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Men in the Arts: Fred Astaire

Men in the Arts: Fred Astaire

Fred Astaire, born Frederick Austerlitz II, was born in Omaha, Nebraska on May 10, 1899 to Frederic and Johanna Austerlitz. His parents arrived from Austria in 1892 in hopes of furthering the family’s brewing trade. The Austerlitzs lived in the great Midwest up until Astaire’s father lost his job in 1905. From there, they relocated to New York City where Astaire’s mother enrolled him and his sister, Adele, at the Alviene Master School of the Theatre and Academy of Cultural Arts. Their mother had strong dreams and ambitions of her children escaping the “simple life” by working their way up the performing arts hierarchy.  

Shortly after, in 1906, Astaire and his sister formed a “brother and sister act” touring the country as one of the greatest vaudeville duos in circulation. After a few years in the business, they outgrew their material and could no longer get bookings. They were on a performing hiatus for two years, re-enrolling in school in New Jersey. Soon after returning to vaudeville, and under the watch of dancer Aurelio Coccia, whom Astaire considered the most influential person in his dancing career, they developed another act show-stopping act. By their last season in vaudeville, still in their mid-teens, they had become featured performers earning upwards of $350 a week (present-day ~$8,500). Fred Astaire and his sister moved upwards towards Broadway following their success in vaudeville, starring in ten productions on the Great White Way. Although he was talented on his own, he was always outshined by his older, and even more talented, sister.

Adele retired from show business in 1932 and Fred took this opportunity to promote his own career. He acquired the lead role in a musical entitled, Gay Divorce, which was the stepping stone in his solo career. The show was important not only because it proved that Astaire could succeed without his sister and it helped developed his artistic aesthetic for the years to come.

Astaire married the following year and took his career and newlywed wife to Hollywood, California. He continued acting, singing and predominantly dancing and entered into another performing duo which would turn out to be the most famous one of his career. He acted in many musical comedies alongside Ginger Rogers until 1946 when he decided to take a break and open dance studios after his films sparked the interest of many.

Following his wife’s death in 1957, Astaire announced his retirement in dance and focused all his talents on dramatic acting. However, he did not stop dancing completely. He followed his retirement with a few musical specials and in the 1970s moved solely towards television. His final appearance on-screen was in 1981, where in acted in a horror film that brought great attention all around the country.

Fred Astaire died from pneumonia on June 22, 1987. He is buried at the Oakwood Memorial Park Cemetery in Chatsworth, California. He is regarded by many as the greatest and most influential music dancer of all time. He helped immensely define and develop a new film genre, brought out some of the best leading composers and lyricists, influenced a new generation of filmmakers and choreographers, and inspired many people to take up dance as not only a profession, but as a hobby.

“The higher up you go, the more mistakes you are allowed. Right at the top, if you make enough of them, it's considered to be your style.” - Fred Astaire

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