She was Disney’s very first princess and model in the animated movie ‘Snow White’. Her first husband was Disney artist Art Babbitt who developed the character of Goofy. She was also part of a husband and wife dance team (with her second husband Gower) and appeared in several classic films.
Champion, who won an Emmy for choreographing the acclaimed 1975 telefilm ‘Queen of the Stardust Ballroom‘, died Wednesday in Los Angeles. Her death was confirmed by her son Gregg Champion, who said that she had been living with him for the past 6 months because of the pandemic.
Her career as a Disney model
Calling herself Marjorie Bell, she made her movie debut in 1939 with a small part in ‘The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle’, starring Astaire and Rogers as the legendary dance team of the World War I era. It was the last Astaire-Rogers musical of the 1930s.
Ms. Champion was a child of Hollywood, the daughter of a dance coach who taught her ballet, tap and the twirls, kicks and glorious sweeps of the ballroom. 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 1 or 2 days a month (for 10$ a day) for 2 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 them] 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).
Husband and wife dance team
Marge and Gower Champion danced together in several MGM musicals, perhaps most memorably in George Sidney’s 1951 remake of Show Boat. 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) and many more films. In 1957 they had their own sitcom, ‘The Marge and Gower Champion Show’, on which they played fictionalized versions of themselves.
But their professional partnership ended in 1960, and their careers went separate ways. After years of growing apart, the couple, who had two sons, Blake and Gregg, were divorced in 1973.
An artist ‘till the end
“Her last Broadway appearance was at 82 years of age in Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Follies,’ where she danced with her partner Donald Saddler, doing eight performances a week for six months,” her son Gregg wrote of her 2001 appearance in the Sondheim revival.
“She continued dancing as she aged into her 100th year,” he said, adding that she often said “that ‘one should celebrate every decade for what it gives you and not for what it takes away.’”
In 1999, led by the dancer-actress Ann Reinking, the stars of many dance companies assembled at the opening of the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, Mass., to pay tribute to Ms. Champion. Nearly 80 but still vivacious, she told the crowd, ‘I just want to say: It does get better!’.
Ms. Champion, who lived in Manhattan and gardened for many years at her farmhouse in Stockbridge, Mass., was inducted into the National Museum of Dance’s Hall of Fame in 2009. In 2013 she received the Douglas Watt Lifetime Achievement Award at the Fred and Adele Astaire Awards ceremonies in New York.
Here’s a short video with and about her and her role as Snow White: