Aspens Klineman tells all about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers
ASPEN When Aspen’s Bob Klineman says that Swing Time is the best of the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers films, you might wonder if its just the nostalgic memory of an 81-year-old whose heart remains with the glory days of the Hollywood musical, which dates back as far as Klineman himself.The wiser course, however, is to treat the opinion as the gospel. Klineman, who first moved to Aspen in 1975 and returned full-time three years ago, is a walking encyclopedia of musical facts and dates. But apart from knowing the trivia that Swing Time was the only musical directed by George Stevens, for instance Klineman has a sharp eye for the work itself. He is also a well-spoken, and boundlessly enthusiastic speaker on the subject of the American musical both Broadway and Hollywood versions, with a specialty in Astaire whose accounts are embroidered with such tidbits as why the stage show The Gay Divorce was renamed The Gay Divorcee on-screen. (RKO didnt want the public to think it saw divorce as gay, or fun, said Klineman.)Klineman, along with the Wheeler Film Series, presents Swing Time at Aspens Wheeler Opera House on Saturday, with screenings at 4:30 and 7:30 p.m. That leaves an hour or so in between show times, during which Klineman will deliver Part 1 of his seminar, The Artistry of Fred Astaire. Part 2 of the seminar is technically scheduled for Jan. 11, when the Wheeler will show another Astaire classic, The Band Wagon. But since time will be so tight on Saturday only an hour for him to address Astaire, whom Klineman puts on a pedestal with William Shakespeare as the two towering artists ever the seminar might reconvene after this weekends evening screening.If youre really interested, stay all night, said Klineman. I can go on and on with these stories. Klinemans own story starts in Cleveland, where his best friends father was a film distributor. Thanks to that connection, Klineman was treated to Friday-night screenings at the Hippodrome Theater, where he favored the musicals at the University of Pennsylvania, He staged his own musicals, like a take-off of The Al Jolson Story, which he performed in Philadelphia frat houses and even up the New Jersey Turnpike in Manhattan. While living in New York through the 60s, and building a ladies sportswear company, Klineman says he missed not a single major musical that made it to Broadway. After moving to Aspen, he was involved in virtually every theater and dance venture there was, and helped form the Aspen Community and Institute Committee, which staged events during the quieter seasons.Far more interesting to Klineman is the story of Frederick Austerlitz, the Omaha-raised son of an Austrian immigrant. When the Austerlitz family moved to New York, Frederick and his older sister Adele formed an underage singing-and-dancing duo, under the name Astaire. Despite his jug ears, long face and strikingly high forehead, Fred Astaire made the transition to Hollywood. While helping George Gershwin stage the number Embraceable You for the show Girl Crazy, Astaire met the 18-year-old chorus dancer, Ginger Rogers, and formed a friendship. In Astaires second film, Flying Down to Rio in which he was billed as Fred Ayres he appeared on-screen with the partner who would help him make his name.Astaire and Ginger Rogers were supporting players in 1933s Flying Down to Rio. But their appearance together was such a hit that the studio, RKO, quickly lined up a starring vehicle for them, The Gay Divorcee, released the next year. (The film was directed by Mark Sandrich, whose son, Jay, a prominent TV director, is a part-time Aspenite.) Astaires first starring role yielded one of the most memorable dance scenes in film, The Carioca.It was so magnificent, said Klineman, people got up in the theater and clapped, As far as I know, that had never been done before. So RKO knew they had something.Astaire and Rogers went on to make eight films together, including such high points as Shall We Dance and Top Hat.But in Klinemans opinion, the pair were never better than in 1936s Swing Time, the story of a man who moves to New York City and helps save the job of a young dance teacher. Of course, Klineman backs up his opinion with numerous, well-detailed reasons.I think its the best score for an Astaire film, said Klineman, who has previously presented Singin in the Rain, Meet Me in St. Louis and other musicals at the Wheeler. Its Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields, but its not typical Kern. Typical Kern is more toward the operatic side, like Showboat, Sally, Sunny, all through his career. And the only reason this is more popular, more uplifting, more big-band, is Dorothy Fields. (Requisite Klineman aside: Fields was the daughter of Lew Fields, who, with his partner Joe Weber, formed one of the great acts of Vaudeville. Dorothy, with her brother Herbert, also wrote the book for Annie, Get Your Gun.)Among the songs to come out of Swing Time is The Way You Look Tonight, which earned the Academy Award for best song.Swing Time also earns points for its sense of humor. All the great Astaire films had comic relief, said Klineman. But this is the only one Victor Moore was in. He was one of the great stage comedians of all time. And he was so great as Astaires sidekick.Klineman says the film got some extra spice from behind-the-scenes goings-on. During filming, director Stevens who would make such notable dramas as Giant, Shane and A Place in the Sun, but never return to musicals carried on an affair with Rogers. That, I think, spurred them to do a real piece of art, said Klineman.And of course, there is the dancing. Klineman ranks Never Gonna Dance, as the great Astaire/Rogers number. Its just a little different, he said. Theres a balletic form that they dont often use. (Inevitable bit of Klineman trivia: Astaire and Rogers performed so many takes of the stairway portion of Never Gonna Dance, that Gingers foot was bleeding.)A dancing bonus is Astaire appearing, for the only time, in blackface. Its because of his adoration and that really is the word for Bill Robinson, the first Bojangles.They met on the Vaudeville circuit. Robinson was considerably older than Astaire, but they worked together and Robinson gave Astaire some ideas like dancing on sand. Astaire gave Robinson some ideas, too. Robinson also taught Astaire a mean game of pool. Mean. It was almost like they had a father-son relationship. And like every dancer in the world, Astaire loved Robinson.(Final Klineman back-story: A lot of people dont realize, Astaire did his own choreography. Not alone, though; with Hermes Pan, his partner. Who looked a lot like Astaire. Pans contribution was underrated. After Astaire finished one film, he and Pan would start preparing for the next film. Over a six-week period, Pan would play the Ginger role, while Ginger was out making another movie. Shed come into rehearsal and there would be marks on the floor for her to follow Fred and Pan had created her steps.
Swing Time shows Saturday at 4:30 and 7:30 p.m. at the Wheeler Opera House, with a seminar, The Artistry of Fred Astaire, presented by Bob Klineman, at 6:20 firstname.lastname@example.org
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