Marge Champion, Dance & Disney Legend, Dies @ 101

Marge Champion, who with her choreographer husband Gower Champion (1919-1980) was among the most popular and influential dancers in Hollywood history, died Wednesday, October 21, in L.A., a month after turning 101.

Champion's death was confirmed by her son Gregg Champion, 64, who reported that she had been living with him since the beginning of COVID-19.

Marjorie Celeste Belcher was born September 2, 1919, in L.A. to a mother who danced and a father who was a reputable dance instructor.

Dancing by age 3, she later said, "I never remember a time when I wasn't dancing."

At age 12, she met Gower in junior high school, and became fast friends with him from lessons he had with her dad. Before they married, she wed Walt Disney animator Art Babbitt (1907-1992), leading to her becoming the movement model for Snow White in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), the Blue Fairy from Pinocchio (1940), and the light-footed, tutued hippo ballerinas in Fantasia (1940).

She made her film debut in the Astaire-Rogers musical The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939), and danced on Broadway in Dark of the Moon (1945) and in Duke Ellington's Beggar's Holiday (1946).

After divorcing Babbitt, she later became the professional — and personal — partner of her longtime friend Gower Champion. From 1947 until 1960, they captured the public's imagination with their exuberant, wholesome, expressive moves, catapulted to fame by the burgeoning medium of television.

On TV from 1949 and every bit as much a draw at clubs — and on Broadway in such hits as Make a Wish (1951) — the couple used dance to showcase their storytelling skills, and their wit.

The Champions in Give a Girl a Break (Image via MGM)

Among their movies, the couple appeared in Mr. Music (1950), Show Boat (1951), Lovely to Look At (1952), Give a Girl a Break (1953) and a thinly veiled biopic called Everything I Have Is Yours (1952).

In 1957, they hosted their own TV series, The Marge and Gower Champion Show.

They stopped performing together in 1960 as Champion's husband transitioned to directing, including such iconic hits as Bye Bye Birdie (1960) and Hello, Dolly! (1964). They divorced in 1973, though the couple remained close. Gower Champion died suddenly in 1980, hours before the Broadway debut of his show 42nd Street. The announcement of his death at the show is one of the most dramatic stories in Broadway history

Champion continued working following her split with her second husband, winning an Emmy for choreographing Queen of the Stardust Ballroom (1975) and acclaim for choreographing a sequence in the dramatic film Whose Life Is It Anyway? (1981). In spite of her success, she often avoided self-identifying as a choreographer, humbly preferring the term "dance director."

Champion on Fame (Image via NBC)

The last of her infrequent TV acting gigs was on an episode of the series Fame in 1982, but in 2001, at 82, she returned to Broadway for a grueling, dance-heavy run with a revival of the show Follies. Her son confirmed that Champion danced into her 100th year.

Champion was preceded in death by her third husband, director Boris Sagal (1923-1981), who died in a helicopter accident when he stepped into a craft's blade while filming the TV movie World War III (1981), and by her son Blake, who died in a car crash in 1987.

She is survived by her son Gregg Champion and three grandchildren.

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