Fantasy Historical christmas movies WWII ghost story Fred Astaire Holiday Inn dancing White Christmas

The Sound of One Foot Dancing

By James Van Pelt
Dec 11, 2019 · 2,741 words · 10 minutes

Photo by Ahmet Yalçınkaya via Unsplash.

From the author: Christmas, Fred Astaire, the filming of HOLIDAY INN, and a dancer who will not die.

I shook the chains holding the sound stage’s side doors locked, then started the long walk through the darkened studio to check the front.  The day had been a full one.  Mr. Sandrich, the director, had the crew knock down the Lincoln Day set and assemble the 4th of July one.  He didn’t like three of the flats, and they had to be redone.  The dancers and extras got antsy, and all the while reporters were trying to get in to interview Fred Astaire about how he felt about yesterday’s declaration of war.  In the meantime, one of our cameramen had a son on the Arizona, and he didn’t come to work because the navy hadn’t told him whether his boy was alive or not, so I doubled as studio security and camera grip.  I’d been thinking about quitting, you know, joining the war effort and all.

It was 3:00 in the morning, and I should have been going home myself, but a percussive tapping from the Holiday Inn set kept me here.  Tired as I was, I had to smile.  Astaire was practicing by himself again.  It didn’t matter when Sandrich called the day, Astaire stayed to work.  I’d heard he weighed 140 pounds when the picture started.  The Paramount doctor said he was down to 126 and prescribed thick steaks, which were delivered from the commissary every night at 7:00.  He hardly touched them.

The front doors were locked too, so I found a chair in the dark beside the set and watched Fred Astaire dance.  One overhead spot was turned on that isolated him in its lighted circle.  His hands were in his pockets, and he danced with only one foot.  The taps flew briskly, different rhythms, slow at first, a quick rattle, then a steady syncopation.  He switched, so now his other foot beat out a rhythm.  His head was down.  I’d seen him do this before, a dancer’s warmup.  Soon, though, he started moving on the stage, more ice-skating than dancing, in and out of the light.

I relaxed into the seat.  The steady tapping of his flashing feet lulled me and excited me too.  No one could be so tired that watching Fred Astaire wouldn’t wake him.  Without music, he made tunes.  Without a partner, he made a duet.  His hands were out, practicing one side of a routine I recognized.  It was the part from Flying Down to Rio where he and Ginger Rogers danced across seven white grand pianos.  He hummed the tune, turning, turning, dipping and sliding, in the light and out.  I could almost see Ginger, dress flying, anticipating his moves.  He’d told me once, “Of course Ginger was able to accomplish sex through dance.  We told more through our movements instead of the big clinch.  We did it all through dance.”

Astaire accelerated.  His feet hardly touched the stage, while his tapping seemed not to come from him, but to be an accompaniment.  I’d seen him dance many nights, but not like this, one hand curled around an invisible waist, the other in the air, holding an invisible hand.  Round and round.  Through the light, brilliantly lit, and than back to the dark, a grey shape swirling, tapping, humming his musical part.

Then, he stopped.  “Where’d you go?” he said, his voice echoing in the empty studio.  “Where’d you go?”

I cleared my throat.  He jumped.  He didn’t know I’d been watching.  “Where’d who go, Mr. Astaire?”

“Is that you, Pop?”  He shaded his eyes from the spot and peered toward me.

“Yes, sir.  Nice dancing, sir.”

“Where’d the girl go?”  He looked at his empty hand, puzzled.

“Girl, sir?  We’re alone.  Studio’s locked up.”

“There was a girl . . .about yay tall.  Dark hair.  Round face.”  His voice trailed off.  “We were dancing.”

I stood, my skin as cold as marble.  “You must be tired, sir.  It’s time to go home.”

He looked at me, his forehead and cheeks white in the spot, his eyes deeply shadowed.  Then he glanced behind him as if he’d heard a noise.  “I was holding a girl, I could have swore . . .”

I rattled my keys.  “It’s been a long day, Mr. Astaire.  I’ll open the door for you.”

When he was gone, I crossed the cavernous space, past the Valentine Day’s set, through the little tree-lined road for the carriage ride, where Bing Crosby sang “Easter Parade” to Marjorie Reynolds, through the Holiday Inn set itself–the Christmas tree was next to the piano; they’d do the “White Christmas” bit this week–and then to the north doors. 

They were secure, I knew they were, but I checked them anyway.  When I came to the door, my hand trembled.  The big deadlock turned stiffly–the door wasn’t used much--and I pushed it open with my shoulder.  Outside in the California night I saw a narrow alley, a low wall, and on the other side, shining in the star light, the glistening mausoleums and tomb stones of the Hollywood Memorial Cemetery.  Rudi Valentino is buried there, and so is Douglas Fairbanks.  I also saw Lillian’s grave, not so new now, tucked away inconspicuously next to the gaudier displays.

