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https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/22/arts/dance/marge-champion-dead.html

She was a model for Disney’s animated heroine in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” and with her husband epitomized the clean-cut, all-American dance team of Hollywood musicals.

Marge Champion, the lissome dancer and choreographer who with her husband, Gower, epitomized the clean-cut, all-American dance team of Hollywood musicals, Broadway productions and television variety shows of the 1950s, died on Wednesday in Los Angeles. She was 101.

Her death was confirmed by her son Gregg Champion, who said on Thursday that she had been living with him at his home in California for the past six months because of the pandemic.

Ms. Champion was a child of Hollywood, the daughter of a dance coach who taught her ballet, tap and the twirls, kicks and glorious sweeps of the ballroom. She performed at the Hollywood Bowl as a girl and as a teenager was a model for three Walt Disney animated features, her graceful moves transposed to the heroine of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937), to the Blue Fairy that gave life to the puppet in “Pinocchio” (1940) and to the hippo ballerinas tripping lightly in tutus for “Dance of the Hours” in “Fantasia” (1940).

But her career came to little until 1947, when she and Gower Champion, a childhood friend, became partners both professionally and personally. In the next few years, they were pivotal in a transition from the escapist musicals of the Depression to an exuberant new age of postwar television, successors to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and the first dance team to achieve national popularity through television.

The Champions did not possess the sheer magic of Astaire and Rogers or rival their stardom in Hollywood. But as television began to permeate American homes in 1949, they joined the weekly “Admiral Broadway Revue,” with Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, on the Dumont and NBC networks, and delivered something new: narrative dances that sparkled with pantomime, satire, parody and touches of nostalgia.

“All of the Champions’ dances have one thing in common — they try to tell a story or present an idea,” Arthur Altschul wrote in The New York Times. “One may be a dramatic night dance, another satirizes dance’s three famous D’s — De Marco, De Mille and Draper; still a third accentuates the problems of practicing steps in a congested rehearsal studio.”

They also brought their story-dance techniques to nightclubs and the stage. In a 1951 Broadway revue, “Make a Wish,” they danced a ballet sendup of bargain day in a department store: the chaos at the tables, the fighting for a shmata. A New York Post critic called it “a fine triumph of rowdy slapstick.”

As their audiences grew into the millions, Hollywood beckoned. The Champions played themselves in “Mr. Music” (1950), a light comedy with Bing Crosby about a sidetracked songwriter. In “Show Boat” (1951), with Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson, the Champions were members of the onboard troupe of entertainers and sang as well as danced. In “Lovely to Look At” (1952), a remake of “Roberta” also with Keel and Grayson, the Champions sang and danced a memorable number, “I Won’t Dance.” In their first roles with top billing, they played married dancers loosely based on themselves in “Everything I Have Is Yours” (1952).

The Champions radiated the vitality of young America, looking even in middle age like a couple of fresh-scrubbed teenagers. They were extraordinarily handsome — she a petite brunette with the blushing cheeks and sincere brown eyes of the girl next door; he a tall, slender letterman with a crew cut and a dreamboat face. They were in constant motion, swirling, dipping, leaping. John Crosby of The New York Herald Tribune called them “light as bubbles, wildly imaginative in choreography and infinitely meticulous in execution.”

They appeared on dozens of television shows, from the variety entertainments of Ed Sullivan and Dinah Shore to “The Bell Telephone Hour” and “General Electric Theater.” In 1957 they had their own sitcom, “The Marge and Gower Champion Show,” in which they played fictionalized versions of themselves. But their professional partnership ended in 1960, and their careers went separate ways. After years of growing apart, the couple, who had two sons, Blake and Gregg, were divorced in 1973.

He became an award-winning Broadway director, with hits that included “Bye Bye Birdie” (1960) and “Hello, Dolly!” (1964). She took small roles in many films and in 1975 won an Emmy for choreographing the TV movie “Queen of the Stardust Ballroom,” a comedy starring Charles Durning and Maureen Stapleton. In 1981 she choreographed a nude dancer in the film “Whose Life Is It Anyway?” Anna Kisselgoff of The New York Times called it “a stunning sequence, created by someone with a deep understanding of how dance and film can mutually enhance each other.”
 

