For My Baby, including a little slide at the end, before deciding against a dance routine. He was followed by Clive Rowe, with a resounding rendition of A Foggy Day from Damsel In Distress.
Robert Wagner acted with Astaire in the 1974 film The Towering Inferno. During a break between takes, FA remained on set, and was eventually persuaded to leave. Moments after he did so, a light from the scaffold crashed down where he had just been standing.
The last time Fred visited the UK, Michael Parkinson interviewed him in 1972. Parkinson met him before the cameras rolled, and noticed how nervous he was. To relax him, Parkinson related the story of how when he was young, he tried to imitate the Astaire walk. Being unable to do this, he then opted for the gait of John Wayne. As the band struck up, the host descended the steps to his chair, tripping and ending up in an undignified heap at the bottom. Astaire said to him afterwards "Guess you got me mixed up with The Duke!"
Ava herself told a couple of stories that said much about the man. As a youngster, she and a friend had decided to break into Universal Studios one night, to visit the house from Psycho on the lot. They drove out there and threw a blanket over the barbed wire, climbed over and in. But they were spotted by guards, and had to beat a hasty retreat. On returning home, clothes torn and scratched from the fence, she made a clean breast of it to her father. "Wow", he said, "I wished I'd done that!"
During the filming of The Sky's The Limit, Fred sings "One For My Baby" while drunk in a bar. The routine required him to dance on the bar top, and kick glasses on shelves, shattering them. Ava revealed they were real, and shards of glass had to be removed from his legs after the shot was complete.
The grace with which Ann Miller arrived and moved across the stage had to be seen to be believed. She sounded bright and sharp as she told of some of the mischievous escapades that Fred got up to with his choreographer, Hermes Pan. Bored with a party that they were hosting, they disappeared into the garden and spent the rest of it in a treehouse Astaire had built. What wags!
Tony Martin is also Mr. Cyd Charisse, which must be one of the better jobs in this world. He appeared with Fred in Follow The Fleet in 1936. Martin related how nervous he was on meeting the great man, and constantly called him "Mr. Astaire". "Please" came the reply, "Call me Fred". "OK Mr. Fred Astaire" said Martin.
Next up was for many the star guest. Cyd Charisse looked impossibly gorgeous for someone who is approaching her 78th birthday. And as for her legs - forget about it. In a dress slashed to the thigh, she would put any number of pretenders from the last four decades in their place. She sashayed across the stage on the arm of a dancer who will tell his grandchildren about it. The stage remained sashayed for the rest of the evening.
Cyd's story concerned FA's worry about her being too tall for him to dance with her, and her relief on being told she wasn't, and had the part. And what a part! Opposite Fred in The Band Wagon. She also said that her husband knew whom she had been dancing with by her appearance. With Fred, she remained untouched, but after a session with Gene Kelly "I would be black and blue with bruises!"
Gunilla Backman, Graham Bickley and Clive Carter got dressed up as babes in arms for Triplets from The Band Wagon. Both the song and especially the dance (well, shuffling about on their knees, anyway) were brilliantly carried off. One of the featured songs from Daddy Long Legs was The Sluefoot, which in the film is set in a High School gym at a dance. The choreography was admirably interpolated to include moves that were not shown in the film, as the cameras cut away. However, Charles Shirvell and The Fred Astaire Dancers made an excellent job of recreating the whole piece.
The last guest was Sir George Martin, producer of The Beatles and owner of a recording studio on the island of Montserrat. He praised Ava's efforts to help raise funds to repair the damage done by the volcanic eruptions.
One of the mysteries of the evening was why greater use was not made of Bret Jones. Jones, an American with Astaire looks and height, is a jazz and rhythm tap dancer. He should have been a shoo-in for regular appearances during the evening, instead of his 30 seconds at the start as 'Adult Fred'. Instead we got no less than six numbers from Tim Flavin, who looks and moves less like Astaire than Gene Kelly.
Flavin danced with Janie Dee for Night And Day, a number they had performed together during last year's short run of The Gay Divorce. He was then joined by his wife Stephanie Prince for a number from Holiday Inn, Irving Berlin's You're Easy To Dance With. Not in this number she wasn't, as she looked unsteady and nervous as she was twirled around the stage.
An unheralded surprise for Dancing In The Dark was former Come Dancing presenter Rosemarie Ford. She moved gracefully throughout the song, accompanied by Tim Flavin. She certainly deserved top marks for this performance, as sat in the chair was Cyd Charisse! Alison Jiear and Charles Shirvell appeared on side stairs to extol the virtues of Stereophonic Sound, before the dance ensemble ran through several of the Latin-flavoured numbers, The Continental, The Carioca and The Piccolino.
The evening ended with Tim Flavin and the company putting on their Top Hat White Ties and Tails. Then all the guests joined the cast onstage and turned to the screen to see images of Fred, as the sound system played his Oscar Peterson version of They Can't Take That Away From Me.
At the beginning of the evening, Ava had mentioned how she had been invited to a tribute to celebrate the centenary of Astaire's birth in 1999. She said she had been disappointed with the result, and wanted to do something worthy of the Astaire name. Well, Ava, you certainly did. Your father would be proud.
ã February 2001 Andrew Winton.
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