The Astaires: Fred and Adele

Paperback | May 6, 2014

byKathleen Riley

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Before "Fred and Ginger," there was "Fred and Adele," a show-business partnership and cultural sensation like no other. In our celebrity-saturated era, it's hard to comprehend what a genuine phenomenon these two siblings from Omaha were. At the height of their success in the mid-1920s, theAstaires seemed to define the Jazz Age. They were Gershwin's music in motion, a fascinating pair who wove spellbinding rhythms in song and dance. In this book, the first comprehensive study of their theatrical career together, Kathleen Riley traces the Astaires' rise to fame from humble midwestern origins and early days as child performers on small-time vaudeville stages (where Fred, fatefully, first donned top hat and tails) to their 1917debut on Broadway to star billings on both sides of the Atlantic. They became ambassadors of an art form they helped to revolutionize, adored by audiences, feted by royalty, and courted socially by elites everywhere they went. From the start, Adele was the more natural performer, spontaneous, funny, and self-possessed, while Fred had to hone his trademark timing and elegance through endless hours of rehearsal, a disciplined regimen that Adele loathed. Ultimately, Fred's dancing expertise surpassed his sister's, and theirpaths diverged: Adele married into British aristocracy, and Fred headed for Hollywood. The Astaires examines in depth the extraordinary story of this great brother-sister team, with full attention to its historical and theatrical context. It is not merely an account of the first part of Fred's long and illustrious career but one with its own significance. Born at the close of the1800s, Fred and Adele grew up together with the new century, and when they reached superstardom during the interwar years, they shone as an affirmation of life and hope amid a prevailing crisis of faith and identity.

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From the Publisher

Before "Fred and Ginger," there was "Fred and Adele," a show-business partnership and cultural sensation like no other. In our celebrity-saturated era, it's hard to comprehend what a genuine phenomenon these two siblings from Omaha were. At the height of their success in the mid-1920s, theAstaires seemed to define the Jazz Age. They we...

Born in Australia and educated at Sydney and Oxford Universities, Kathleen Riley is a classical scholar and modern theater historian. She is the author of Nigel Hawthorne on Stage and The Reception and Performance of Euripides' Herakles: Reasoning Madness. At Oxford in 2008 she convened the first international conference on the art and...

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:224 pages, 9.25 × 6.12 × 0.68 inPublished:May 6, 2014Publisher:Oxford University PressLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:019935894X

ISBN - 13:9780199358946

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Rated 2 out of 5 by from A somewhat plain, one-dimensional study of Fred & Adele Astaire I've been wanting to read The Astaires: Fred & Adele by Kathleen Riley (Oxford University Press, 2012) since it came out in hardback in the spring of 2012. I'm truly embarrassed to say that it's taken me this long because Fred Astaire was one of my very first loves. Although I can't remember which of his movie musicals was the first one I watched, I can remember how obsessed I was with him. Want proof? While everyone else in my high school hung pictures of (annoying) boy bands in their lockers, the inside of my locker door was festooned - yes, festooned - with posters of Astaire and his various dancing partners (Ginger Rogers, Rita Hayworth, Eleanor Powell, etc). My high school chums adored how "eccentric" my taste in films was and the teachers that stalked the hallways respected my penchant for classic Hollywood and "the good ol' days." There's just something about Fred Astaire that screams elegance, respectability, and poise that get people excited and make 'em wistful - wistful for days gone by when all you really needed was a decent pair of tap shoes and a willing partner to pass the time away. Everyone respects and idolizes Fred Astaire and it was high time I finally delved into this biography of the man and his equally enchanting older sister Adele. Physically speaking, the book is quite slim at just 242 pages long (51 of those pages consist of various notes, appendixes, and a chronological history of Fred and Adele's showbiz career). Black and white photographs appear generously throughout the book and though they're not of the greatest quality, each one of them is charming in its own right. Though I've been a fan of Fred Astaire practically my whole life, I have to admit that the majority of these photographs were completely foreign to me! Many of them I'd never seen before and that made my reading experience of The Astaires: Fred & Adele that much more enjoyable! Author Kathleen Riley does a remarkable job detailing Fred and Adele's early life and start on the vaudeville circuit in the early twentieth century. It's amazing how much information Riley managed to get her hands on, because truth be told, I didn't think it would be a particularly easy task. Though the author doesn't go into too much detail as far as the children's family life is concerned, you still come away knowing the bare bones facts of their upbringing. Fred and Adele's dance and theatre training takes centre stage in this biography (heh, see what I did there?) as well as the Astaires' forays into the worlds of vaudeville and Broadway. One thing I found quite fascinating was the total lack of jealousy and/or animosity between Adele and Fred. It's common to hear of one sibling being more talented and ambitious than the other in a stage act, but absolutely none of that existed between Fred and Adele. Each performer posessed their own strengths: Adele was more outrageous, less inhibited and uproariously funny and Fred was more elegant, committed to rehearsals and showed the most promise as far as dance was concerned (in fact, he was able to dance en pointe as a young boy which is super-rare for males). Instead of letting petty jealousies ruin their working relationship, Fred and Adele thrived on their individual talents and worked together to achieve worldwide fame and recognition. Fred and Adele Astaire came into contact with many legendary theatre personalities throughout their rise through the ranks of amateur starlets to first-rate Broadway draws: ballroom dancing stars Vernon and Irene Castle, budding songwriters George and Ira Gershwin, successful Broadway producer Charles Dillingham and English playwright Noel Coward. The Astaires even managed to rub elbows with royalty during their tour of London (Adele would go on to marry Lord Charles Arthur Francis Cavendish in 1932)! While Fred would go on to achieve enormous success in Hollywood, Adele retired from show business once she married Lord Cavendish. Initially wanting to kickstart her career in the entertainment industry once again in the mid-1930s, Adele claimed she felt intimidated by her younger brother's sterling reputation and shied away from making any real progress in film or on the stage. Although The Astaires: Fred & Adele was primarily an enjoyable read, the one thing that I thought this biography lacked was heart. Author Kathleen Riley certainly did her research but I found that the narrative was decidedly cold - almost as if Riley was presenting her readers with the bare facts and no substance. Just like a vegetarian hamburger, there was no real meat to sink one's teeth into. The book reads like a chronological timeline of Fred and Adele's showbiz career, listing one event after another and though sometimes this is welcome in a non-fiction read, it's not what I was looking for here. Being a lifelong admirer of Fred Astaire, I wanted more. More more more (in the words of Billy Idol). If you're an admirer of Fred and Adele Astaire and would like to know more about their upbringing, training and Broadway successes, The Astaires: Fred and Adele is a good starting point. Perhaps, later on down the road, someone else will write a more in-depth biography of the pair but until then, this one will do just fine.
Date published: 2015-12-01

Extra Content

Table of Contents

List of illustrationsJohn Mueller: ForewordAcknowledgementsPrefaceIntroduction: Moaning Minnie and Goodtime Charlie1. Opening the bill2. Over the top3. Dancing comedians4. Nightingales in Berkeley Square5. Fascinating rhythms6. The golden calf7. Frater, ave atque vale8. By myself9. After the danceChronologies:1. (a) The shows1. (b) Charity performances2. Other notable events in theatre, 1917-1933NotesBibliographyIndex

Editorial Reviews

"Riley writes with zest and authoritative expertise, displaying a grace and elegance equal to her subjects." --Publishers Weekly