Marjorie Celeste Belcher was born on Sept. 2, 1919, in Los Angeles, to Ernest and Gladys Belcher. Her father was a celebrated dance coach whose pupils included Shirley Temple, Betty Grable, Cyd Charisse — and Gower Champion.

Marjorie, who began dance lessons at 3, attended Bancroft Junior High in Los Angeles and Hollywood High School. She knew Gower from Bancroft and from her father’s studio. In 1937 she married Arthur Babbitt, a Walt Disney animator who created the character Goofy and worked with her in drawing Snow White and later characters for “Fantasia.” They were divorced in 1940.

Calling herself Marjorie Bell, she made her movie debut in 1939 with a small part in “The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle,” starring Astaire and Rogers as the legendary dance team of the World War I era. It was the last Astaire-Rogers musical of the 1930s.

Moving to New York, Marjorie danced in Broadway productions, including “Dark of the Moon” (1945), a drama with music set in Appalachia, and Duke Ellington’s “Beggar’s Holiday” (1946).

In 1947, Marjorie and Mr. Champion, who was back from wartime Coast Guard service, began what proved to be a 13-year dance partnership and a 26-year marriage. A few days after their wedding, they made their debut at the Plaza Hotel. They toured nightclubs across the country, building a solid base of bookings and billings. In 1949, television catapulted them to national fame.

While their careers and lives drifted apart in the 1960s and ’70s, Marge and Gower remained what their friends called soul mates. Both remarried. He died of a rare blood disorder in 1980, hours before a show he directed, “42nd Street,” opened on Broadway. Her third husband, the television and film director Boris Sagal, whom she married in 1977, died in a helicopter accident in 1981. Her 25-year-old son, Blake, was killed in a car crash in 1987. In addition to her son Gregg, she is survived by her daughter-in-law Christine Champion and grandchildren Dylan Gower Champion, Alana Blake Champion and Gabriel Marantz.

Depressed after her son’s death, Ms. Champion immersed herself in work. She taught dance and choreography in New York, lectured widely, joined the boards of several arts organizations and was a member of the Tony Awards nominating committee for years. She also took many small roles on television and in films. 

“Her last Broadway appearance was at 82 years of age in Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Follies,’ where she danced with her partner Donald Saddler doing eight performances a week for six months,” her son Gregg wrote of her 2001 appearance in the Sondheim revival.

“She continued dancing as she aged into her 100th year,” he said, adding that she often said “that ‘one should celebrate every decade for what it gives you and not for what it takes away.’”

“Keep Dancing,” a short documentary about Ms. Champion and Mr. Saddler, was made by Douglas Blair Turnbaugh and Greg Vander Veer in 2009.
 

Ms. Champion, who lived in Manhattan and gardened for many years at her farmhouse in Stockbridge, Mass., was inducted into the National Museum of Dance’s Hall of Fame in 2009, and in 2013 received the Douglas Watt Lifetime Achievement Award at the Fred and Adele Astair Awards ceremonies in New York.

In 1999, led by the dancer-actress Ann Reinking, the stars of many dance companies assembled at the opening of the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, Mass., to pay tribute to Ms. Champion. Nearly 80 but still vivacious, she told the crowd, “I just want to say: It does get better!”

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Even though Marge was 101 and was seemingly healthy far into her older years, I'm still sad.

She was one of my favorite dancers even though there are far less examples of her dancing than many others.

As a teenager, she was the dancer I most closely identified with, mostly because my frame was very much like hers. I was small and athletic looking when all the others girls in ballet class looked more like Vera-Ellen. Sometimes I studied her dancing so intently that I forgot she was dancing with a partner!

I don't think she really got any credit for all those magnificent lifts she and Gower did. She was just as center-balanced and strong as he (for their according sizes, of course) and some of those lifts couldn't have been pulled off by a dancer lesser in technique.

She also had a very approachable manner that made me feel like she was someone I would want to know.

~RIP and Thank you, Ms. Champion💖

 

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Marge's father, Ernest Belcher, was the Ballet Master to the Hollywood Studios, supplying them with ballet dancers and choreography when necessary.

He was the ballet master and/ or choreographer for Shirley Temple's "The Little Princess", Lon Chaney's "Phantom of the Opera" and Al Jolson's "The Jazz Singer".

