Astaire is re-born
October 23, 2007
The ’60s were good times for Bob Klineman, an era when American culture seemed to be right in line with his own tastes. Klineman, however, wasn’t into antiwar demonstrations, pot and free love; his praise of Bob Dylan goes only so far as to concede that the putative voice of a generation “had some talent.”The Klineman of the ’60s was the owner of a New York City firm, Majestic Specialties, that dealt in ladies’ sportswear. He didn’t live among the folk clubs and coffeeshops of Greenwich Village, but on the staid Upper East Side, where he raised his handful of daughters. While New York was being turned upside down by such local bands as the Fugs, and the rock shows at the Fillmore East, Klineman had his ears tuned to the more Midtown sounds of the film musical. And while the decade will forever be associated with the psychedelic experiments of the Beatles and the Grateful Dead, it was a fine time to be a lover of Bernstein and Rodgers & Hammerstein. As Klineman notes, four musicals earned the Academy Award for Best Picture in the ’60s: “West Side Story,” “My Fair Lady,” “The Sound of Music” and “Oliver!” which won in 1968, the year America was roiled by assassinations, protests and riots.That golden era wouldn’t last, as fewer musical films were made and even fewer honored as notable achievements. Klineman points out two reasons for the decline. One was the union-driven costs for the immense amount of labor necessary to produce a musical. The other was the rise of grand-scale theaters in midsize cities across America, allowing touring productions of Broadway shows to compete with – and overwhelm – screened musicals. When “Chicago” earned the Best Picture Oscar in 2002, it had been a full 33 years since the last musical had been so honored, and 30 years since “Cabaret,” the last musical Klineman could pinpoint as one of the greats of the genre.”I could spend the whole morning and the rest of the day telling you about that one,” he said.
Klineman has wrapped himself into a bubble where the musical still rules. The walls of his small Aspen apartment are filled with musical memorabilia; the shelves surrounding his bed are devoted exclusively to books about the actors and composers who filled screens and stages in the mid-20th century with song-and-dance numbers. The items are tasteful rather than kitschy – a pillow embroidered with the figure of Fred Astaire dancing a scene from 1951’s “Royal Wedding”; an Al Hirschfeld drawing depicting the famed literary circle, the Algonquin Round Table (among those in the picture are Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, actors for whom Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre is named) – reflecting the intelligence Klineman brings to his passion for theater. Still, there is a sense of being sealed off from other worlds, much as the musicals of the 1930s and ’40s that Klineman reveres offered an escape from tough times.Klineman himself, however, would much rather share his enthusiasm and knowledge than insulate himself with it. On Monday, Oct. 29, the 80-year-old will introduce “Top Hat,” a nominee for the 1936 Best Picture Oscar, and will follow the screening with a question-and-answer session. Filmgoers can expect a lively, well-informed and probably wide-ranging presentation. If Klineman can spend a day talking about “Cabaret,” it seems like he can go on forever about his favorite subject, the musical, and his No. 1 subject under that topic, Fred Astaire, the star of “Top Hat.”Growing up in Cleveland, Klineman had the good fortune to befriend a lad whose father was a film distributor. The young Klineman would be included in weekly Friday-night screenings of the films at the Hippodrome Theater. “I became enamored with the Busby Berkeley musicals, Shirley Temple and Fred Astaire,” said Klineman. “And it only multiplied as I got older.”At the University of Pennsylvania, Klineman stayed focused enough on business to graduate from the college’s Wharton School of Business. His time outside of the classroom, though, was spent in the world of theater. He would stage his own musicals, drawing standing-room-only crowds to the frat house. He starred in his own takeoff of “The Al Jolson Story,” appearing in blackface in living rooms along the East Coast. For a shot of professional theater, midtown Manhattan was less than a two-hour train ride away, and he took full advantage. From the time he started at Penn, in the mid-’40s, until he moved from New York to Aspen, in 1975, Klineman says he didn’t miss a single major musical production that made it to Broadway. Along with performing and watching, he was heavily involved in supporting the arts. While in New York, Klineman involved himself primarily with dance institutions: the New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and the more upstart Paul Taylor and Alvin Ailey companies. After selling his company and moving to Aspen, he served on the board of virtually every theater and dance group to spring up. He helped form the Aspen Community and Institute Committee, an arm of the Aspen Institute that staged events in the fall, winter and spring, when the Institute otherwise went dark.
