By Brad Dison
When Dellie was young, four or five years old, she showed an early proclivity for dancing. Her parents, Ann and Fritz, enrolled her in a dance school near their home in Omaha, Nebraska. Her talent improved almost immediately and continued to improve with each lesson. Everyone was amazed at the young girl’s natural talent. For Dellie, the simple act of walking across the small rooms in the family’s cramped home seemed graceful. Rather than walking, she seemed to float and glide. Her younger brother, however, was a frail, sickly child. Dellie was confident and outgoing, while her brother was shy and full of self-doubt. Where Dellie had a carefree disposition, her younger brother seemed to worry about everything. Therefore, Dellie nicknamed him “Moaning Minnie.”
Ann and Fritz enrolled Moaning Minnie in the same dancing school as Dellie. They hoped the continuous exercise would build his strength and confidence. Dellie was a natural at the various dance steps, but Moaning Minnie had to practice constantly just to keep up. When Dellie was eight years old and Moaning Minnie was five, their teacher suggested that the pair could have a successful stage career if they sought more professional training. Following the teacher’s advice, the family moved from Omaha to New York City.
Just as their previous dance instructor had predicted, Dellie and Moaning Minnie excelled in New York. In 1905, their dance instructor helped them secure a spot in a vaudeville act. Dellie was nine years old and Moaning Minnie was six. They rehearsed and performed constantly. Well, Moaning Minnie rehearsed constantly. Moaning Minnie later said that Dellie “hated to rehearse, but then, she didn’t need to.” Moaning Minnie arrived at the venue hours before the first show of the day to rehearse his parts. Dellie usually showed up minutes before she was to perform. Patrons of the vaudeville shows paid almost all of their attention to Dellie and little to Moaning Minnie. Critics pointed out Dellie’s beauty, but often referred to her brother as an “ugly duckling.” Even with their differences, Dellie and Moaning Minnie were close, and remained close their entire lives.
The siblings’ popularity grew with each performance. Within just a few years, they had gone from playing seedy dives to playing theaters on Broadway and London’s West End. They were in such demand that they had little time for anything other than performing complicated routines which involved singing, dancing, and acting. Dellie still disliked rehearsing and referred to herself as “Dellie, the good-time Charlie,” a playgirl who liked to swear.
Hollywood studio executives became aware of their talents. They screen tested Dellie and Moaning Minnie as a duo and individually, but all parties, Dellie and Moaning Minnie included, were unhappy with the results. One unimpressed RKO Pictures executive bluntly noted in the studio files that Moaning Minnie “can’t act…can’t sing…balding…can dance a little.” In the vaudeville shows, Dellie and Moaning Minnie were able to judge how well their act was going by the reception of the audience. The only audience they had for their screen tests were members of the crew who wished to be somewhere, anywhere else.
In 1928, Dellie and Moaning Minnie performed in a play called Funny Face in the West End. They were a hit. The show ran for 263 performances. On the final performance of the show, Dellie met Lord Charles Cavendish, the 9th Duke of Devonshire. Dellie and Lord Cavendish quickly fell in love. After a two-year courtship, Dellie proposed to Lord Cavendish, purportedly at a speakeasy. Lord Cavendish immediately accepted, and they married on May 9, 1932. Four days before their marriage, after performing with her brother for twenty-seven years, Dellie officially retired from the stage. She had grown tired of the grueling schedule of theatrical life and retreated from public life.
Moaning Minnie’s future without the star of the show, Dellie, was anything but certain. He had performed with Dellie so long that he could almost predict what she was going to do, even when she ad-libbed. He struggled to find a replacement. He decided that, rather than performing with a single partner as he had done with Dellie, he would search for the best person to fit the necessary role. Finally, Moaning Minnie and another dancer rehearsed for a new Broadway production. True to form, Dellie teased her brother in a telegram just before his first performance without her as a partner; “Now Minnie, don’t forget to moan.”
Moaning Minnie’s relentless rehearsals paid off. The new show was a hit. Moaning Minnie could have relaxed, but that was out of character. Again, Hollywood studio executives at Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) asked him to sing and dance in films. He agreed with the stipulation that during dance scenes, he would be filmed from head to toe to ensure audiences that he was doing all of the dancing and not a body double, and that the entire dance number would be one continuous shot. Most dance sequences in films up to that point consisted of short dance clips spliced together, which, according to Moaning Minnie, lost the continuity and fluidity of the dance numbers. The studio agreed.
In 1933, Moaning Minnie began a long and prosperous film career. He always rehearsed for several weeks each of the complicated dance routines which only lasted a few minutes in the film. During filming, his self-doubt was ever present. He always thought he could perform the routine better and smoother. Sometimes he did as many as forty takes on a single dance number, much to the chagrin of his dance partners and the film’s crew. Anyone who ever worked with Moaning Minnie referred to him as a perfectionist. Dellie, whose real name was Adele Marie Austerlitz, received film, radio, and television offers, but politely declined them all. Sadly, no known film footage of Dellie and Moaning Minnie exists.
It is hard to imagine that a man who projected such a calm, confident, and cool demeanor in films, television, and radio, was the same man whom Dellie had nicknamed Moaning Minnie because of his lack of self-confidence. Whether with a leading lady or an inanimate object, such as golf clubs (Carefree, 1938), firecrackers (Holiday Inn, 1942), or a hat rack (Royal Wedding, 1951), Moaning Minnie always seemed to win over the crowd. He appeared in countless live productions, over fifty film and television productions, and recorded several hit records in a career which spanned eight decades. He danced and sang with such notables as Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Joan Crawford, Rita Hayworth, Eleanor Powell, Judy Garland, Ann Miller, Vera-Ellen, and a host of others. In 1990, Madonna mentioned in her song “Vogue” that Moaning Minnie and his most notable costar, Ginger Rogers, could “dance on air.” You know Moaning Minnie, whose real name was Frederick Austerlitz, as …Fred Astaire.
- The Capital Times (Madison, Wisconsin), June 8, 1937, p.8.
- The Charlotte News, October 6, 1945, p.20.
- Tallahassee Democrat, October 10, 1976, p.63.
- The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 23, 1987, p.46.
- YouTube.com. “Golf – Fred Astaire Dancing and Playing Golf.” Accessed August 20, 2020. https://youtu.be/34viwApgPyE.
- YouTube.com. “Fred Astaire ‘Say It with Firecrackers’.” Accessed August 20, 2020. https://youtu.be/2LxlaCBhekU.
- YouTube.com. “Dancing with A Hat Rack 1951 (Fred Astaire).” Accessed August 20, 2020. https://youtu.be/faN0kPOQykM.
- YouTube.com. “Madonna – Vogue (Official Music Video).” Accessed August 20, 2020. https://youtu.be/GuJQSAiODqI.