Forty years ago, when David Fantle and Tom Johnson were high school students, they wrote to Fred Astaire and Gene Kelley on a whim, asking the A-listers for an interview. To their surprise, the stars agreed, and Fantle and Johnson have been chatting up celebrities ever since. More than 250 interviews inform their latest book, Hollywood Heyday, which came out last month and brings to life the stories of some of the most famous entertainers of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Fantle, who currently works as chief marketing officer at the United Performing Arts Fund and formerly served as the Wisconsin deputy tourism secretary (he’s the guy who thought up our Bronze Fonz statue) spoke with us about the book, and the stars he’s interviewed.
What were you expecting from your first interview – with Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly?
Well, here we were: 18 years old, and those two were sort of the first prizes, so to speak. We didn’t know what exactly to expect, and admittedly were a little nervous. We had flown to LA for the first time, and we couldn’t rent a car. So, we met Fred Astaire at his business manager’s office, in Beverly Hills. We were sitting across from Fred Astaire, and it was almost like having a conversation with your grandfather, not realizing till after that we were with the greatest dancer, not just in the history of film, but an artist that you could put in the same breath as a Mozart or a Beethoven.
This book is simply dedicated to Fred and Gene. Because if it wasn’t for them giving us those 45-minute interviews and opening the door to what followed, we wouldn’t be here today talking about it.
Was there anyone you wanted to interview but were never able to?
Of course we always wanted to interview Frank Sinatra.
Does this book have any surprising connections to Milwaukee?
Don Rickles [who gave his final interview at Potawatomi Hotel and Casino]. There are some references to that last interview, when he was already 90 years old.