Friday, October 23, 2020

The Late Great Marge Champion

I have always had a bit of a crush on Marge Champion. She was certainly beautiful and graceful. And, as a dancer she certainly had great legs. That having been said, there was much more to Marge Champion than grace and beauty. She was a woman of some talent. As a dancer she served as the dance model for Snow White in Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio (1940), and Hyacinth Hippo in the "Dance of the Hours" segment of Fantasia (1940).  As dancer she also appeared on Broadway, in film, and on television, often alongside her second husband, Gower Champion. Sadly, Marge Champion died yesterday, October 21 2020, at the age of 101.

Marge Champion was born Marjorie Belcher on September 2 1919 in Los Angeles. Her father, Ernest Belcher, was a choreographer who worked on such films as Heroes of the Street (1922) Phantom of the Opera (1925), The Merry Widow (1925), and The Jazz Singer (1927). He also taught dance and among his students was his daughter's future husband, Gower Champion. Her mother was Gladys Lee Baskette. Marge Champion had an older half-sister though her mother, Lina Basquette, who became an actress.

Marge Champion studied acting from a young age, initially taught by her father. At age five she went to New York to study dance. She made her debut at age 11 at the Hollywood Bowl in the ballet "Carnival in Venice" in 1930. At age 12 she was already teaching ballet at her father's dance studio. At Hollywood High School she sang Girls' Senior Glee Club and played Tina in the school's production of The Red Mill.

Marge Champion was only a teenager when she was hired by Walt Disney Studio as a dance model for Snow White for their upcoming animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. She would work again for Disney as the model for the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio and Hyacinth Hippo in Fantasia. She married Disney animator Art Babitt in 1937. The two divorced in 1940.

Marge Champion made her film debut in 1938 as a dancer in Delinquent Parents. In the late Thirties she also appeared in the films Honor of the West(1939), The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939), Sorority House (1939), What a Life (1939), and All Women Have Secrets (1939). She appeared in the short subject "Sunday Night at the Trocadero" (1937).

Marge Champion made her Broadway debut in 1943 in What's Up. In 1945 she appeared on Broadway in Dark of the Moon. She appeared on Broadway in Beggar's Holiday in 1946. It was in 1947 that Marge Champion married Gower Champion. The two son became a popular dance team. She assisted Gower Champion as choreographer on the Broadway production Lend an Ear. Marge and Gower Champion were regulars on The Admiral Broadway Revue, which debuted in January 1949. Marge Champion guest starred on the episode "Dark of the Moon" of The Philco Television Playhouse. The Champions appeared in the movie Mr. Music (1950).

The Fifties would be a busy decade for Marge Champion. She appeared in the movies Show Boat (1951), Lovely to Look At (1952), Everything I Have Is Yours (1952), Give a Girl a Break (1953), Jupiter's Darling (1955), and Three for the Show. On television Marge and Gower Champion had their own show, The Marge and Gower Champion Show, in 1957. She guest starred in such shows as Lux Video Theatre, The Red Skelton Show, Front Row Center, Shower of Stars, Screen Directors Playhouse, General Electric Theatre, The Dinah Shore Show, The Jack Benny Program, House Party, The Eddie Fisher Show, Juke Box Jury, The Perry Como Show, The Garry Moore Show, To Tell the Truth, The Arthur Murray Party, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Bell Telephone Hour, The United States Steel Hour, and Person to Person. She assisted her husband Gower Champion in the choreography for Make a Wish on Broadway in 1951. On Broadway she appeared in 3 for Tonight.

In the Sixties Marge Champion appeared on television on The Bell Telephone Hour, Here's Hollywood, Candid Camera, The Mike Douglas Show, and The Movie Game. She appeared in the movies The Party (1968), The Swimmer (1968), and The Cockeyed Cowboys of Calico County (1970). She assisted her husband Gower Champion in choreographing the Broadway play Hello, Dolly!.

Marge and Gower Champion divorced in 1973, but her career did not slow down. On television she appeared in the ABC's Wide World of Entertainment episode "That's Entertainment: 50 Years of MGM" and Film '76. She served as the choreographer for the movie Queen of the Stardust Ballroom and the mini-series The Awakening Land and Ike. She was a dialogue coach for the TV movie The Diary of Anne Frank.

In the Eighties Marge Champion was the choreographer for the movie Whose Life is It Anyway (1981). She both choreographer and dialogue coach on the TV movie When the Circus Came to Town. She was the choreographer on the TV movie I Do! I Do!. She was a dialogue coach on the mini-series Masada. She appeared in the television documentaries To Dance for Gold, Crazy About the Movies: Ava Gardner, and Live from Broadway: Hello, Dolly!. She appeared in the television specials Night of 100 Stars II and Harry Belafonte in Concert. She appeared on Broadway in Stepping Out.

In the Nineties Marge Champion guest starred on the TV show Fame. She also appeared in the TV series Archive of American Television and Barrymore on Broadway. In the Teens Marge Champion appeared on Broadway in Follies. She appeared in the TV series The Paul O'Grady Show. She appeared in the TV documentaries The 100 Greatest Family Films, Words and Music by Jerry Herman, and Hollywood Singing and Dancing: A Musical Treasure. In the Teens she appeared on the TV shows Move TV and Theatre Talk. She appeared in the TV documentaries Countdown to the Oscars: 15 Movies That Changed American Cinema, Behind the Magic: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and The Nation's Favourite Disney Song. She was a guest at the TCM Classic Film Festival.

Marge Champion was an incredible dancer. She and her one-time husband Gower Champion were one of the greatest dance teams of all time. That having been said, I think Marge Champion would have been a success without Gower Champion. She was trained in ballet and knew multiple other dance styles. Marge Champion moved in ways that only a few other dancers could. She may have been petite and slender, but she was truly an athlete, capable of both grace and strength. It is little wonder that Disney employed her multiple times as a dance model. Of course, she also had considerable talent as a choreographer. She won an Emmy Award for her choreography on Queen of the Stardust Ballroom. Although she was a dancer, Marge Champion was also a good actress. In both her facial expressions and the way she moved, she was very expressive. She gave excellent performances in everything from the movie Give a Girl a Break to the TV show Fame.

Of course, Marge Champion was beloved by classic movie buffs for more than just her talent. She was a guest at the TCM Classic Film Festival and many other events. Those fans lucky enough to meet her often came away even more in love with her. Marge Champion was sweet, open, and down-to-earth. She possessed a great, often self-deprecating sense of humour and a sunny disposition. Sometimes classic movie fans come away disappointed after meeting their idols. This was never the case with Marge Champion. She was a beautiful, wonderful, and extremely talented woman who loved life and loved her fans.

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