December 10, 1909– Hermes Pan:
”Dancers are like children. It’s the only way they can do what they do.”
In Memphis (the one in the USA, not Egypt), 108 years ago, he was born with the terrific name, Hermes Panagiotopoulas, but he would become Hollywood’s Hermes Pan, the man who danced with and for Fred Astaire.
Pan and Astaire met in an RKO rehearsal studio in 1933. Hermes was 24-years-old, poor, and moving in the middle of the night from house to house with his mother and his sister, anyplace that would take them in.
Pan had been hired by RKO’s Dance Director Dave Gould to work with Astaire, because ironically, Gould didn’t know how to dance. There were no choreographers for films in those days.
In Memphis, as a little boy, Pan’s ”mammy”, as black housekeepers were called in that era, would sometimes take him home at night to the part of city known as Black Bottom, a common name for a ghetto in Southern American cities. The influence of the life in Black Bottom is still a part of our own culture. Great music and dancing emerged from those communities. Pan recalled, late in his life, how those trips to Black Bottom were always exciting because there was nightlife in the streets, musicians with tubs, broomsticks and strings that played what was then called ”Gut Bucket Jazz”. Hanging out in that neighborhood with his mammy was how Pan learned to dance, not at a ballet studio.
Pan was working as a dancer on Broadway where he met Virginia McMath. She was headed to Hollywood where word was out that film studios were looking for musical comedy performers. McMath convinced Pan to try his luck with her. He had a rough start. Pan was broke when he was hired at $75 a week to work with Astaire in Flying Down To Rio (1933), only Astaire’s second film and the first teamed with Virginia McMath, now named Ginger Rogers.
Pan and Astaire had very different personalities, but compatible sensibilities in dance, music and humor. Pan was a decade younger than Astaire and more hip to the latest dance steps, and Astaire, smart about showbiz, recognized Pan’s youthful vim and vigor.
Pan and Astaire’s collaboration lasted for the rest of the men’s lives, all the way to Astaire’s last film musical, Finian’s Rainbow (1968), an experience that was not good for either of them. The young director Francis Ford Coppola knew little about how to shoot a musical, and thwarted Astaire and Pan’s plans for the film’s dances, reintroducing the style of camera work from the early 1930s which Astaire and Pan had worked so hard to end. Eventually, Coppola fired Pan, who also had a small role in the film.
Pan acknowledged that the dancing that the world knew as ”Fred Astaire Style” had African roots. Astaire was very drawn to the percussive sounds and rhythms. During this time, Astaire studied with John Bubbles, a vaudevillian, entertainer, and a truly great dancer. He played Sportin’ Life in the original production of George Gershwin’s Porgy And Bess (1935), plus he was a genius. Astaire was a sharp student.
Pan worked with Astaire on 17 pictures, including all ten of the films Astaire made with Ginger Rogers. In those years that he worked as a choreographer for Astaire at RKO, Pan always taught Rogers the steps way before she worked with her onscreen perfectionist partner. The two men would refine the dances together, and Pan would then introduce them to Rogers. Pan would first dance the Astaire part while Rogers slowly learned hers. Pan resembled Astaire physically and as a dancer. Pan:
”With Fred I was Ginger, and with Ginger I was Fred.”
He sometimes dubbed Rogers taps for her films with Astaire, in high heels for authenticity.
Pan enjoyed a lengthy career as a choreographer and he hired a number of major American dancers for their first Hollywood jobs including Bob Fosse and Jack Cole. He won an Academy Award for Damsel In Distress (1936), back when they gave Oscars for Best Dance.
After Astaire and Rogers were no longer a team, Pan went over to Fox Studios where he worked with Betty Grable, at the time, the number one box-office star in the USA. In the 1950s, he went to work for MGM. In the 1960s, Joe Mankiewicz hired him to stage Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra entrance in to Rome.
Pan’s special skill lay in his transformations of mundane life situations to a dance idiom. His vitality, work ethic, and ability to please both the chorus dancers and studio bosses made him much loved in Hollywood. Handsome and lithe, a bizarre doppelganger for Astaire, Pan was an A-list party-goer, usually with Rita Hayworth as his beard.
Pan was also a deeply closeted gay man who had trouble living with his gayness, his Roman Catholic faith, and his disapproving mother. Invited to an all-male party by NYC Cardinal Francis Spellman, Hermes was shocked by the gay shenanigans and he dove even deep in the closet.
He did have a long affair with dancer Gino Malerba, but like so many gay men of the era, he seldom appeared in public with male partners, and he never lived together with Malerba.
Among the more than 50 films he choreographed are Top Hat (1935), The Blue Angel (1959), Kiss Me Kate (1953), Pal Joey (1957), Porgy And Bess (1959), The Pink Panther (1963), and My Fair Lady (1964). His first was Flying Down To Rio in 1933, and his last was Aiutami A Sognare in 1981. He played small roles in some of the films that he choreographed and danced on screen with Hayworth and Grable. He did the dances for all four of Astaire’s popular television specials and won an Emmy Award in 1961 for Astaire Time: An Evening With Fred Astaire.
Pan died at his home in Beverly Hills in 1991, a few months short his 81st birthday. He got up that day, fed his cat and made bacon, eggs, toast and coffee. After he finished his breakfast he sat down in his favorite chair in his living room overlooking his patio and swimming pool. Later that afternoon, a family member who hadn’t been able to reach him, found him still sitting there, already having departed for the big dance floor in the sky.
If you are interested in Hermes Pan, and you really should be, try Hermes Pan: The Man Who Danced With Fred Astaire (2013) by John Franceschina.