By Hyde Flippo
“There are two kinds of Austrians—rascals and musicians.
I, of course, am a musician!”
– Fred Astaire, quoting a quip of his father’s
An American with Austrian Roots
He was already an American icon when he died in 1987 at the age of 88. Fred Astaire was born in Omaha, Nebraska on May 10, 1899. There in the midwestern American heartland he and his sister Adele grew up and began the dancing lessons that would lead them to vaudeville and Broadway, and eventually a long movie career for Fred. But Fred and his sister were born with the last name Austerlitz and their roots go back to Austria and the Alsace region.
Fred Astaire’s father, Friedrich (Fritz) Emanuel Austerlitz, was born in Linz, Austria on September 8, 1868. He and his family were Jewish, but the family converted to Catholicism, the dominant religion in Austria. For some reason Friedrich left his native Austria for a new life in the New World, arriving in New York City on October 26, 1892 aboard the S.S. Westernland, sailing from Antwerp. An old Austerlitz family legend about Fritz failing to salute his older officer brother Ernst, being thrown in the brig, and leaving Austria in disgust is probably just that, a legend. But Fritz’s brothers Otto and Ernst remained in Austria and were soldiers during World War I. Ernst (b. 1864) later lived in Vienna and had a son, also named Ernst, who was killed in World War II. The elder Ernst worked as a postal official in the Austrian city of Klagenfurt. Astaire’s uncle Otto (b. 1877) worked for the predecessor of Dun and Bradstreet in Austria.*
After his arrival in New York and a brief stay at Ellis Island, Fritz Austerlitz made his way west to Omaha, Nebraska. There he met a woman much younger than he named Johanna Geilus. Johanna had been born in Omaha, but her parents, David Geilus and Wilhelmina Klaatke, were German-speaking, Lutheran immigrants from East Prussia and Alsace. The 25-year-old Fritz and 16-year-old Johanna (Ann) were married at the First German Lutheran Church in Omaha on Nov. 17, 1894. On the marriage license the groom is listed simply as “Fritz Austerlitz.” The bride’s name is recorded as “Johanna Geilus” with the notation “consent given by father” of the teenage bride.
Fritz and Ann Austerlitz’s first child was a daughter, Adele, born in 1896. On May 10, 1899 Adele’s brother Fred came into the world. The two children were destined to be an entertainment team for many years until Adele tired of the show business routine and got married.
To support his family, Austerlitz worked as a salesman for the Storz Brewing Company in Omaha. Although he had originally come to Omaha to join two fellow Austrians in a business venture, their plans didn’t work out and Fritz was soon in the beer business. (Fred always liked to say that his father was descended from a long line of brewers, but that is yet another “family legend.”) With the arrival of Nebraska dry laws, Austerlitz had reason to wish the original business proposition had worked out, but the Storz Brewery managed to survive the dry laws and national Prohibition by making ice, near beer, and other non-alcoholic drinks. Storz continued to brew beer long after Fritz’s death in 1924. The Omaha brewery remained in business until 1972.
In 1905 Mr. and Mrs. Austerlitz decided that Ann would take their two talented children to New York and a career in vaudeville. Herr Austerlitz would remain in Omaha to earn money for the family while Ann worked to get the children into show business. In his autobiography, Fred Astaire remarked:
“…this trip was really a stab in the dark. We were going to New York without so much as a letter of introduction to somebody’s aunt. My mother had never been there, and she knew no one, theatrical or otherwise. She had not even written ahead to enroll us in a dancing school. So none of the Astaires could have known what was in store for them.” – from STEPS IN TIME
In reality, the family did have a specific recommendation for a dance school in New York, but what was in store for Adele and Fred was both early success and failure. After an initial tour on the New Jersey vaudeville circuit, Fred’s father came out to New York to help move things along and soon helped arrange a bigger tour. Little Fred, then barely seven years old, along with nine-year-old Adele and his mother, made his first visit to Los Angeles, B.H. (“Before Hollywood”) while on the road as part of a successful dance team on the so-called Orpheum Circuit. Their tour took them all over the country from Pennsylvania to California, including a warm reception in Omaha.
Success and the Astaire Name
Fred claims it was his father’s idea to change the dance team’s last name to Astaire, but there are several other possible explanations for the origin of the Astaire name. According to Fred, the family realized that their surname was a tough sell on theater marquees (“Austerlitz sounded like a battle”). Mr. Austerlitz suggested borrowing the name of an uncle (or perhaps another relative on his wife’s side?) from Alsace-Lorraine named L’Astaire. Even though in the early days of their act Adele was older and taller, the team was billed as Fred and Adele Astaire. By 1914, despite a few lows along with highs, brother and sister had become vaudeville pros… but the big time was still elusive.
Eventually Fred and Adele ended up with stage successes on Broadway and even in London. The big time had arrived. In fact, London gave them a bigger welcome than New York, but it was in London in 1924 that word arrived of their father’s worsening health. Their mother and constant companion returned to America to be with her ailing husband, and it was not much later, during the London run of “Stop Flirting,” that Fred learned of his father’s death. He and Adele managed to go on stage that night and finished the remainder of the one-and-a-half-year run of “Stop Flirting.” (Their mother would live to the venerable age of 96. A widow for 51 years, Ann Geilus Austerlitz succumbed to a stroke in July 1975. She is buried near her son in Chatsworth, California.)
