PillowVoices: Dance Through Time

Remembering Marge Champion

Episode Summary

From her earliest work as the live-action model for Snow White to the movies and shows of Marge and Gower Champion and decades of Pillow activities, an extraordinary life and legacy is celebrated by Norton Owen using 30 years of Marge Champion recordings.

Episode Notes

As mentioned in this episode: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NckTgsBsrKE
Author Mindy Aloff shares stories from her  book Hippo in a Tutu: Dancing in Disney Animation along with screening brief film excerpts that illustrate the evolution of dance used in Disney animation from the 1930s to 1950s. Joined by Marge Champion, who is interviewed for Hippo in a Tutu and was the dancer and live model for both Snow White and the Hippopotamus Ballerina in Fantasia. Moderated by Jacob's Pillow Director of Preservation Norton Owen.


Watch the award-winning short film, Keep Dancing. (https://vimeo.com/153283760

"Singularly endearing!" - The New York Times
"Keep Dancing is a testament to the vitality of existence." - Slash Film
"Elegant gem of a film" - City Arts
"Enchantingly inspiring film!" - Backstage

After celebrated careers, legendary dancers Marge Champion and Donald Saddler became friends while performing together in the Broadway show Follies in 2001. When the show closed, they decided to rent a private studio together, and they have been choreographing and rehearsing original dances ever since. At age 90, they continue to pursue their passion for life through their love and mastery of dance. Keep Dancing seamlessly blends nine decades of archival film and photographs with present-day footage to tell a story through dance of the passing of time and the process of aging.

Official Selection at South by Southwest, Dance on Camera at Lincoln Center, Silverdocs, Sedona International Film Festival and over 25 other international film festivals. Nominated for the IDA Short Documentary of the Year Award.

Episode Transcription

NORTON OWEN: Welcome to PillowVoices, a production of Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival with content from the Pillow Archives. I’m Norton Owen, the Pillow’s Director of Preservation, and I’m excited to be your host for this very personal episode remembering Marge Champion. I was lucky enough to know Marge for the last four decades of her life, and I hope to convey what made her such a special part of Jacob’s Pillow.  

Millions of people know Marge Champion as half of the husband-and-wife dancing team from the 1940s and 50s – Marge and Gower Champion – but for us at Jacob’s Pillow, she was something of a fairy godmother. Especially for me, because she’s the one who gave us Blake’s Barn, which has become home to the Pillow Archives. We’re going to hear mostly from Marge herself in this podcast, selected from many talks and interviews conducted over a period of 30 years and starting with the earliest recording we have of her. This was in late 1984, at a Pillow event soon after she had joined our board when she was in her mid-60s. The “Liz” she refers to is Liz Thompson, the Pillow’s transformative director who had first befriended Marge and then invited her to get involved.

MARGE CHAMPION: I came to Jacob’s Pillow, really since I moved to the Berkshires. And I think that I was not only surprised, but almost overwhelmed with the amount of history, the amount of work, the amount that Liz and all her associates are able to cram into one 9 or 10 week period. I have a very personal reason for enjoying that because my younger son has become a student there for two years and naturally that warms a mother’s heart like nothing else – to see Liz cracking her whip and everybody else making him work. And it has been a really, really extraordinary experience.

NORTON OWEN: We’ll hear more about Marge’s son Blake later, but first I want to cover some of Marge’s own history as a child of Hollywood, which she discusses in a 1999 event where she was speaking about her father, Ernest Belcher.

MARGE CHAMPION: Dad was the…probably the first dance director. We did not call them choreographers in those days – that was way too high-falutin’ a title. He was the first dance director in motion pictures but he also had a very large dancing school in downtown Los Angeles where I was lucky enough to study for the first ten years of my life – well, not ten years – I didn’t start until I was five. But by the time I was about 13 or 14, we had something known as the Depression and he could no longer afford to pay teachers. So instead of playing touch football in the lot, I got to assist him – because I was…cheaper! And that was a great thrill because I got to go to Shirley Temple’s house while he taught her for one of her little balletic moments, or when he was sitting at the piano I got to see…. I actually got to live a little bit of the history of Hollywood before I was born, because both my half-sister who was his pupil and my father were both in the business before I was born. And so I know the value of history – I grew up with it.

