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Marge Champion, who served as the real-life model for Snow White, then teamed with her husband and dance partner, Gower Champion, for Broadway musicals, television shows and movies, has died. She was 101.
Champion, who won an Emmy for choreographing the acclaimed 1975 telefilm Queen of the Stardust Ballroom, died Wednesday in Los Angeles, dance instructor Pierre Dulaine told The Hollywood Reporter.
Survivors include a stepdaughter, actress Katey Sagal, and her son, producer-director Gregg Champion.
Marge and Gower Champion danced together in several MGM musicals, perhaps most memorably in George Sidney’s 1951 remake of Show Boat, which starred Howard Keel, Kathryn Grayson and Ava Gardner. Their exuberant work on the numbers “I Might Fall Back on You” and “Life Upon the Wicked Stage” were two of the film’s highlights.
The couple also danced in Mr. Music (1950), starring Bing Crosby; Lovely to Look At (1952), a remake of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ Roberta; the autobiographical Everything I Have Is Yours (1952); Give a Girl a Break (1953); Jupiter’s Darling (1955), starring Esther Williams; and Three for the Show (1955), with Jack Lemmon in one of his first films.
Marge’s father was famed Hollywood dance and ballet teacher Ernest Belcher. He was friends with Walt Disney, and the all-male animation team working on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) studied her movements on a soundstage in order to make their heroine move more realistically.
Starting at age 14, she performed for them one or two days a month (for $10 a day) for two years.
“None of them had been a young girl or knew how a dress would do this or that or the other thing,” she said in a 1998 interview with the Archive of American Television. “Most of the animators [before then] took their characters … out of themselves.”
Marge even danced for them as the dwarf Dopey, she recalled. She also served as a Disney model for the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio (1940), for Hyacinth Hippo in Fantasia (1940) and for Mr. Stock in Dumbo (1941).
Gower Champion was a student of her father’s (he and Marge also went to Bancroft Middle School together), and the couple were married from 1947 until their divorce in 1973. He died in 1980 at age 61.
Marjorie Celeste Belcher was born Sept. 2, 1919, in a home on Orange Drive in Hollywood. Her father founded the Celeste School of Dance (he taught the likes of Astaire, Shirley Temple, Cyd Charisse and Joan Crawford and worked for director Cecil B. DeMille), and her older half-sister was silent film actress Lina Basquette. She attended Hollywood High.
In 1936, she performed before large crowds with the Los Angeles Civic Opera and a year later married Art Babbitt, the Disney animator who created Goofy (she was 17 and he was 29; they divorced in 1940). She then played Snow White in a touring vaudeville act with The Three Stooges.
Renamed Marjorie Bell by famed agent Henry Willson, she appeared in five films released in 1939, including The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, starring Astaire and Rogers as the legendary ballroom dancers, and Honor of the West.
The 5-foot-2 dancer made her Broadway debut in 1945 starring as The Fair Witch in Dark of the Moon and segued to the 1946 musical Beggar’s Holiday. She formed an act with her new husband called Gower & Bell, and they played nightclubs and performed alongside Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca on NBC’s The Admiral Broadway Revue.
The pair also choreographed the 1948 Broadway shows Small Wonder and Lend an Ear and 1951’s Make a Wish, and she served as her husband’s assistant on the long-running Hello, Dolly!, starring Carol Channing, in the 1960s.
In the summer of 1957, the pair starred on The Marge and Gower Champion Show, a CBS sitcom that featured song-and-dance numbers (their show alternated weeks with The Jack Benny Program). Marge played a dancer and Gower a choreographer, and Buddy Rich was on hand as a regular character named Cozy (a drummer, of course).
“Each of the Champions’ dances tells a story,” a TV critic once wrote, “and virtually every leap, every move, every gesture tells part of that story.”
The duo appeared often on The Ed Sullivan Show and toured the Soviet Union with the legendary TV host.
Marge acted in two 1968 films, opposite Burt Lancaster in The Swimmer and with Peter Sellers in Blake Edwards’ The Party. She played a ballet teacher on a 1982 episode of Fame and appeared as Emily Whitman in the 2001 Broadway revival of Follies.
In addition to working on Queen of the Stardust Ballroom, which starred Maureen Stapleton and Charles Durning, she choreographed the Hollywood-set movie The Day of the Locust (1975) and Whose Life Is It Anyway? (1981), starring Richard Dreyfuss.
Her third and last husband was director Boris Sagal, whom she married in 1977. He died in 1981 from injuries suffered after he accidentally walked into the blade of a helicopter during production of the NBC miniseries World War III.
Survivors also include two other stepdaughters, twins Liz and Jean Sagal (they starred on the 1980s NBC sitcom Double Trouble; Liz is now a TV writer and producer, and Jean a TV director), and stepson Joey, an actor.
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