e 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 Alsace.
Fred Astaire’s Austrian father was baptized as Friedrich
Emanuel Austerlitz in this Catholic church near Linz in 1868.
PHOTO: © Hyde Flippo
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Fred Astaire’s father, Friedrich (Fritz) Emanuel Austerlitz, was born in Linz, Austria on September 8, 1868. 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.*
A copy of the marriage certificate for Fred Astaire's
parents, who were married in Omaha in 1894.
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.
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.
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*I want to thank Alessandra Garofalo in Italy for her important research
and help with Fred Astaire's Austrian background.
Copyright © 2004-2008 Hyde Flippo