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Marge Champion, famed dancer of Hollywood’s Golden Age, dies at 101

Marge Champion limbering up at the barre in 2009.
(Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times)

Marge Champion, famed dancer from Hollywood’s Golden Age, has died at her son’s home in Los Angeles at the age of 101.

Champion’s death Wednesday was confirmed to the New York Times by her son Gregg Champion, who said his mother had been sheltering with him during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The vivacious Los Angeles native served as the movement model for several of Walt Disney’s animated classics, including “Fantasia” (1940; in which her dancing was the basis for Hyacinth Hippo in the hippo ballet), “Pinocchio” (1940; as the model for the Blue Fairy); “Dumbo” (1941; as Mr. Stork) and most famously as the lead in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937). As a performer, she was half of a popular husband-and-wife dance duo with Gower Champion in the late 1940s and ’50s.

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Marge and Gower Champion dance in “Showboat” (1951)

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Born Marjorie Celeste Belcher, she came from a showbiz family, with an actress sister, Lina Basquette, and a well known dance-director father, Ernest Belcher, who operated the Celeste School of Dance in Los Angeles and directed dance sequences for films.

“He worked with Charlie Chaplin and Mack Sennett,” Champion told the Los Angeles Times in 2009. “He did the opening shows at the Hollywood Bowl,” where Champion made her debut at age 11 in one of her father’s ballets, “Carnival in Venice.”

A couple of years later, she was spotted by a Disney scout and auditioned at Walt Disney’s old studio on Hyperion Avenue. A few days a month, she performed scenes as Snow White for the animators. “They shot me on 16-millimeter film,” she recalled “and I could do enough in a day’s work to keep them busy for two weeks.”

“It really gave me the sense of being in a movie without actually being on film,” she said of the “Snow White” experience in an interview with the Norman Rockwell Museum. "[It] pleased my father, because he wanted me to have graduated from high school. He didn’t mind me being in his ballets in the summertime … those were things where he could keep his eye on me.”

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She went to to model for other Disney animated films, and one month before her 18th birthday she married Art Babbitt, a Disney animator credited with developing the character of Goofy. “I was married to him for a very short time,” said Champion. “When I went to New York with the Three Stooges in a vaudeville show in 1939, he said come back to Los Angeles and have babies. But that wasn’t what I had studied 15 years for.”

Champion’s experience at Disney inspired her to study acting. “Having that over-the-top training by the time I was 18, I wanted to take real theater training. I went to Maria Ouspenskaya [acting teacher who starred in “The Wolf Man”], who was on Vine Street. I studied with her for a year. We had a rather interesting group of people.”

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Archival footage of motion references for Walt Disney’s “Snow White” (1937), featuring a teenage Marge Champion.

Marge had known Gower Champion since they were at Bancroft Junior High in L.A. and he had been a student of her father. Following World War II, Marge was in New York dancing on Broadway in “Beggar’s Holiday,” featuring music by Duke Ellington. Gower arrived in the city and the two began dating.

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The best New York hotels were booking dance teams for their nightclubs, and Marge’s partner in the Broadway show, Paul Godkin, suggested they form a team to earn extra money as an act.

“I told Gower about that,” Champion recalled in 2009, “and he said, ‘Well, if you are going to dance with anybody you are going to dance with me.’ We started rehearsing the next day.”

The duo married in 1947 and became one of the most in-demand dance teams of the era, with the tall, lanky Gower gracefully towering over the petit Champion.

Her Hollywood live-action bow came in the 1938 “Delinquent Parents,” in which she danced under the name Marjorie Bell (though she said in later interviews the first film she could remember making was the 1939 Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers vehicle “The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle”). She also appeared on stage in musicals such as “What’s Up” (1943) and “Beggar’s Holiday” (1946) and, much later, the 2001 Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies.”

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The Champion duo became the first star dance couple on television on the 1949 “Admiral Broadway Revue” with Sid Caesar, making many appearances on the top programs of the day. Their film work began with “Mr. Music” (1950). They then moved on to MGM, for a run in some of the decade’s more memorable hit musicals. These included “Lovely to Look At” (1952; a remake of “Roberta,” which starred Rogers and Astaire), “Three for the Show” (1955) and the very popular “Show Boat” (1951).

Known for their craftsmanship, the Champions also injected narratives into their performances.

“Gower and I always told stories. I could never have done leading dance scenes unless I had studied acting.”

In 1955, the couple danced on Broadway and traveled the country in “Three for Tonight” with Harry Belafonte. “We toured 57 cities with it — many of them in the South,” Champion told The Times in a 1969 interview. It was still unusual at the times to see Blacks and whites on stage together. “It was amazing what an effect that show had.”

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The Champions choreographed shows and starred in their own television program, “The Marge and Gower Champion Show,” in 1957. Their marriage lasted from 1947 to 1973, though they remained close until his death in 1980.

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Marge and Gower Champion in a memorable number from “Lovely to Look at”

In 1977, she married director Boris Sagal and became stepmother to his five children, including actresses Liz, Jean and Katey Sagal (“Married With Children,” “Sons of Anarchy”) and actor Joey. Boris Sagal died in an on-set accident while making the miniseries “World War III” in 1981; his other son (her stepson), Blake, died in a car accident in 1987.

Champion choreographed many shows for stage and screen. She won an Emmy in 1975 for choreographing “Queen of the Stardust Ballroom” for CBS. She also served as dance supervisor on the 1975 film “The Day of the Locust” and choreographer for John Badham’s “Whose Life Is It Anyway?” in 1981.

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She remained active, teaching dance and volunteering, working with the Mafundi Institute in Watts, and served on the board of the Center Theatre Group. In 2001, Champion appeared in the Broadway revival of “Follies” opposite another veteran dancer, Donald Saddler. The pair partnered into their 90s and were the subject of a 2009 documentary short called “Keep Dancing,” which Champion said was “a euphemism for keeping your passion alive.”

Her many honors besides the Primetime Emmy Award include the Disney Legends Award, a lifetime achievement honor at the Fred and Adele Astaire Awards and induction into the National Museum of Dance’s Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Hall of Fame. She was named an L.A. Times Woman of the Year in 1969. In 2002, she shared a career achievement award with her late husband and partner Gower at the American Choreography Awards.

Champion is survived by her son and three grandchildren.


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