The first American musical, The Black Crook, opened in 1866 at Niblo’s Garden on Broadway. It was an extravaganza with lots of scene changes and big musical numbers including The March of the Amazons. It was a great success on Broadway and in London - the chorus girls scandalously revealing lots of leg may have helped.
Fred and Adele Astaire in 'Stop Flirting', Shaftesbury Theatre, London, May 1923
Most people know Fred Astaire from his films with Ginger Rogers, but before that he was a great stage star in musical comedy with his sister Adele. This photograph shows them in Stop Flirting, the show in which they first appeared in London. At first it was not a success. So as publicity, the streets were littered with mock wallets, showing the top of a ten shilling note inside. When opened they revealed only the top part of a note - the rest was simply an advertisement for the show! Then, just as it was due to close, the Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII, came to see it. Suddenly it became the show to see and it ran for over a year. Then came Lady Be Good and Funny Face. But in 1932 Adele married Lord Charles Cavendish, youngest son of the Duke of Devonshire, leaving a distraught Fred wondering if he would ever work again. Despite the success of his partnership with Ginger Rogers and others, some critics felt that Fred spent his life searching for another Adele.
Adele Astaire, early to mid 20th century, photograph postcard. Museum no. RP. 76/771
Adele was Fred Astaire’s older sister and during their stage career she was the more famous half of the duo. He was the perfectionist, whereas Adele was much more relaxed about her performances, though she always suffered from indigestion before opening nights. Adele was charming and attractive as well as a skillful dancer and a delicious comedienne. Her bubbling charm can still be heard on the recordings that she and Fred made of their hit shows. She had innumerable boyfriends, but in 1929 she caught the eye of Lord Charles Cavendish, son of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. Media interest in the marriage was so intense that the ceremony took place in secret at Chatsworth, and even the household staff were not told until the morning of the marriage. Adele gave up performing and went to live with her husband at Lismore Castle in Ireland. When asked if she missed her life on the stage, she replied simply ‘Never’. She once said that she had always really wanted to be a chemist.
Magazine page advertising Adele and Fred Astaire in Lady Be Good, Empire Theatre, London. 1926
Lady Be Good was written specially for Fred and Adele Astaire by George Gershwin, who particularly admired Fred’s ability to put over a song. As composer Burton Lane said, ‘George was born to write for Fred and Fred was born to dance to George’s music’. As well as the title song, Lady Be Good included ‘Fascinatin’ Rhythm’ and the comic ‘I’d Rather Charleston’, with Adele as a dizzy brunette who would rather dance than learn history. The Astaires were idolised in London. Headlines like ‘Fred and Adele Astaire – Please Come Back to London’, were common whenever they opened a new show in New York. Lady Be Good was the last show to be performed at the Empire Theatre in Leicester Square before it became a cinema. On the last night the audience included the former star of the Empire ballet, Adeline Genée, and audience and cast gave her a great ovation. Also there was the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) who after the show threw a last night party for the Astaires at St James’s Palace.
Funny Face programme, Princes Theatre, London, 1928
Funny Face was a successful show both personally and professionally for Adele Astaire. It ran for 263 performances in London and on the last night in 1929, Adele met Lord Charles Cavendish, youngest son of the Duke of Devonshire. They met again in New York and Adele proposed to him at a party. The next morning Lord Charles reminded Adele of her proposal and told her if she didn’t marry him now he would sue her for breach of promise! Jessie Matthews saw the Astaires in Funny Face and remembered their sophistication and professionalism, but she was most impressed by Adele’s comic skills. The show had a wonderful score by George Gershwin including the title song, and ‘S’ Wonderful’. Many years later, when Fred was a famous Hollywood star, Funny Face was filmed. Fred played a photographer trying to persuade a bohemian Audrey Hepburn into a career as a model, but only the title and the Gershwin songs remained from the stage show.