From this vantage point, Klineman doesn’t hold back in offering up this big, bold assessment of Fred Astaire: “He did what he did better than anybody else ever did what they did. With the possible exception of William Shakespeare,” said Klineman, who, at what he calls “a young 80,” may ramble and digress, but never seems to lose his grasp of dates, titles, co-stars and anecdotes.Klineman’s knowledge of Astaire’s career is as strong as his enthusiasm for the actor, who was born Frederick Austerlitz (his father was an Austrian immigrant) and raised in Omaha (his father took a job with a brewery there). When Prohibition hit, the family moved to New York City to pursue a stage career for their talented child – not Fred, but his older sister Adele. The Astaire offspring flourished as a singing-and-dancing duo while both were still under 10, and remained a strong draw into early adulthood, appearing on Broadway in “Lady Be Good” and “Funny Face,” both composed by Fred’s close friend, George Gershwin. Klineman is as high on Adele as he is on Fred: “She was, to me, the most popular female singer-comedian of the ’20s. Fanny Brice was great; she was greater,” he says. The sibling act came to a close with a 1923 trip to Great Britain, where Adele met and then married Lord Charles Cavendish.Fred moved onto the next phase of his career, on the big screen, which Klineman dubs “the Ginger years.” The transition almost didn’t happen; Astaire, with his jug ears, long face and high forehead wasn’t sculpted for Hollywood. But he squeaked by his screen test, and he went on to make 10 films with Rogers, most of them hugely popular. But the Fred and Ginger decade, which spanned the ’30s, would be only the first stage of a long career. He sailed through the ’40s and ’50s, making hit musicals with such partners as Rita Hayworth, Audrey Hepburn and, in 1946’s “Ziegfield Follies,” his rival for musical supremacy, Gene Kelly.Astaire was known best for his dancing, but according to Klineman, he also choreographed his scenes. Not touted as a singer, he nevertheless introduced a bushelful of popular songs, including Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek” in “Top Hat,” and Jerome Kern’s “The Way You Look Tonight” in 1936’s “Swing Time.” Comedy was his early forte, but as he aged, he developed into an accomplished dramatic actor. Astaire earned accolades for his work in the 1959 nuclear war drama “On the Beach,” and an Academy Award nomination – his only one – for Best Supporting Actor in the 1974 thriller, “The Towering Inferno.”Klineman says Astaire was, above all, a perfectionist. “If he didn’t get a step right, he’d do it over and over and over again,” he said. “That came from his mother, who was the manager of Fred and his sister. She was lovingly demanding.”And he never wanted to do the same thing twice. He wanted tremendous variety.”Klineman notes that he is far from alone in the degree of his admiration. Most dancers looked at Astaire with awe, even though he never learned ballet. Jerome Robbins created a ballet piece that featured an enormous screen, with the scene of Astaire dancing to the song “I’m Old Fashioned,” from 1942’s “You Were Never Lovelier.” Mikhail Baryshnikov, in a televised tribute to Astaire, said, “There’s no question what dancers think of Fred: We hate him. He’s so perfect.”
Klineman has made a bit of a name for himself by pushing the Astaire legacy. Soon after he arrived in Aspen, Klineman presented a four-week seminar at Paepcke Auditorium, comparing Astaire and Gene Kelly. He was shocked to see the hall nearly full for most every session. In the early ’90s, after he had moved away from Aspen, he did a weekend presentation on Astaire at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. (Klineman returned to Aspen two years ago, having never found another place with its combination of natural beauty and culture.)It wasn’t for lack of trying that Klineman never met his hero. In 1977, a friend and fellow musical historian arranged to have Klineman come to Astaire’s house in Beverly Hills. In Southern California, Klineman was greeted with the news that the legendarily nimble dancer had broken his ankle while testing out his grandson’s skateboard, and was in no mood to take visitors.Like his effort to meet Astaire, Klineman’s greatest tribute to his idol never came to fruition. Some 15 years ago, Klineman wrote a musical, “Astaire Way to Paradise,” and talked with some backers about bringing it off-Broadway. Ultimately, they couldn’t get past one huge hurdle: “They couldn’t imagine there could be anybody who people would believe is Fred Astaire,” said Klineman, whose latest project, which he hopes to stage in Aspen next year, is “It’s By Gershwin!” mixing the composer’s most popular and most underground songs.Our conversation concluded with my asking Klineman is he had any other hobbies that rivaled his interest in Astaire.”How could I have any other interests of this magnitude?” he responded. After a second, he said, “Women. I love women.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org