Eleven years ago, I spent a couple of incredible days in the company of the amazing Marge Champion who is, today, celebrating her 101st Birthday!
Marge, with her second husband Gower Champion, became Hollywood's headlining dance duo. They danced their way through a slew of memorable MGM movie musicals, among them Till the Clouds Roll By (1946), Show Boat (1951) and Everything I Have is Yours (1952). Other films in which they starred included: Mr. Music (1950) with Bing Crosby, Give a Girl a Break (1953) with Debbie Reynolds, Jupiter’s Darling (1955) with Esther Williams and Three for the Show (1955) with Betty Grable and Jack Lemmon.
What is less well known is that, in 1937 – as the then Marge Belcher – she was the live-action model for footage created to guide the animators grappling with the task of convincingly giving animated life to the heroine of Walt Disney's first animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Marge's hidden life as Snow White was very quickly revealed to the public in Life magazine (April 4, 1938) with a picture shoot also featuring dancer Louis Hightower, the model for Snow White's Prince...
While working at the Disney Studio, (where she later modeled for the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio and some of the balletic creatures in Fantasia) Marge met and married her first husband, legendary animator Art Babbitt who was responsible for animating Snow White’s nemesis, the Wicked Queen, and – in a somewhat different style – Mickey Mouse’s pal the hapless Goofy and who is also featured in the Life feature above.
The marriage ended after four years and, in 1947, she married Gower Champion and the couple were soon a hugely success dance partnership, becoming, de facto, the Fred and Ginger of the '50s.
In 2009, I was drafted in (as 'Disney Historian') to accompany Marge and Disney representative Mindy Johnson, through a couple of days of British press promotions for the newly issued 'Diamond Edition' DVD of the film – the classic movie for which she had received no credit and yet to which she had had a major creative input.
Although at the time of our working together, Marge was already 90 year of age, she was indefatigable! At the end of a second gruelling day of interviews, when I expected her to want to do nothing but crash out in her London hotel (and by which time, frankly, I was ready and eager to drop) she blithely asked my partner David Weeks and myself what we were doing that evening and insisted that we join her on a visit to see her friend Donna McKechnie (the first Cassie in A Chorus Line) who was in performance at the then music venue, 'Pizza on the Park'.
Donna joined us after the show and Marge kept us all engaged in tirelessly animated conversation until the staff were stacking the chairs on the tables and beginning to switch off the lights! When we finally had to leave (closer to midnight than not), David and I offered to drop Marge at her hotel: "Goodness no!" she replied, "the walk will do me good!"
Now, at 101, she is still the trouper! Great going, Marge! Happy birthday and keep dancing!