Thursday 10 December 2015

Hermes Pan

Hermes Pan, with its suggestion of winged heels and antic prancing, is a too-good-to-be-true name for a choreographer - but it was his real name, minus a long tail. Hermes Panagiotopoulos - who, as Hermes Pan, became famous as Fred Astaire's choreographer - was born on this day in 1909 in Memphis, Tennessee, where his father was the Greek consul. Life took a dramatic turn for the worse after his father's death, when Hermes' uncle, holding the family (Hermes, his sister and mother) at gunpoint, burnt all the money and shares they had inherited, to demonstrate that if the inheritance wasn't coming to him, it wasn't going anywhere. This plunged the little family into dire poverty, scraping a bare living in the meanest quarters of New York, where the one good outcome was that the young Hermes learnt some handy steps from black street dancers. His natural dance ability eventually got him into Broadway chorus lines, and somewhere along the way he met a young actress called Ginger Rogers, who suggested that he, like her, should think about heading for Hollywood and trying to get film work.
 Hermes, his sister and mother duly piled into an old Ford they'd bought for $75 and set off for California - an epic journey in those pre-interstate days. Two years later, Pan was working on the set of Flying Down to Rio when Astaire, working out steps for the 'Carioca' number, asked him if he had any ideas. He did. And so began a long, happy and fruitful collaboration, which only ended with the disastrous Finian's Rainbow (1968), whose young director, one Francis Ford Coppola, ignored all Astaire and Pan's dance ideas, and sacked Pan.
 By then, however, Pan and Astaire had a great body of classic work behind them. The two men were natural collaborators, who seemed to understand each other instinctively - and, crucially, Pan was prepared to work every bit as hard as the notorious perfectionist Astaire. Indeed, on top of working intensively with Fred, Pan also had to rehearse Ginger, whose busy filming schedule often didn't fit with Astaire's rehearsal sessions. Another part of Pan's job was to join Fred in adding the tap soundtrack to dance sequences - he tapped for Ginger. The wonderful thing is that the two men had a great time doing all this, finding plenty of fun and laughter in it (see the RKO publicity picture above). As Pan said, 'All dancers are children. They have to be in order to let themselves move unself-consciously.'
 Some of Pan's choreography tended towards a slightly kitsch 'arty' style that really didn't suit Astaire. But when he worked with Fred's easy charm and effortless physical grace - and sense of humour - the results were unsurpassably brilliant. Here's one of the very best... Enjoy!


  1. FFC directed Finian's Rainbow? Goodness. Even at my callow age, I couldn't see much point to it. And unless I grossly underestimated it then, Pan and Astaire couldn't have rescued it.

  2. Yes indeed - nobody could. Such a shame Astaire agreed to do it - can't have been the allure of working with Tommy Steele and Petula Clark...