Lillian, who answered a call for dancers last year, another anonymous girl hoping for a movie part, who lined up with the rest, who made the first cut because she wasn’t too tall, or too short, or too fat, who waited for her chance to dance, and when they called her name she stood, took her spot on the stage, put her hands on her hips, poised for the music to begin, like a thousand other girls over the years.  I watched her because I always watch the dancers’ auditions.  Except this time, for this girl, before the music started, she swayed and fell.

I sighed.  Lots of girls faint.  They stand around all day, their hopes in their throats, and then their turn comes.  So I walked forward, fingering the smelling salts in my pocket.  She’d come to, another embarrassed performer.  But she didn’t.  The studio doctor got there within minutes.  The other dancers, all hopefuls, surrounded us.  “She’s gone,” the doctor said. 

A dancer shrieked.  “It was just sleeping pills!  It couldn’t have killed her.”

I learned that day how strong, how obsessive, the Hollywood dream is.  Lillian had looked like a shoe-in for the part.  If she flubbed her audition, then the other dancer thought she’d have a better chance, so she’d slipped her the drugs. 

The doctor told me later, “Lillian must have had a weak heart, Pop, for her to collapse that way.”

I don’t know what killed her, but I don’t believe it was a weak heart.  Not her heart.

Lillian’s tombstone glowed grayly among the others.  There’s something in the real dancers, like Fred Astaire, that won’t quit, some steel-barred determination that keeps them on their feet long after the rest have gone to bed.  I looked up and down the alley, the door’s handle cool under my hand.  “Go to sleep,” I said into the empty night.  “Go to sleep, Lillian.  Quit coming back.”

Most of the sound stages at Paramount have a haunt or two.  It’s an old studio.  The first film was shot here in 1917, DeMille’s The Squaw Man.  Valentino shot The Sheik here in 1921, and Wings, which won the first ever Academy Award for best picture, was filmed here in 1927.   Casts by the hundreds have come through Paramount’s gates.  All those dreamers filming dreams.  But doors swing open on empty stages.  Equipment moves.  An actress can walk from one spot to another ten feet away and suddenly shiver.  “It’s so cold here,” she’ll say, her hands wrapped round her arms.

I saw Lillian the first time a week after she died, her back to me, standing in an open door.  “You can’t be here, Miss.  We’re closed,” I said.  Then she turned, and I recognized her as she faded away.  She returned two or three times a week, looking sad.  I followed her once, walking slowly from set to set.  At the end she met my eyes.  I blinked, and she was gone.

I asked around.  None of the other security guards knew about her.  Only me.  I thought, why me?  Why do I always see her?  Was it because I held her head as she died on the stage, so young, so unfulfilled, still waiting for her musical cue?  Was that it?

When I returned to the sound stage at noon, filming had already been going for four hours.  Jimmy, the morning guard told me that Astaire was waiting at the gates at 6:00 and danced for two hours before the rest of the cast arrived.  Firecrackers popped within the studio.

“He’s doing the 4th of July routine again?” I asked.

Jimmy shook his head, then nodded.  “The man’s unstoppable.”

There was applause as I approached the set.  The camera crew and extras clapped.  Astaire stood in the middle of the stage surrounded by wisps of firecracker smoke.  “Not right yet.  Let’s shoot it again,” he said.  Then he took his starting position behind the curtains.

Mr. Sandrich looked like he wanted to say something, but he swallowed the thought, shrugged and said, “Cue the music.  Take twenty-one.  Cameras, action.”

Astaire came through the curtains, all movement and rhythm and timing.  This was supposed to be a spontaneous routine.  In the story, Marjorie Reynolds, his partner, doesn’t show up and two important Hollywood executives are in the audience.  He grabs a handful of pocket torpedoes, and as he dances, he throws them against the ground, an explosive counterpoint to his own pyrotechnics.  It’s the most amazing dance routine I’d ever seen.

He turns.  Bam!  He skips twice, does a half pirouette.  Bam!  Bam!  He lights an entire string of firecrackers, then dances among the explosions.  All to the music.  All looking like he was making it up on the spot.  It was stunning.

When he finished, he didn’t even appear to be breathing hard.  Everyone applauded again.  My hands sting with enthusiasm.

“No.  It’s still not right.  Let’s do it again.”  He disappeared behind the curtains.

A familiar voice said over my shoulder, “Pop, he’s getting so thin, I could spit through him.”

“Yes, sir, Mr. Crosby.”

He shook his head in wonder as he walked away toward the sound proof practice rooms.  Martha Mears, Miss Reynolds’ voice double, was with him.  They’d been working on the harmonies for “White Christmas” since last week.

All in all, Astaire did the firecracker routine for the cameras thirty-eight times and it was late at night before he said it was good enough.  Only the essential crew members were left in the studio.

“Go home, boys,” he said.  “I want to get in another step or two.”

The lights shut down, except for the spot he’d danced to the night before.  I checked the doors.  In the year since she’d died, I’d never seen Lillian dance.  She walked or stood.  She found me, then locked her eyes on mine, straining to communicate a mute message from beyond her grave I never understood.