NORTON OWEN: Speaking of that history, I want to share an excerpt from a TV profile in 1999. Aside from the television announcer, we’ll hear a little bit of a musical number that the Champions performed on the Perry Como Show in the late 1950s.

ANNOUNCER: In addition to their film success, Marge and Gower were pioneers in the early days of television. [Musical excerpt: Marge: There’s a samba, rumba, waltz, tango. Gower: How about a Paso Doble? Marge: A fandango! Gower: And the ? Marge: A Carioca. Gower: Chiapanecas. Marge: Or the polka? Gower: Buck and wing. Marge: A highland fling. Gower: The Russian hot kazatsky. The Charleston, the bunny hug, the Lindy and gavotte-sky. Marge (sings): I’m in a dancing mood, a gay romancing mood…]

MARGE CHAMPION: 1947, we danced at 9 o’clock, and at 10 o’clock, and 11 o’clock and we did a waltz at 12 o’clock – to 3000 sets. There were only 3000 sets at that time in the whole of the New York area. 

ANNOUNCER: Marge and Gower were so popular, they starred in their own TV variety show. But in real life, the prince and princess don’t always live happily ever after. Marge and Gower divorced in 1973 after having two children and a fabulous career together.

MARGE CHAMPION: We still had a very strong communication, particularly because we had two wonderful sons. We had such deep roots, from the time we were 12 until he passed away in 1980 and he was just 60 then. It was hard, there were hard times. But you know, in retrospect, I wouldn’t have changed anything. 

ANNOUNCER: Now in her 80th year, Marge, an Emmy Award-winning choreographer, is dancing again for a salute to the MGM musicals at Carnegie Hall with many of the other stars from the golden age of the silver screen. And Tony Award-winning Ann Reinking sang her praises at a gala in Marge’s honor at Jacob’s Pillow. There are moments in life that remain forever beautiful, and Marge Champion keeps on creating them.

NORTON OWEN: To hear more about the partnership of Marge and Gower, here’s part of an interview conducted at the Pillow by Robert Osborne, the late host of Turner Classic Movies, in 2006.

MARGE CHAMPION: Now Gower had a first partner. They won the Veloz and Yolanda contest when they were 16. They got signed by MCA and they went on the road and they didn’t come back from the road for seven years. And he was a young actor, he had been on a radio show. He also had… he and Jean, his first partner, had won cup after cup after cup, and they were also the youngest dance couple that the Veloz and Yolanda contest ever noted. When he came back from service – he went into the service in ’41 and he didn’t come back for three years – and at that time, he really wanted no part of being a dance act again. And he tried…He got a dance contract at Fox. No, Fox did the test, the screentest, and he got a contract from MGM because Gene Kelly was overseas. And Fred Astaire was always tied up at RKO. And they signed him and the only thing in over a year, he studied at the studio, he studied with Kay Thompson. He was very influenced in his choreography by Kay Thompson, who was really a singer. And he had a great year there, except that the only thing he got screen-wise was about 18-20 bars of “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” with Cyd Charisse. And they dyed his hair pink – well it looked pink on the screen, it was actually blonde. And he asked for his release and they gladly gave it to him because Gene Kelly was back by then. And he came back to New York. And that’s when we started, because he had studied with my father during those early days when, before he was…My Dad saw him first when he was 13 and he gave him…my father as you may know was a great ballet master and he gave him a scholarship to the school because he recognized his talent and his starry quality very, very early. And he took ballet classes, but he had no turnout and every time he really couldn’t do the technique, he’d land up on top of the piano, make everybody laugh in class. And that wasn’t very popular – especially with ballet masters of that day. But he did have to start creating things for himself and Jean, that he could do and that she could do. Because they were really ballroom dancers, and very, very good ones. I was a terrible ballroom dancer. I was a ballet dancer – I had absolutely no way of knowing what it meant to be led. So it took awhile for that to happen. When we opened our first engagement at the Normandy Roof in Montreal, I had never been…I had never danced in a supper club before. And, of course, we’re taking the bows and I’m going off into what I think are the wings. Well, it was nothing – you had to go in the central aisle past the maître d’ – there were no wings, there was nothing but tables and… He kept saying, “Where are you…” under his breath, “Where are you going?” I had no idea about working in nightclubs and things like that. But I think that was the luckiest thing that happened to us, is that for the first, I would say, four engagements, we worked supper clubs. And we got…we got a chance to try out things that were more like sketches, rather than…. We never did a lot of dance, what you call lifts and spins. We did enough so that it would look okay, that we could still dance, but they were really story dances. And when you work supper clubs or cabaret as it’s known now,  I think that we learned to communicate with an audience rather than just perform for them. And that’s why I think it worked for us for awhile in films. After ’55, they let everybody go. We only did one more film, one with, yeah we buried Esther Williams, too. Betty Grable in her last picture. We went back into television with Dinah Shore and Perry Como and you name it. We must have done eight Dinah Shore shows. That was always fun because Nanette Fabray, who was a great friend of ours, used to say that the most fun was that, in those days, you went – after you had appeared on Sunday night with Dinah or somebody, you went and got your unemployment insurance. And you stood in line and, of course, there was one place in Hollywood where everybody who was in television and they did…you know, you got $10,000 for the one night with Dinah Shore and you showed up the next morning and everybody applauded in the line at the unemployment. It was wonderful and it kept you kind of humble, too! But anyway, that’s what happened. We did a lot of television.

