Marge Champion, the extravagant dancer and choreographer who, along with her husband Gower, embodies an all-pure American dance troupe of Hollywood musicals, Broadway productions and television variety shows in the 1950s, died Wednesday in Los Angeles. She was 101.
Her death was confirmed by her son Greg Champion, who said she had lived with him at his home for the past six months because of the pandemic.
Mrs. Champion was the child of Hollywood, the daughter of a dance coach who taught her ballet, tap and spin, kicks, and glorious ballroom swings. She played in the Hollywood Bowl as a girl, and as a teenager she was a model for three Walt Disney animated roles, her graceful moves transposed to the heroine of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”
But her career was short until 1947, when she and Gower Champion, a childhood friend, became partners both professionally and personally. Over the next few years, they were key in the transition from escapist musicals to the Depression to a tumultuous new era of postwar television, the successors of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers and the first dance team to achieve national television popularity.
The champions did not have the pure magic of Aster and Rodgers, nor did they compete with their Hollywood star. But when television began to infiltrate American homes in 1949, they joined the weekly Admiral Broadway Review, along with Sid Caesar and Imogen Coca, on Dumont and NBC, and performed something new: narrative dances sparkling with pantomime. , satire, parody and notes of nostalgia.
“All the champions’ dances have one thing in common – they’re trying to tell a story or come up with an idea,” Arthur Alchul wrote in the New York Times. “One may be a dramatic night dance, another satirizes D’s three famous dances – De Marco, De Mille and Draper; another third still focuses on the problems of practicing steps in a crowded rehearsal studio.
They also brought their dance-themed techniques to nightclubs and on stage. In the 1951 Broadway fashion show Make a Wish, the champions danced a ballet day on a bargain day in a department store: the chaos of the tables, the fight for the scum. A critic from the New York Post called it a “great triumph of a noisy helmet.”
As their audience grew by millions, Hollywood mani. The champions played themselves in “Mr. Music ”(1950), a light comedy with Bing Crosby as a side songwriter. In “Show Boat” (1951), with Howard Keel and Catherine Grayson, they were members of the on-board troupe of artists and sang and danced. In “Lovely to Look At” (1952), a remake of “Roberta”, also with Keel and Grayson, the Champions sing and dance a memorable number “I Won’t Dance”, with ingenious use of props. In their first roles with the highest fees, they played married dancers, freely based on themselves in “Everything I Have is Yours” (1952).
The champions radiated the vitality of young America, resembling even middle-aged people as a few freshly worn teenagers. They were extraordinarily beautiful — she was a petite girl next door with flushed cheeks and sincere brown eyes; he is a tall, slender letter with the face of a dream boat. They were in constant motion, spinning, diving, jumping. John Crosby of The New York Herald Tribune called them “light as bubbles, wildly imaginative in choreography and infinitely meticulous in performance.”
They have appeared in dozens of television shows, from the various entertainments of Ed Sullivan and Dina Shore to “The Bell Hour” and the “General Electric Theater.” In 1957, they had their own sitcom, The Marge and Gower Champion Show, in which they played fictional versions of themselves. But their professional partnership ended in 1960 and their careers began in different ways. After years of separation, the couple, who had two sons, Blake and Greg, divorced in 1973.
Mr. Champion became an award-winning Broadway director with hits including “Bye Bye Birdie” (1960) and “Hello, Dolly!” (1964). Mrs. Champion took small roles in many films and in 1975 won an Emmy for choreography for the television film “Queen of the Stardust Ballroom”, a comedy starring Charles Durning and Maureen Stapleton. In 1981, she choreographed a nude dancer in The New York Times’s Whose Life Is It? Anna Kiselgov called it “a stunning sequence created by a man with a deep understanding of how dance and film can improve each other.”
Marjorie Celeste Belcher was born on September 2, 1919 in Los Angeles to Ernest and Gladys (Basket) Belcher. Her father was a well-known dance coach whose students were Shirley Temple, Betty Grable, Side Harris and Shauer Shauer.
Marjorie, who begins dance lessons at 3, attends Bancroft Junior High in Los Angeles and Hollywood High School. He knew Gower from Bancroft and his 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 Fantasy. They were divorced in 1940.
Called Marjorie Bell, she made her film debut in 1939 with a small role in The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, starring Aster and Rodgers as the legendary World War I-era dance troupe. 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 in the Appalachians, and Duke Ellington’s Beggar’s Holiday (1946).
In 1947, Marjorie and Mr. Champion, returning from wartime Coast Guard service, began what turned out to be a 13-year dance partnership and a 26-year marriage. They made their debut at the Plaza Hotel a few days after the wedding. They toured nightclubs across the country, building a solid base of reservations and invoices. In 1949, television catapulted them to national glory.
While their careers and lives diverged in the 1960s and 1970s, Marge and Gower remained what their friends called kindred spirits. They both remarried. He died of a rare blood disorder in 1980, hours before the show he directed, 42nd Street, which opened on Broadway. Her third husband, television and film director Boris Sagal, whom she married in 1977, died in a helicopter crash in 1981. Her 25-year-old son Blake was killed in a car crash in 1987. In addition to his son Greg, her survivors include three grandchildren.
Depressed after the death of her son, Mrs. Champion is immersed in work. She teaches dance and choreography in New York, lectures, joins the boards of several art organizations, and has been a member of the Tony Awards nomination committee for years. She also played very small roles in television and movies.
“Her last appearance on Broadway was at the age of 82 in Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, where she danced with her partner Donald Sadler, performing eight times a week for six months,” her son Greg wrote of her 2001 appearance in the revival of Sondheim.
“She kept dancing as she got older,” he said, adding that he often said “that you should celebrate every decade for what he gives you, not for what he takes away.”
“Keep Dancing”, a short documentary about Mrs. Champion and Mr. Sadler, was made by Douglas Blair Turnbow and Greg Vander Veer in 2009.
Mrs. Champion, who lived in Manhattan and gardened for many years on her farm in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, was inducted into the National Dance Museum’s Hall of Fame in 2009. In 2013, she received the Douglas Watt Award for Outstanding Achievement in Fred and Adele Aster Award Ceremonies in New York.
In 1999, led by dancer-actress Anne Ranking, the stars of many dance companies gathered at the opening of the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Beckett, Massachusetts, to pay tribute to Ms. Champion. Nearly 80, but still alive, she told the crowd, “I just want to say, ‘It’s getting better!’
Elaine Yu and Yang Juan contributed to the reporting.