Monday, 22 August 2016

The Worst Idea in Radio: Fred Astaire Goes On The Air

Think fast! If you were producing a weekly radio show and wanted a big name star to headline it, what kinds of performers would be the worst possible choices? Mimes? Puppeteers? Dancers?

The year was 1936, and The Packard Hour, a sponsored variety program recently transplanted from New York to L.A, wanted to add some stardust. A little extra razzle dazzle. In those days, big name movie stars were signing on to radio shows to bolster their off-camera images and to help cross-promote both industries. People with vaudeville experience, like Bob Hope, often yielded the best results, because they came with built-in routines and a kind of showbiz professionalism that straight up Hollywood types often lacked.

For some reason – maybe it was madness – the people at Packard decided the best fit for their show would be Fred Astaire.

Fred Astaire.

On radio.

Where no one could see him.

So, okay, maybe you’re thinking that Fred had a lot of non-dancing charms. After all, he scored a couple of hit records, he could be very funny in his scenes with Ginger, he had range.

But the good people at Packard were not interested in his range.

In 1936, you could finish dinner, hurry with the dishes, turn on the big family radio set and all gather around to listen to Fred Astaire dance.

Naturally, that wasn’t the only thing that happened for the entire hour. Nobody does an hour of live dancing, even if you can see them, it’s exhausting. The rest of the show was filled in with songs from Fred’s movies, new songs arranged by bandleader Johnny Green (who would later go on to win an Academy Award for his work on Easter Parade), numbers with singers Trudy Wood and Francia White, some skits with the week’s guest star, and comedy routines by Charlie Butterworth.

If it helps you wrap your head around the whole idea, Fred’s dances were always tap numbers. He would perform on a four by four wooden floor rigged with microphones, and he would tap away in the studio. The sound and speed of those taps were meant to express to the people at home the wonder of his skill.

It... doesn’t work.

There’s kind of a slapping quality to the sound, like somebody spanking a coconut. It’s not as crisp as the footsteps on weekly radio dramas, and even though it actually is tap dancing, it doesn’t sound like tap dancing. It’s very strange.

Jess Oppenheimer, who would later go on to produce I Love Lucy, got his first staff writing gig on The Packard Hour. In his autobiography, he writes:

“Astaire was an utter perfectionist, sometimes spending as many as twelve hours at a time with the orchestra rehearsing dance routines that no one would ever see.”

The show’s director suggested to Fred that he take it easy and let a drummer tap out the sound-effects with his sticks, but no. That was unethical. People would be tuning in to hear Fred Astaire dance, so Fred Astaire was going to dance for them.

But despite Fred’s weird dedication to this ludicrous idea, there was other trouble brewing.

Charlie Butterworth had started his career as a Broadway regular. He was the upper class best friend in drawing room comedies, always drawling out quips like his most famous “Why don’t you slip out of those wet clothes and into a dry martini?” This was at a time when the hero in these types of stories was the stalwart young man trying to get his life together, while his sidekick was inclined to keep the party going. You can kind of see why they thought he’d be a good accompaniment to Fred.

(Also, after his death, his likeness would become the inspiration for cereal mascot Cap'n Crunch, which is so weird I had to mention it somewhere.)

By the 1930’s, Butterworth had carved out a modest film career and was doing well in radio with his same bumbling rich guy act. He had a few problems, alcohol being chief among them, but writers liked working with him, even if directors didn’t. The Packard Hour figured he was worth the risk.

As it turned out, Charlie Butterworth and Fred Astaire hated each other.

Nobody knew this, least of all Charlie and Fred, until they started work on the first episode.

The most commonly cited reason for the tension was because Fred didn’t like ad-libbing once the script was nailed down, and Charlie’s whole shtick was ad-libbing. It was a clash of temperaments and approaches.

It got so bad, Fred Astaire didn’t even show up for the first broadcast. Ginger Rogers and Jack Benny had to fill in for him at the last minute.

By all accounts, after that first episode, Fred behaved himself perfectly – as long as he wasn’t in the same room as Charlie Butterworth. Their scenes together were always as brief as could be managed without the audience getting wise to the rift, or suspicious about why the show’s two biggest acts never spoke to one another.

After fulfilling his thirty-six episode contract, Fred Astaire and The Packard Hour went on summer hiatus never to return. Fred, of course, continued making movies where people could see his feet while they moved. A wise decision.

He and Charlie Butterworth, surprisingly, worked together again on 1940’s Second Chorus. It’s pretty far from being Fred Astaire’s best film.

As for radio, you might be inclined to think that Fred would’ve avoided it after this whole mess, but nope. As time went on, folks in radio decided that versatility was indeed one of his selling points, so he often appeared as a guest on other people’s shows.

In conclusion, they tried to make a Fred Astaire dancing show where you couldn’t see him dance, and you should remember that the next time you make a mistake and want to crawl into a hole and die. Because at least you're not the guy who came up with that one.


  1. Great post, I am curious, do you know how it faired with audiences during its original broadcast? We are so spoiled in this day and age we can say "Fred Astaire" to our remote controls and pull any number of films, but radio audiences saw a film once, then never again I would be curious to know their response to the show. �� and i agree dancing on the radio does not work, but it really speaks to his professionalism not to phone it in!

    1. It did okay for a variety program in ratings, but the audience started to drop off after the first couple of weeks. Everyone on staff thought there was a 50/50 chance it might be renewed before Fred decided it wasn't for him. (All according to Jess Oppenheimer on that.)

      Poor Fred! I don't know if I can bring myself to admire his professionalism on this one or not. On the one hand, those twelve hour rehearsals and his commitment to doing live dance are impressive -- on the other hand, he threw it all out on opening night and Ginger had to cover for him!