ROBERT OSBORNE: You had a long Broadway run with Harry Belafonte.

MARGE CHAMPION: Actually, the Broadway run was three months. Because at that…it was just at the time that Harry was coming up as a star. Gower had choreographed the whole show. [CUT: It was produced…by Janet Gaynor’s husband. Paul Gregory. Paul Gregory, thank you.] It was produced by Paul Gregory and we were sent out to huge theaters and to…we did 57 cities in three months. And all rode on the, with the Twenty Voices of Walter Schumann…and all rode on a Greyhound bus. That’s a whole set of other stories which – that was our contribution to Civil Rights because nobody had ever seen in most of the places we played, a man of color dancing with a white girl. And, of course, we always did. 

NORTON OWEN: In that same 2006 interview, Osborne asks Marge to reflect on her role in the partnership.

ROBERT OSBORNE: Did you ever resent being part of a dance team? Did you ever want to flower on your own as an actress and be Marge Champion without Gower Champion?

MARGE CHAMPION: You know what I used to say in those days when people would ask me how it was to work with somebody and live with somebody and have children with somebody, and all of that. I used to say, well (I blush): “Gower is the captain and I’m the first mate.” So that when it all ended, I had to take quite a bit of time to find my own voice and my own ability both as a director and a person of the theater. And I think that, what can I tell you? Life has its ups and downs and mine was absolutely magic until we divorced in ’73. And then everything, it kind of fell apart for about…

ROBERT OSBORNE: It still seems to be agreeing with you. You seem to be doing quite well.

MARGE CHAMPION: Oh yes. But that took coming to the Berkshires and finding a cultural healing place.

NORTON OWEN: In a 1999 PillowTalk, Marge reflected a bit more on the nature of the performing partnership and how that came to an end. 

MARGE CHAMPION: We were more what you might call, I suppose, musical comedy dancers of that period. And it was interesting for me when I realized that that period would be a very short one. Because we were the young married couple next door. And as soon as Elvis and the Beatles and all of that came in, onto the Ed Sullivan Show, I knew that the boy and girl next door were not going to be very popular anymore. And it was interesting because as soon as that period was over and they fired everybody including Fred Astaire… “let them go” – that’s a nicer way of saying it. We went back to television. Jack Benny created a show for us called The Marge and Gower Champion Show, which we alternated on Sunday nights with him. And it was also just before we started doing Broadway shows. So it was a beautiful little five-year period that we…we were privileged…It couldn’t have happened at any other time. It couldn’t have happened probably a little bit before, and it certainly couldn’t have happened afterwards. So I’m very grateful for that exposure.

