features + interviews

event musings: marge champion the dancer next door

What: Harvardwood Presents Marge Champion (and a few surprise guests)
When: Wednesday February 6, 2013, 7pm
Where: LRN, 745 Fifth Avenue, 8th Floor, New York, NY
event web site

(L-R) Marge Champion, Foster Hirsch. Image by Martha Wade Steketee.

6 February 2013. (L-R) Marge Champion, Foster Hirsch. Marge beamed a great smile toward my phone-camera lens. Image by Martha Wade Steketee.

The evening begins with chatting and seat selection and settling into an open brightly lit common area of the midtown offices of the corporate management consulting firm LRN, our host location for the latest New York City Harvardwood event. One of the best interviewer-moderators around, Foster Hirsch, is on tap to lead the conversation. And the assembled group of writers, dancers, actors, and folks simply interested in arts are treated to a healthy infusion of charm, grace, intellect, and grand style by the dancing/choreographing woman of the hour and perhaps of the 20th century: Marge Champion.

After screening two scenes from Show Boat (1951) illustrating the cinematic artistry of Marge and her husband choreographer Gower, Marge clarifies for all of us that she and her husband had extensive careers in nightclubs and on television before their five-year contract with M-G-M began in 1950. The agreement specified that they do no television during their tenure, and they returned to television as soon as the term was over. And this was not Marge’s first brush with movie work. As a young girl named Marge Belcher in Hollywood, Marge was selected to be a model for the animators working on Snow White, and Fantasia and other works that later became classics of Disney animation. And as a young woman who was steeped in ballet training, she served as an assistant to her British father Ernest Belcher, who she describes as being the first dance director in Hollywood.

On being a character dancer. Hirsh reflects that the two numbers from Show Boat we watched at the beginning of the event illustrate that she was a character actor and playing roles on film. Champion notes of her film work with Gower: “We never did a dance that was purely technical. We had our time as the boy and girl next door. We were the dancers next door.”  And here from Show Boat an example of this quality: “After I have looked over the world for a mate / then perhaps I might fall back on you …”

On working at M-G-M.  She enjoyed working with the teachers there, and being coached in acting. “They really trained their people,” she notes.  In Lovely to Look At (1952) she was trained in many skills at M-G-M — it “became a kind of big school.” And in the boffo number “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” in this film, you see the acting training as she delivers a quip-line before they stand to dance: “You practically have me on the floor already, so why don’t we do it the right way?”

On dancing with elephants. Champion’s final film under contract to M-G-M was Jupiter’s Darling (1955), a CinemaScope adventure with Howard Keel as Hannibal and Esther Williams as Esther and the Champions dancing with elephants (see the final minute of the original trailer below for a sense of that experience). “We danced with twelve elephants,” Ms. Champion notes. “[Director] George Sidney had a wrap party and got a truckload of watermelons for the girls (they were all girl elephants) and put them up on them. They loved it.”

On beginnings as a 14-year old animation movement model. “Dad was British. A man came to school and three of us were selected, and we auditioned. We were shown storyboards and were asked to react to situations. I had been trained as a dancer and was a proper English girl, so I said “thank you” and had manners. I think that’s what got me the job” on Snow White (1937).  She also worked on Fantasia (1940) modeling movement for the animators of the dancing hippo. (Another more zaftig adult female model was a movement model for that character too, but Ms. Champion didn’t know that until many years later.)

(L-R) Marge Champion, Taina Elg, Sondra Lee. Image by Martha Wade Steketee.

6 February 2013. (L-R) Marge Champion, Taina Elg, Sondra Lee. Image by Martha Wade Steketee.

And some of Ms. Champion’s dance colleagues join her half way through the evening’s events, providing additional examples of how to age with grace and style and charm. I sit up straighter even as I write these words, as I corrected my seated posture during last night’s adventure, with a smile. Taina Elg (and check her Broadway credits here) and tiny “Tiger Lily” Sondra Lee (and check film and television credits here) speak a bit about their own lengthy and awarded careers and much about their friend and colleague Marge and her contribution to the history of dance.

When Marge and Gower left M-G-M in 1955, Taina arrived. One of her first films was Les Girls (1957) — and all of the activity at M-G-M (after her early years in Finland, then studying and working in Sweden and in England) terribly exciting. M-G-M acting coach Lillian Burns Sidney was “terribly helpful” and Dore Schary, who had the reins at that time, was “very nice” — these are gracious women. Taina’s contract lasted seven years, through a total change over of the studio staff.

Sondra Lee speaks of Ms. Champion as the woman behind the man and recalls Marge’s silent approval or disapproval of Gower choreography or directing decisions in the creation of the original Hello Dolly (1964). Lee created the role of hat shop clerk Minnie Fae, and gives Marge credit for much of the choreography of Carol Channing as Dolly, to which Marge demurs as strength training more than anything else. “Carol needed strength enough to wear those costumes.”  (When asked directly by Hirsch whether Channing’s Dolly was Marge’s work, Lee answers “yes” while Ms. Champion simply smiles.) Hirsch asks Lee to comment on both Gower and Jerome Robbins, both of whom Lee knew well. Gower “was like an abstract painting” and described “big moments.”  Jerry, according to Lee, “was something else .. when you did his work it stayed with you, in your bones.” Champion elaborates on Gower’s creative nature as a choreographer when he was a director — he cast well. Gower always wanted to be a director, she notes, and “was not very graceful in accepting suggestions.”

Hirsch asks these vital women in their 80s and 90s who move and speak and present themselves beautifully about their own longevity. In response, and in a sort of re-framing, Sondra Lee has the last, loving, inclusive words of the evening. “We’re capable of being friends to each other in a competitive life. You know it up front, you know it when you begin as a dancer. This sense of continuity, of passing knowledge on, is something that we all share. We are here because we love what we do, therefore we love each other.”

© Martha Wade Steketee (February 7, 2013)

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