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Astaire's Dance With Tv

July 12, 1987|CECIL SMITH

When Fred Astaire died, it was interesting that CBS News, which rarely pays much attention to show business, trotted out its biggest guns, Dan Rather and Charles Kuralt, for an hour tribute to the great dancer, one of the nicest guys who ever entered this flea-bitten racket.

The program was almost totally devoted to Astaire's movies, particularly those he made with Ginger Rogers, who appeared briefly from her ranch in Oregon. There was a passing reference to Astaire's years on Broadway when he danced with his sister Adele, but Kuralt noted that to small-town America, Broadway was as distant as the moon, but those Astaire-Rogers movies were part of their lives.

Curiously, the program didn't mention Astaire's work on TV, not even that landmark special, "An Evening With Fred Astaire," and its two sequels, "Another Evening With Fred Astaire" and "Astaire Time."

Actually, more people probably saw each of these specials than all the Astaire-Rogers movies combined. But there's a tendency, even on TV, to negate anything TV does, dismissing it as a third-rate art, not worthy of comment, which, coincidentally, was the way the intellectuals felt about movies back when Fred was dancing with Ginger.

I would not think CBS would be so petty as to deliberately ignore the specials because they were on NBC.

More than the movies, "An Evening With Fred Astaire" is probably the definitive work of Astaire on screen because it wasn't cluttered up with those silly stories of the movies, it was pure dance--I can close my eyes and still see Fred and Barrie Chase in that explosive "St. James Infirmary" number.

Astaire spent nearly a year preparing the 60-minute program, perhaps the most perfect production in the history of the medium. It swept the 1958-59 Emmy Awards with an unprecedented eight Emmys, including one to Astaire as "best actor," which caused controversy--Ed Sullivan claimed he shouldn't have it and Fred offered to give it back.

Astaire's death again makes one wonder what has happened to the musical theater, once the pride of America. There are no more musical-variety shows on television in the Shore and Como mold, no more musical specials like Astaire's or Gene Kelly's; Carol Burnett is doing drama. The musical movie seems to have vanished and most Broadway musicals are British. Is there no life beyond MTV?

John Springer, in his definitive study of the movie musicals, "All Talking, All Singing, All Dancing," found them cyclical. There was the era of the early talkies, of "Broadway Melody," "Gold Diggers of Broadway," "Fox Movietone Follies," of Nancy Carroll, Buddy Rogers, John Boles, Winnie Lightner. That segued into the "42nd Street" era, Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler, "Gold Diggers of 1933," Joan Blondell, Ginger Rogers, the Busby Berkeley extravaganzas.

Next was the Crosby era, "College Humor," "The Big Broadcast," Hope, Lamour and Crosby on the "Roads." And the Astaire era, though Fred danced unnoticed in some of those early movies, "Top Hat," "Roberta," "Carefree," Gene Kelly, Rita Hayworth, Cyd Charisse, Marge and Gower Champion and the dancing ladies: Eleanor Powell, Ann Miller, Zorina, Vera Allen, Jeanmaire. Gwen Verdon was also around, unnoted.

The operetta era, Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, "Rose Marie." "Naughty Marietta," Maurice Chevalier, Allan Jones, Irene Dunne, Grace Moore, "One Night of Love." The kiddie era: Shirley Temple, Donald O'Connor, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, "The Three Little Pigs," Deanna Durbin, "100 Men and a Girl," "Three Smart Girls," "The Wizard of Oz." And the Alice Faye-Betty Grable era, "Tin Pan Alley," "Alexander's Ragtime Band," Dan Dailey, June Allyson, Marilyn Monroe, Doris Day, Dorothy Dell. Springer's "Golden Era" was Kelly, Astaire, Caron, "An American in Paris," "On the Town," "Cover Girl," the masterpiece "Singin in the Rain," Cagney's "Yankee Doodle Dandy."

So many musicals that at one time theaters advertised on their marquee that a movie was "NOT A MUSICAL." But every time one of the cycles ran out of gas, some great show would come along and another cycle would begin.

But it hasn't happened in recent years. There was "Gigi," but no score of "Gigis" to follow it; there was "Sound of Music," "Music Man" and "Cabaret"--but they launched no new era.

Those old movie musicals were generally characterized by terrible scripts and wonderful songs. Almost all the top composers of the era wrote for them--George and Ira Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, Fred Loesser, Hoagy Carmichael, Al Dubin and Harry Warren, Mack Gordon--the list is endless.

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