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Remembering Dancer And Choreographer Marge Champion


This is FRESH AIR. Next, we're going to remember the dancer and choreographer, Marge Champion. She died two weeks ago at the age of 101. Her New York Times obituary described her as the dancer and choreographer who, with her husband, Gower, epitomized a clean-cut, all-American dance team of Hollywood musicals, Broadway productions and television variety shows of the 1950s.

Marge and Gower Champion danced in the movie musicals "Till The Clouds Roll By," "Show Boat" and "Lovely To Look At." In the late '50s, they had their own TV show. Marge learned to dance from her father, a ballet teacher who also taught Shirley Temple, Cyd Charisse and Gwen Verdon. When Champion was a teenager, she was the live-action model for Snow White in the Disney animated film "Snow White And The Seven Dwarves" and for the dancing hippopotamus in Disney's "Fantasia."

Terry spoke with Marge Champion in 2001, the year she was in a revival of the Stephen Sondheim musical "Follies," which, of course, Terry asked her about.


TERRY GROSS: There's a dance that you did in "Follies" with Donald Saddler called Dance D'amour (ph). And I want to read something that Nancy Franklin in The New Yorker wrote about this. And I should explain that you're dancing, and then a couple that represents your younger counterparts are dancing, too.


GROSS: Yeah.

CHAMPION: These are our darling ghosts.

GROSS: And they're shadowing your moves. So Nancy Franklin writes, (reading) The older couple - which is you and Donald Saddler - the older couple make gravity work in their favor. They dance together as two human beings, not as two perfect but easily replaceable instruments. Champion and Saddler, both of whom are in the ballpark of 80, are radiant. There's something in their eyes that is missing from the youth behind them. When the young man carries his partner off the stage on his shoulder, it's about for muscles. When Champion and Saddler glide off the dance floor, his arm wrapped around her, the counterpoint is deeply moving. He can't carry her off the stage, but he doesn't need to. Their movement expresses their love and support for each other. It's the most romantic moment in the show.

I'm wondering if you felt more frustration or pleasure when you were doing the number - frustration at the limitations of your body or pleasure at what your body was able to do in spite of the fact that you're in your 80s.

CHAMPION: I think it's a combination of both. I don't waste much time in regretting anything because I have been an - I've had an extraordinary life. And, actually, it's kind of fun to know that you still can make a dramatic point, even though you may not be able (laughter) to do the lifts and spins.

GROSS: As a child, you were the live-action model for the animated Disney movie "Snow White" and for the dancing hippo in Disney's "Fantasia." What exactly was required of you?

CHAMPION: A couple of days a month, I would - when I was 14, when I was 15, when I was 16, I went to the studio, and they would show me storyboards. And they had very crude - they were 16 mm, very hot lights so that everything stood out very strongly, you know, almost in silhouette sometimes, especially when Snow White was running through the forest or doing anything of that nature. And I made it up. You know, it was almost like extended play for me.

GROSS: So in part, you were responsible for the choreography, but I imagine the animators were also looking at your anatomy when you danced or moved in a certain way...

CHAMPION: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: ...So that they could draw it correctly.

CHAMPION: And, well, in some cases, as in the part of "Fantasia" where Louis Hightower, who was my - he was a student at my father's school and my partner at that time. We danced as the alligator and the hippo and whirled around and all of that. In some cases, they asked us to wear bathing suits, which we did. And...

GROSS: So they could see more of you anatomically?

CHAMPION: Yes. And that was the purpose of a great deal of it, even though they translated me to this hilarious hippopotamus with a little ballet skirt, you know? But even after "Snow White" - in '37, "Snow White" was released. And I was not allowed to have any publicity because they said that the public would misunderstand. They would think that they traced me. And, frankly, in a sense, they did.

But they were very - they would blow up - it was called rotoscoping. They would blow up every frame of the 16 mm film that they had taken of me. But then they - the animators would be selective about whether they used it as a guide for their action, whether they needed to have it because the skirt flowed after. You know, there are all kinds of things that animators, you know, are not - they're not acquainted with little girls like Snow White.

GROSS: Some of the movies that you and Gower Champion danced in include "Jupiter's Darling," "Three For The Show," "Give A Girl A Break," "Everything I Have Is Yours," "Lovely To Look At" and "Show Boat."

Let's talk a little bit about how dance was filmed in Hollywood in the '50s. One difference between now and then is that, first of all, you, more often than not, see the whole body dancing. You're not just looking at the feet or just looking at the torso. You're seeing the whole body. And the takes are so much longer. There isn't, like, 17 edits in a dance sequence. And, you know, I mean, you just see uninterrupted movement, and then maybe there's an edit. Talk a little bit about how the sequences were filmed and what the language of the day was.

CHAMPION: First of all, you had a big rehearsal hall, especially if it was a big number, like "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes." There were only two people in it, but we had the biggest soundstage at MGM to film that.

GROSS: This was in the movie "Lovely To Look At."

CHAMPION: Right. And you had a month to rehearse. And every single thing would be thought out from the viewpoint of not only the camera and what angle you wanted, but also the editor. You had to do what they called a master shot with a - prerecorded music. And then, sometimes it took two days to film these things. In that case, it was Hermes Pan, who, of course, was the great sidekick of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. In fact, he's the only one who's got two Academy Awards because, after that, they eliminated choreography from the Academy Awards departments. Anyway, it took a long time to rehearse. And we would rehearse, really, from about 9 to 5, six days a week. If you were shooting, you shot six days a week.

GROSS: You did a lot of dancing in heels...

CHAMPION: Very, very low ones.

GROSS: But still, they were heels. Many of us would find it difficult enough to walk in heels, let alone to dance and come down from lifts in heels. Was that ever a problem for you?

CHAMPION: Yes, it was always a problem. And that's why, in clubs, I very often didn't. I wore what they called Hermes sandals and made those pretty popular, but they were never more than an inch and a half because I - on the - in the New York theater, when I was there, I had fractured both of my big toes at various times - at two different times, I should say. And so it was always a problem for me to wear heels. In movies, I could do it because you rested a long time between takes in those days. You didn't have, you know, those handheld cameras that can take you in the dark or the light or anything else. You rested a long time. You spent more time waiting than you actually did performing before the camera while they changed all the lights and the camera angles and things like that.

GROSS: Marge Champion, thank you so much for talking with us.

CHAMPION: Well, thank you for asking me.

BIANCULLI: Marge Champion recorded in 2001. She died October 21 at the age of 101. On Monday's show, our guest will be Megan Rapinoe, co-captain of the world champion U.S. Women's National Soccer Team. She helped the team win two World Cups and an Olympic gold medal. She was one of the first high-profile athletes to take the knee following NFL star Colin Kaepernick's original protest in 2016. She has a new memoir. I hope you can join us.


BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Al Banks. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavey-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.


Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.