NORTON OWEN: Beyond their performances, theirs was a creative relationship that became more layered when Gower emerged as a powerhouse director and choreographer of Broadway shows such as Bye, Bye Birdie and Hello, Dolly! When a biography of Gower was published in 2005, Marge came to the Pillow for a talk with the author, John Anthony Gilvey, and shared this anecdote about how she was the one who discovered Carol Channing when Gower was casting a Broadway show called Lend An Ear.

MARGE CHAMPION: Carol had been in Lend An Ear. In fact, I had found her in somebody’s office in California. Gower had said, “I need another comedienne – go out and find me one.” So I went over to the Rodgers & Hammerstein office. They had so many shows running that they had to have a place in California that they could also hire young people for the road shows and all of that. And I went over to that office. Queenie Smith was…she had done the part that I had done in Show Boat at one time – she was running the office. And I said, “Do you have anybody?” And she said, “Well, not anybody that’s very funny…” And I said, “Who’s that girl sitting out there in the reception room?” And she said, “Oh, that’s Carol Channing. She’s just had a baby and she’s returning to the theater.” And I said, “What has she done?” And she said, “Well, I think she understudied Eve Arden in something.” And she said, “Yeah, she’s pretty funny.” And so I took her by the hand, because she didn’t drive. She also weighed 180 pounds at that point. Well, she hadn’t thinned down yet from having her son. And she had on this white A-line dress, I remember. Put her in the car and drove her to Hollywood to the Perry Studios where Gower and Bill Eythe and Charlie Gaynor, who was the writer, and Bill Eythe who was the nominal – he was supposed to be the director as well as the star of the show. And she walked in – she had told me on the way in that she did imitations. And she had kind of done a little bit of, you know, one or another, Sophie Tucker, in the car. And she walked in and she looked at Gower and she said, “Do you mind if I take off my shoes?” And he said, “You can take off anything you want to.” He got, he was hysterical already.

NORTON OWEN: In the 1980s, Marge suffered three major losses of important men in her life. Gower died on the opening night of his Broadway musical 42nd Street in 1980. Marge had remarried by then, and her husband Boris Sagal was killed in a helicopter accident in 1981. Perhaps most devastatingly, her younger son Blake was killed in a car accident in 1987. That’s what led to Blake’s Barn, and here’s Marge at the dedication of this building in 1992, after it had been dismantled and moved from her property to the Pillow.

MARGE CHAMPION: Everybody here, almost everybody here, has a relationship with this building, or with me, or with dance, and so it’s all the same thing. It stood…actually it stood up until it fell down. And it really was falling down. You have something in this area which I didn’t know about when I was growing up in California called frost heaves. This building was a victim of frost heaves. It had protected my house – the one I live in now – for many, many years – probably a couple of hundred years – from the wind that howls from the west. And I guess when Blake and I arrived here, that was all they needed from the west and the building fell down. But he loved the building. This was one of his favorite places. And he loved the beams, these scarred beams that held up the outer skin which – next time you come, god willing there will be an outer skin that looks weathered and wonderful like this looked before. The inner skin is here. And it’s here because both of us in some way wanted it to be connected with dance. He wanted to live and work in it – it never worked out that way. But now all of us can walk through here, pick up our tickets here when the box office gets in, have a little juice over here, walk out and look at what Sam and Liz have planned – we’re going to have a memorial garden for all the dancers who have come and gone and danced through these magic, magic woods.

NORTON OWEN: Just as plans for that memorial garden never materialized, Blake’s Barn has evolved in other ways. A major turning point came four years later in 1996, when the Pillow Archives opened to the public in an unused portion of the Barn. And once again, Marge spoke at the dedication.