Belcher's most successful and most famous ballet student was Broadway's Tony Award-winning dancer Gwen Verdon.

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2 hours ago, sagebrush said:

Even though Marge was 101 and was seemingly healthy far into her older years, I'm still sad.

She was one of my favorite dancers even though there are far less examples of her dancing than many others.

As a teenager, she was the dancer I most closely identified with, mostly because my frame was very much like hers. I was small and athletic looking when all the others girls in ballet class looked more like Vera-Ellen. Sometimes I studied her dancing so intently that I forgot she was dancing with a partner!

I don't think she really got any credit for all those magnificent lifts she and Gower did. She was just as center-balanced and strong as he (for their according sizes, of course) and some of those lifts couldn't have been pulled off by a dancer lesser in technique.

She also had a very approachable manner that made me feel like she was someone I would want to know.

~RIP and Thank you, Ms. Champion💖

 

Beautifully written from the viewpoint a dancer-- I felt the same way about Carol Haney. 

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11 minutes ago, Princess of Tap said:

Marge's father, Ernest Belcher, was the Ballet Master to the Hollywood Studios, supplying them with ballet dancers and choreography when necessary.

He was the ballet master and/ or choreographer for Shirley Temple's "The Little Princess", Lon Chaney's "Phantom of the Opera" and Al Jolson's "The Jazz Singer".

Belcher's most successful and most famous ballet student was Broadway's Tony Award-winning dancer Gwen Verdon.

He also coached notable dancers such as Fred Astaire, Maria Tallchief, Shirley Temple,  and Cyd Charisse.

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I remember becoming aware of her as a kid. Back in the late 50's, early 60's most local metropolitan TV stations had some variant of "The Million Dollar Movie", usually airing on weekend afternoons. Musicals were heavily favored and I distinctly remember how she and her husband lit up the screen during their numbers. She never went the glam route like a lot of other female dancers. She (and Debbie Reynolds, who wasn't strictly a dancer) seemed like a "real" person, a pretty woman who could be one of my friends' moms. This may seem like faint praise, but it's the reason I remember her so fondly all these many years later.

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My favorite MGM musical is 1951's Show Boat, thanks in part to the brilliant dancing of Marge and Gower Champion.  They have two numbers---"I Might Fall Back on You"," an original song that was written especially for this movie version,  and "Life Upon the Wicked Stage" that was written for the 1927 Broadway show.   The teams dancing to "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes"  in 1952's Lovely to Look At is also superb.   A third musical movie of theirs that I like is 1955's Three for the Show from Columbia.  Marge and Gower received star billing with Betty Grable and Jack Lemmon.  While the story is rather corny and contrived (it was a musical remake of Too Many Husbands) the songs are pretty great with Marge and Gower dancing and performing on a huge grid to the Gershwin's "Someone to Watch Over Me."   RIP Marge Champion.  

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Marge and Gower Champion became friends with the Black entertainer Harry Belafonte, who had begun to make a name for himself as a singer, recording artist and actor. In 1955, the trio starred in the Broadway revue "3 for Tonight: A Diversion in Song and Dance," which was directed and staged by Gower Champion. The production ran at the Plymouth Theatre from April to June in 1955

3 for Tonight Playbill - April 1955

The show later went on a national tour -- including stops in the segregated South. The show traditionally ended with Marge Champion clasping hands with her husband and Belafonte. As The Washington Post noted in Ms. Champion's obituary, it was "a time when interracial dancing was almost unknown, even considered subversive."

See the source image

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Here is an amusing YouTube clip with Marge Champion remembering the first time she met Carol Channing when husband Gower was auditioning actresses.

*There are some sound issues with their microphones during the interview.

 

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5 hours ago, sagebrush said:

Here is an amusing YouTube clip with Marge Champion remembering the first time she met Carol Channing when husband Gower was auditioning actresses.

*There are some sound issues with their microphones during the interview.

 

 

I definitely could tell she's from a different era. When 180 pounds was considered shockingly obese back then... wow! If you don't mind, I think I'll go hide my 178 pounds under a bunch of covers and eat double chocolate fudge ice cream tonight. 

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