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 Wednesday in Los Angeles. She was 101.
Her death was confirmed by her son Gregg Champion, who said Thursday that she had been living with him at his home in California for the past six months because of the pandemic.
Marge 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 postwar television age, 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 Hollywood stardom. 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,” the Champions 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, they 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,” with an ingenious use of props. 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 girl next door with the blushing cheeks and sincere brown eyes; he a tall, slender letterman with 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.
Marjorie Celeste (Basquette) Belcher was born 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.