MARGE CHAMPION: I don’t know if you can really imagine what this does for me and I hope for you and the Pillow. To celebrate what Sali Ann and Norton are doing with a place. Because, like Thornton Wilder says in Hello, Dolly! and before that in The Matchmaker: “Money is like manure. It’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around, encouraging young things to grow.” And I think young things only grow in spaces. Gower and I used to have uh, we agreed on an awful lot of things, but one of the things we did not agree on was he never saw the reason for building or acquiring new spaces. Because there were enough spaces, you just needed to go in there and make work and dances and shows and things of that kind. And I had a feeling that, particularly dancers need spaces that are dedicated to certain kinds of work – that are going to help them to be more creative, help them be in touch with history. We have wonderful dancers, better than any of us ever were 25 or 50 years ago. They dance better, they sing better, they act better. They still don’t have places, enough places, to have a touch with history. Young artists can go to absolutely packed museums in New York and everywhere else. And young musicians can listen to all the wonderful discs and playbacks and, you don’t even have to listen to it on 78s anymore, we can hear revived… But to have a place connected to this institution that’s dedicated to the creative work, we do need a touch with history and a touch with… Thank you very much! And so I celebrate the living part of this barn, which I know is going to flower and is going to grow and is going to inspire and maybe even amuse. Because we’ll be able to see some of the archives that we have never been able to see before.

NORTON OWEN: Marge’s mention of “Sali Ann” in that last clip refers to Sali Ann Kriegsman, the Pillow director who was also responsible for launching our Audience Engagement Program that same year. It’s through this initiative that we began to host public events in Blake’s Barn, and we looked for ways to involve Marge in these talks as often as possible. Here she is at a 2001 PillowTalk about the stresses of performing.

MARGE CHAMPION: Dancing, for me, for the last six months in Follies in what I call an older body - I’m not afraid of the word “old”. There is a friend of mine who says I walk up and say “I’m Marge Champion and I’m 81!” But it’s more or less true, because at this point I really feel that I have learned something extraordinary from doing eight shows a week for the last six months. And it isn’t all onstage. Most of it is getting used to two different kinds of schedules. On matinee days, you get, at least I as a dancer and an older dancer, have to get there before anybody else does. And warm up very slowly – not at all the way I did when I was younger. And I have found that there are more exercises you can do on your back than the ones that really tighten. I will never do another crunch as long as I live because that tightens my back and my neck and if I do that, I might… And I finally learned that you don’t tighten during your warm-up exercises. That led me to thinking that a lot of people in my age bracket and even younger probably do too much to warm up in a gym – too much. They tighten instead of… And I was ballet-trained, so my natural tendency in all the years I performed with Gower was to do an hour before, really, I mean really sweating. I like to sweat. If you don’t like to sweat, don’t take up dancing, because that’s part of it.

NORTON OWEN: And here’s some more of Marge’s wise advice for dancers from a different part of that same talk.

MARGE CHAMPION: The steps are the least important part of what you do as a dancer. Your motivation, your… My father used to teach a simple double pirouette and he used to say, “At the end of it, you say – you say it, to yourself of course, ‘There you are’.” And that made the difference between that pirouette being a step and something that had meaning. And you’re communicating with the audience. He had many other tricks like that. And so I grew up with that feeling. I think one of the things that disappoints me the most is the teaching which is so heavy on the technique that we are losing the meaning. A simple gesture can go like that or like that, and it has two different meanings.

NORTON OWEN: As you could hear in the first part of that talk, the theme of aging cropped up increasingly in Marge’s Pillow appearances. In 2009, we screened a wonderful short film by Douglas Turnbaugh and Greg VanderVeer called Keep Dancing, which focused on Marge’s last partnership with Donald Saddler. This short scene from the film captures Marge on a train, sharing some of her thoughts on getting older.

MARGE CHAMPION: I think it’s kind of fun to see myself as an old lady. Because there’s all this thought all over the world, all over the marketing of the youth culture. 18 to 49 is the best place to be if you’re going to have a television show that’s successful. All this stuff that’s floating about the universe about being young. In this society, old or even middle-aged are dirty words. And everybody wants to live eternally young. Well, I gotta tell you, they’re fighting the wrong cause. They’re gonna get old. And they might as well find ways to enjoy it.

