A book review first published by Dance Magazine [December 2012]
Growing up in Memphis as the son of Greek immigrants, Hermes Pan (1909–1990) copped dance steps from the family’s African-American household help.
Fast-forward to the Depression, when the self-taught Hollywood choreographer’s black-and-white dance fantasies for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers offered Americans escape.
The versatile dance director whose career encompassed nearly 100 films is the subject of Hermes Pan, The Man Who Danced with Fred Astaire.
Pan got his start at 14 in New York. A dance-crazed kid, he performed in amateur theatricals and speakeasies. Leaping to Los Angeles by 1930, he assisted on Flying Down to Rio (1933) and Astaire took a liking to him. Pan became the star’s most enduring creative partner and his lifelong friend.
Franceschina, a former Penn State theater professor, translates Pan’s enormous IMDB vitae, often ploddingly, into prose, touring through the creation of numbers like “The Piccolino” and “Cheek to Cheek,” from Top Hat (1935); “Bojangles of Harlem,” from Swingtime (1936); “Fun House,” from A Damsel in Distress (it garnered Pan an Academy Award for Dance Direction in 1937); and “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” on roller skates, from Shall We Dance (1937).
A jump to 1963–64 finds Pan deeply entrenched in Hollywood, working on features like The Pink Panther, My Fair Lady, and Cleopatra.
Pan’s great skill, asserts Franceschina, lay in his dance-transmogrifications of mundane life situations. His vitality, work ethic, and ability to please both chorus girls and studio bosses cemented his career. Handsome and slender, a bizarre doppelganger for Astaire, Pan, a gay man, became an A-list party-goer, the frequent escort of Rita Hayworth. Read this book with YouTube videos by your side.
Hermes Pan, The Man Who Danced with Fred Astaire By John C. Franceschina. Oxford University Press. 2012. 306 pages. Illustrated. $35.
I wasn’t aware there was a book out on Pan. A man I know wrote an article about him for Vanity Fair, they paid him, it was never publlished, the magazine “owns” the article, and I’m not sure why, but the author wouldn’t even let me read it out of curiosity because so little has been written about Hermes Pan. One of our Unsung greats, amen. I read a bit in one article once, maybe a dance magazine, about his growing up in New Orleans, and being influenced by black servaants, but I’m not sure if that is true or not. Hope to read the book!
I am a big fan of Hermes Pan. One of the unheralded genius’s of dance on film. So glad to read this. It’s a book I want to own!
Thanks so much for reprinting your review. I have been deeply curious about Mr. Pan for a long time, and will buy the book immediately!