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Fred Astaire dances with vacuums in commercials set for Super Bowl debut

SKIP WOLLENBERGJanuary 8, 1997

NEW YORK (AP) _ Fred Astaire set the standard for elegance and style in Hollywood musicals. A decade after his death, he will turn up toting vacuum cleaners in Super Bowl commercials that use some of his best-known filmed dance routines.

Robyn Astaire said she agreed to give the makers of Dirt Devil vacuums permission to use movie clips showing her husband performing in the movies ``Royal Wedding″ and ``Easter Parade.″

She said it will be the first time she has let an advertiser use her late husband’s image after turning down hundreds of proposals. This time, she said the proposal was ``artistically suitable.″

Mrs. Astaire said her husband would have seen nothing wrong with using the vacuum cleaners as dance props. ``He was always receptive to new proposals. He would have used a vacuum cleaner in a minute. Why, he used a mop in the ’30s,″ Mrs. Astaire said.

The three, 15-second ads will debut before the huge audience expected to tune in Jan. 26 for the Super Bowl football telecast.

In one ad, Fred Astaire appears to be carrying a vacuum cleaner hose rather than a cane he actually held as he danced up and down stairs.

In another commercial, the coat rack he danced with is replaced by a vacuum broom. In a third ad, he appears to clean a light fixture on the ceiling with a handheld vacuum.

``There is no doubt in my mind that Fred would have accepted this,″ his widow said after the commercials were shown to reporters. ``I’m sorry if it offends some people. There will be many more who will enjoy these commercials.″

The use of the likenesses of deceased celebrities or excerpts from their performances has become an increasingly controversial issue.

Critics argue that it is wrong to use non-commercial performances in advertising after an actor dies because he has no say in how it is used.

Mrs. Astaire said she has been vigorous in challenging companies that have sought to use her late husband’s image without permission. She is leading a campaign to enact laws in California to give those in charge of celebrity estates greater control over how the celebrity’s performances are used.

Mrs. Astaire, now 52, was married to Fred Astaire for seven years before he died at age 88 in 1987. She said he asked her to make sure no one took advantage of him after his death.

She said she has received an average of five proposals a month for the past decade and had rejected every one. Many advertisers wanted to make it appear Astaire was speaking in their ads, and she refused to permit that.

``I didn’t want Fred hawking things with words coming out of his mouth that seemed to say ``Buy this product,‴ she said.

Fred Astaire made radio ads as early as the 1930s and felt there were situations in which it would be appropriate to use his performances in commercials.

She said she approved the Dirt Devil ads mainly because the admakers used actual clips of him dancing. An actor performed similar routines holding vacuums and the images were combined on a computer.

Neither Mrs. Astaire nor officials of Dirt Devil, a unit of Royal Appliance Mfg. Co. of Cleveland, would say how much Dirt Devil paid for the right to use Fred Astaire in the ads.

Michael Merriman, president and chief executive of Dirt Devil, said the company plans to continue running the ads periodically over the next two years and may do several more using Astaire films.

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