NORTON OWEN: In 2010, we celebrated the publication of Mindy Aloff’s wonderful book about dancing in Disney animation entitled Hippo In a Tutu. Of course, the title refers to the hippopotamus ballet in Fantasia for which Marge had served as the live-action model when she was still a teenager, just as she had for Snow White. You can see some of this PillowTalk on the Pillow’s YouTube channel – there’s a link in the notes for this podcast – but here’s an additional bit from that talk where Marge ruminates on what Blake’s Barn has meant to her.

MARGE CHAMPION: Norton has made this barn live. Because after my son Blake was killed on Route 7, he had wanted to make this into a home and a studio because Liz Thompson got him to come and take some of the classes. And he was really beginning to look pretty good as a dancer. He was always late, and she had a big trouble with that. But while he wasn’t there, somebody would say “You be Blake, no you be Blake!” And, of course, Eubie Blake was a well-known…

NORTON OWEN: Well, we think of him often as his name is on the building. And what a wonderful memorial that you have made for us to continue to have dance going on here.

MARGE CHAMPION: I think it’s probably one of the joys of my coming here as often as I do. Just to see all these people who want to know a little bit…

NORTON OWEN: Our final opportunity to salute Marge came on the occasion of her 95th birthday in 2014. We mounted a huge exhibit of dance movie posters from the collection of Mike Kaplan, with clips from some of Marge and Gower’s movies playing continuously. And Robert Osborne came up once again to interview Marge, commenting on her vibrant presence.

ROBERT OSBORNE: Before we get into it about the movies and the stage and all that, and about dancing, I just have to ask what your secret is, truly, about that. That you look that way at 95 and that you are as active as you are at 95.

MARGE CHAMPION: Well, I don’t… I’m not sure that I know the secret. But I’ve always thought that life is not just waiting for the storm to pass – it’s like learning to dance in the rain.


MARGE CHAMPION: I think dancing is something that I will never stop doing even though it may only be a few steps with my cat. I’ve had wonderful partners and, it’s just that I also had a wonderful father who knew how to raise me to look after my health.


MARGE CHAMPION: Number one, get some sleep, and try not to worry about things. It will happen. And then you have to do what you think is right.

NORTON OWEN: Shortly after that event, Marge moved back to California to be near her son Gregg, and that’s where she died in October 2020 at the age of 101. In concluding this remembrance of Marge, I’d like to share a beautiful tribute from Marge’s last dance partner, Donald Saddler, who had this to say at our 2009 screening of the Keep Dancing film.

DONALD SADDLER: I remember that I…in early Ballet Theater days we always went to the movies and we liked Marge Champion and Gower Champion because they really danced, and wonderful lifts and things. And I never thought that when I was watching her dance on the film that many, many years later we would be in Follies dancing. And then we dance twice a week in New York. We rent a studio and we warm up, we put the music on, and we dance, as you can see in the film. But it’s one of the joys of my life. You know, some people come into our lives and quickly leave. While others stay for awhile, leaving footprints on our hearts and we are never ever the same. And I cherish Marge’s footprints that are on my heart forever.

NORTON OWEN: That’s it for this episode of PillowVoices. But before we go, I want to give a shout-out to another podcast that you might enjoy. It’s called The Dance Edit, and it’s hosted by a group of knowledgeable and passionate editors from Dance Media. Each Thursday, they lead a roundtable discussion of the week’s top dance stories, followed by an interview with an artist who’s shaping the news. Whether you’re a dancer, an educator, or an audience member, you’ll find something that moves you on The Dance Edit. Listen wherever you get your podcasts, or at thedanceedit.com/podcast.

Thank you for joining us today. On behalf of Jacob's Pillow, we look forward to sharing more dance with you through the films, essays, and podcasts at danceinteractive.jacobspillow.org, and of course through live experiences during our festival and throughout the year. Special thanks to the National Endowment for the Arts for helping launch this podcast series. Please subscribe to PillowVoices wherever you get your podcasts and visit us again soon, either online or onsite.