Tapping came from the stage again.  One foot.

“Hey, Pop,” he said as I took a seat in the dark.  “Let’s see if we can get a curtain call from our mystery dancer.”

He beat out his complicated, one-footed rhythm, hands deep in his pockets again.  “You know, my character in the film is searching for a dance partner.”  He changed to the other foot without breaking the beat.  It scraped, skipped, heel-toed, variation on variation.  “I know what it’s like to look for a partner.  One dance.  One supreme dance to glory.”  He sounded whimsical.  “Sometimes when the music starts, it’s like . . . well . . . it’s like . . .”  He trailed into silence, his eyes tracking off stage.  “Ahh,” he sighed.

I couldn’t see her!  Why couldn’t I see her?  Astaire glided to center stage.  Offered his hand.  Curled the other around the small of her invisible back.

I’ve seen Astaire dance with Ginger Rogers, with Eleanor Powell, Rita Hayworth and Grace Kelly.  He’s redefined what a human can do with his body to music.  But I’d never seen a dance like this.  Not before.  Not since.

And they danced.  The room grew cold.  Not just a spot, but the whole studio, thousands of square feet.  My exhalations were frosty plumes.  I found that I was crying, the tears freezing on my cheeks, and I suddenly felt like an intruder, a peeping tom.  I left.  Walked through the Holiday Inn interior.  The Christmas tree glittered in the little light.  Bing Crosby’s pipe lay on the piano top.  I could almost hear him singing, “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas . . . where children listen for sleigh bells in the snow.”

Then I exited.  Now I stood in the Holiday Inn exterior.  Impossibly, the snow machine above turned on.  Oatmeal flakes tumbled down around me.  I was freezing in a fake snowstorm while Fred Astaire danced with the ghost of dead girl who never made it into the pictures.

I unlocked a north door.  Crossed the alley.  Leapt the low wall, then walked home through the Hollywood Memorial Cemetery.  I never went back to the studio.  I mailed my resignation.

They released Holiday Inn in August of 1942.  A Japanese U-boat shelled a Santa Barbara oil refinery in January.  Corrigedor fell in May.  We beat the Japs at Coral Sea and again at Midway, but the losses were terrible.  I tried to enlist.  The army wasn’t interested in a prematurely grey, heavy, flat-footed thirty-two year old ex-security guard. 

In September, finally, I went to see the movie.  Someone told me that they’d seen me in the film, and I remembered that on a lark they’d used me in one scene.  Didn’t even change my name.  I’m standing at a security door when the filming of the final Holiday Inn sequence starts, and I tell Fred Astaire and his agent they can’t come in.  I have one line.  Behind the door, Bing Crosby and Marjorie Reynolds finally get together.  If you watch the movie, you’ll see me.

But that’s not what’s important.

I settled into the theater seat.  The movie was pretty popular.  That song, “White Christmas,” just seemed perfect for our boys overseas, but this was a weekday matinee, and I almost had the house to myself.

It’s a sweet story.  I’d almost forgotten.  Bing Crosby loses his girl to Fred Astaire, and then he has a bad go of it as a farmer, then he tries show business again at Holiday Inn, a nightclub only open on holidays.  Crosby meets Reynolds, and they fall in love, only to have Astaire come along and try to steal her too.  I waited for the 4th of July number.  How would it play on the screen?  Would anyone see that Astaire used thirty-eight takes to look like he’d made it up on the spot?

The scene approached.  There’s a ensemble song and dance number before Astaire’s firecracker routine.  I was watching, my eyes half closed.  A line of girls comes onto the stage from one side, a line of guys from the other.  They’re singing a patriotic tune about the 4th.  The guys group at the back of the stage singing the bass line.  Half the girls split off into the audience, the other half, six girls, have formed three pairs, backs to the camera.  The first pair faces the audience to sing, “Let’s salute our native land.”  The next pair turns, “Roman candles in each hand.”  Then the last pair sings, “While the Yankee doodle band.”

I don’t hear any more.  I’m standing in the theater, pointing at the screen.

The girl on the right is Lillian.  She sings and dances through the rest of the scene.  It’s Lillian.

Astaire danced her right into the movie.  He got her a part.  Rent the video if you don’t believe me.

I never saw Fred Astaire again.

After Astaire died at eighty-eight, Mikhaile Baryshinikov said, “It’s no secret we hate him.  He gives us complexes because he’s too perfect.  His perfection is an absurdity.”

They buried him at Oakwood Memorial Park not far from Ginger Rogers’ grave. 

I wish they’d put him at Hollywood Memorial, where his real partner rests, the one who danced her way into Holiday Inn.  The only one light enough on her feet to match him, step for step.

This story originally appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.

James Van Pelt

An interviewer asked the author if he wanted to be the next Stephen King: he said, "No, I want to be the first James Van Pelt."