When Fred Astaire died on June 22, 1987, Ginger Rogers was living alone on her Rogue River ranch in Oregon. Their last movie was almost forty years before (“The Barkleys of Broadway“) and while Fred and Ginger had parted amicably and remained friends, their iconic onscreen romance of the 1930’s was in the distant past.
I have no idea of how she actually reacted to the news of course. But that is why we have imagination. The world that Fred and Ginger portrayed at the height of the depression did not exist….and yet….for a few hours, it did.
My mother and father were married in 1932. Fred and Ginger were movie-married in 1933 in “Flying Down to Rio“. On rare occasions my mother would steal away to Omaha to live in the world of Rio and then New York and Paris. My father almost never left the farm but there were instances when he would dance. Late in the evening, every couple was Fred and Ginger back then.
I discovered this cinematic world on an RCA black and white. The Des Moines television station showed movies in the early afternoon, and sometimes, when it was raining, we would not go back into the fields after the noon meal but would sit transfixed. At first I was disappointed that a war movie wasn’t on (my favorite being “Sands of Iwo Jima” with John Wayne) but then…Fred and Ginger danced.
Here you can listen to a song for Ginger. For Fred. For beauty that passes and yet remains.
FLYING DOWN TO RIO
Ginger Rogers starin’ at the ceiling,
Grieving, unbelieving he was gone.
Three a.m., she finally gives up sleeping
Goes downstairs and puts the movie on
And she remembers how he used to hold her
He wasn’t tall not a handsome face
But they would swirl and twirl the Cariocca
And she stepped into a state of grace.
Flying down to Rio
America was in the depths of winter
1933, St. Paul
A young girl is lost to Fred and Ginger
And in the dark she forgets it all
The father out of work, the broken mother
The guilt of a stolen dime
She slips into a world where no one suffers
And takes the trip one more time
Flying down to Rio
I first saw them when I was ten,
Looking for John Wayne
But I fell to their spell
And I got on that plane
Down to Rio
Ginger Rogers starin’ at the movie
The only time her life felt real
Photographers would soon begin shooting
Asking, “How do you feel?”
“Share with us some sentimental secret,
tell us why your life is such a mess.”
She steps into the place where she keeps it
And crying, she holds the dress.
Flying down to Rio.
In addition to this song, I wrote a poem for Fred and Ginger that is actually a part of much larger work. As some of you know, I have been working for awhile on an epic poem that is inspired by, and modeled after, Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales”. The following is part of a tale that is related by one of my pilgrims.
They made ten films together, expression given to grace
No one ever better, no question of their place
They danced the Carioca, America was entranced
They were our poet laureates of musical romance
In “Flying Down to Rio”, they completely stole the picture
Then for ten years or so, a cinematic fixture
The star of the initial feature: Del Rio, Delores
But the students overthrew the teacher, heroes of the chorus
The weekend between the wars, the nation turned to dust
The rich kept on getting more and the poor were eating crust
We were longing for relief, something transcendental
And for a moment we believed when they danced the Continental
The gossip pages swirled, were there kisses off the set?
When they left the ballroom world and the censors were no threat
but never were they lovers, though they dated at the start
But belonged to one another as beauty does to art
He had a family, a wife, and when she too soon passed
He led a full and giving life but loved her till his last
Ginger married as a teen and had her share of ex’s
and no, they never kissed on screen, but showed us all what sex is
As graceful as DiMaggio, his easy summer swing
Time paused, saw the show, and waited in the wings
In our darkened theaters, in the center of the row
death is calmly seated, but stays for another show
They say that they were peerless, but the word does not apply
Like saying the moon is fearless, lighting up the sky
So effortless and light, I can hardly speak:
The way you look tonight, dancing cheek to cheek
The lights come up at the end, Death takes the stage
Preceded by his old friends, Loneliness and Age
And Fred Astaire, iconic, elegant and gallant,
(he must have thought it ironic) begins to lose his balance
They had not seen one another, now it was several years
On the first day of summer, alone at home, she hears
And in my imagination, she wants to follow in his steps
And now in humble adoration, a song to pay my debts:
(he sings the song “Flying Down to Rio”)