Fred and his sister returned to New York and enjoyed a very successful run of a new George Gershwin musical called “Lady, Be Good!” In 1926 they repeated this success in the same musical in London. The Astaires were now stage stars on both sides of the Atlantic. In June 1927 they returned to the U.S. and had more success in musicals. But Adele was growing tired of show business. In 1932 Adele announced her retirement from the grueling song-and-dance circuit and her intention to marry Lord Charles Cavendish, second son of the Duke of Devonshire.
So Fred was on his own, but he would not be alone. He had met and fallen in love with 25-year-old New York socialite Phyllis Potter, the former Phyllis Livingston Baker of Boston. In 1933 they were married (one day after Phyllis’ divorce settlement) and flew off to Hollywood to begin their life together and Fred’s new film career at RKO. Twenty-six hours later, with a very brief stopover at the Omaha airport to visit Fred’s relatives, their Ford Tri-Motor touched down at the Burbank airport… and the rest is history.
An Astaire (Austerlitz) Timeline
Key Events in Fred Astaire’s Family History
- Sept. 8, 1868 | Fred Astaire’s future father, Friedrich (Fritz) Austerlitz, is born in Linz, Austria.
- Dec. 22, 1878 | Fred’s future mother, Johanna Geilus, is born in Omaha, Nebraska to German-born parents.
- 1892 | Fritz Austerlitz leaves Austria for the United States.
- Oct. 26, 1892 | According to the ship’s manifest, Fritz Austerlitz, a “clerk” aged 24, arrives in New York harbor aboard the S.S. Westernland from Antwerp, Belgium. A few days later he heads for Omaha, Nebraska.
- Nov. 17, 1894 | Fritz Austerlitz and Johanna (Ann) Geilus are married at the First German Lutheran Church in Omaha.
- Sept. 10, 1896 | Adele Austerlitz (later Adele Astaire) is born in Omaha, Nebraska
- May 10, 1899 | Frederick Austerlitz (later Fred Astaire) is born in Omaha, Nebraska at the family’s home at 2326 S. 10th Street
- 1904 | Ann Austerlitz takes Adele (7) and Fred (5) to New York by train. The two children are enrolled for lessons at the Claude Alvienne dance academy.
- 1905 | Billed as Fred and Adele Astaire, the brother and sister act makes its vaudeville debut in Keyport, N.J.
- 1905-1924 | For most of the time during these years Ann Austerlitz and her husband are estranged, rarely living together as she manages her children’s Vaudeville career. According to biographers, Fritz had drinking problems and mistreated his wife. In his autobiography Fred says very little about his father and much of what he writes (“born in Vienna”) is inaccurate.
- Feb. 20, 1922 | Fred and Adele Astaire debut in their first on-stage speaking roles in “For Goodness Sake” at the Lyric Theater in New York City.
- May 30, 1923 | Opening night for the Astaires in the London production “Stop Flirting” (an Anglicized version of “For Goodness Sake”). They receive rave reviews.
- 1924 | In London, while “Stop Flirting” is still running, Fred and Adele learn of their father’s death in Pennsylvania.
- 1932 | Adele Astaire retires from show business, marries Lord Charles Cavendish, the first of three husbands
- 1933 | Fred Astaire marries Phyllis Potter and begins his new dancing/musical career in Hollywood. Fred and Phyllis will have two children, Fred Jr. (b. January 21, 1936) and Ava (b. March 28, 1942).
- Sept. 13, 1954 | Phyllis Astaire, a longtime smoker, dies of lung cancer.
- July 1975 | Ann Geilus Austerlitz dies of a stroke aged 96.
- June 24, 1980 | Fred Astaire (81) and jockey Robyn Smith (36) wed in a quiet ceremony at the Astaire home in Beverly Hills. They had first met at Santa Anita racetrack in 1973.
- January 1981 | Adele Astaire dies of a stroke in Tucson, Arizona.
- June 22, 1987 | Fred Astaire dies of pneumonia in a Los Angeles hospital with wife Robyn at his side.
Fred Astaire’s grave lies in the Oakwood Memorial Park Cemetery in Chatsworth, California. (See web link below.)
Next | Fred Astaire Films and Books
*I want to thank Alessandra Garofalo in Italy for her important research and help with Fred Astaire’s Austrian background. Under her guidance, we traveled to Prague and Linz gathering documentation and taking photos for this Astaire biography. In 2009 Garofalo published Austerlitz Sounded Too Much Like a Battle: The Roots of Fred Astaire’s Family in Europe. Italy: Editrice UNI Service. ISBN 978-88-6178-415-4.
AT THE GERMAN WAY
- Fred Astaire Films and Books – A filmography and books about Astaire
- Featured Biographies – More detailed bios of notable people from the German-speaking world
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- Germans (and Others) in Hollywood – About the three main waves of Germanic immigration to Hollywood
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