Marge Champion

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Marge Champion
Marge Champion.jpg
Champion in 1952
Marjorie Celeste Belcher

(1919-09-02) September 2, 1919 (age 100)
  • Dancer
  • actress
Years active1930s–present
Art Babbitt
(m. 1937; div. 1940)

Gower Champion
(m. 1947; div. 1973)

Boris Sagal
(m. 1977; died 1981)
RelativesLina Basquette (half-sister) Katey, Jean and Liz, and Joey (stepchildren)
Marge and Gower Champion (1957)

Marjorie Celeste Champion (née Belcher; born September 2, 1919) is an American dancer and actress. At 14, she was hired as a dance model for Walt Disney Studios animated films. Later, she performed as an actress and dancer in film musicals, and in 1957 had a TV show based on song and dance. She has also done creative choreography for liturgy, and served as a dialogue and movement coach for the 1978 TV miniseries, The Awakening Land, set in the late 18th century in the Ohio Valley.

Early years[edit]

Champion was born on September 2, 1919, in Los Angeles, California, to Hollywood dance director Ernest Belcher and his wife, Gladys Lee Baskette (née Rosenberg). She had an older half sister, Lina Basquette, who already was acting in silent films at the age of twelve. Lina was the daughter of her mother's first husband, Frank Baskette, who had committed suicide.

Marjorie began dancing at an early age as her sister had done. She began dancing as a child under the instruction of her father, Ernest Belcher, a noted Hollywood ballet coach who trained Shirley Temple, Cyd Charisse, and Gwen Verdon.[1] She studied exclusively with her father from age five until she left for New York.[2] She credits her good health and long career to her father's teaching principles: careful, strict progression of activity, emphasis on correct alignment, precise placement of body, attention to detail and to the totality of dynamics and phrasing.[2] Her first dance partner was Louis Hightower.[3] In 1930, she made her debut in the Hollywood Bowl at age 11 in the ballet "Carnival in Venice".[4] By age twelve, she became a ballet instructor at her father's studio. She was hired by The Walt Disney Studio as a dance model for their animated film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Her movements were copied to enhance the realism of the animated Snow White figure. [4] In one of the film's most plasmatic moments, Belcher obligingly served as model (wrapped in baggy overcoat) for two dwarfs at once, when for the "Silly Song" dance, Dopey gets on Sneezy's shoulder to dance with the (also modeled by Belcher) lovely and non- grotesque Snow White.[5] Belcher later modeled for characters in other animated films: the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio (1940) and Hyacinth Hippo in the Dance of the Hours segment of Fantasia, a ballet parody that she also helped choreograph. She even recalls doing some modeling for Mr.Stork in Dumbo.[1][4] When working with Disney on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Champion recalls "the animators couldn't take a young girl out of themselves, they couldn't take the prints out of themselves".[6]

Marriage and family[edit]

In 1937, Marge Belcher married Art Babbitt (1907–1992), a top animator at Disney and creator of Goofy. They divorced in 1940.

In 1947, she married dancer Gower Champion (1919–1980). They had two sons, Blake and actor Gregg Champion. They divorced in January 1973.[7][8] Belcher met Gower when she was 12 years old in the ninth grade at Bancroft Junior High and that's when their romance started.[6] Although performances often took them away from California, Los Angeles remained their home base.[2]

In 1977, she married director Boris Sagal. Sagal was killed on May 22, 1981, in an accident during the production of the miniseries World War III.[7][9] She became stepmother to Boris' five children, who include Katey, Jean, Liz, and Joey.


The very first picture Belcher remembers being in was The Castles with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.[10] This gave her a feeling that she would really like to do movies but what she really wanted to do was go to New York and be in New York shows. Sadly, Belcher wasn't tall enough not even for ballet, which is what she trained all her life for.[6]

Together as a dance team, the Champions performed in MGM musicals of the 1940s and 50s, including their first MGM musical Till the Clouds Roll By (1946),[11] Show Boat (1951) and Everything I Have Is Yours (1952). Other films with Gower included Mr. Music (1950, with Bing Crosby), Give a Girl a Break (1953), Jupiter's Darling (1955), and Three for the Show (1955).[12] MGM wanted the couple to remake Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films, but only one, Lovely to Look At (1952), a remake of Roberta (1935), was completed.[13] The couple refused to remake any of the others, the rights to which were still owned by RKO.

Gower and Marge Champion appeared as the Mystery Guests on the May 15, 1955 airing of What's My Line. Mary Healy guessed who they were.

During the summer of 1957, the Champions had their own TV series, The Marge and Gower Champion Show, a situation comedy with song and dance numbers. Marge played a dancer and Gower a choreographer.[12][14] Real-life drummer Buddy Rich was featured as a fictional drummer named Cozy.

In the 1970s, Champion, actress Marilee Zdenek, and choreographer John West were part of a team at Bel Aire Presbyterian Church that created a number of creative worship services featuring dance and music. They later offered workshops and related liturgical arts programs throughout the country. She and Zdenek co-authored two books, Catch the New Wind and God Is a Verb, related to this work.[8]

In 1978 she served as a dialogue and movement coach for the TV miniseries, The Awakening Land, adapted from Conrad Richter's trilogy of the same name.[15][16] It was set in the late 18th-century Ohio Valley.

Champion has also worked as a dance instructor and choreographer in New York City. In 1982, she made a rare television acting appearance on the dramatic TV series Fame, playing a ballet teacher with a racial bias against African-American students.


Champion appeared in several stage musicals and plays on Broadway as a performer. She made her New York debut in What's Up (1943). She also performed in the Dark of the Moon (1945) as the Fair Witch, and Beggar's Holiday (1946) having multiple roles. She made her last Broadway appearance in 3 for Tonight in 1955.[17] She also worked as a choreographer or Assistant, including Lend an Ear in 1948 as assistant to the Choreographer; Make a Wish in 1951, as assistant to Gower Champion; Hello, Dolly! in 1964 as special assistant; and Stepping Out (1987) as choreographic associate.[11][18] In 2001, she appeared as Emily Whitman in the Broadway stage revival of Follies.[19]

Champion states "as a dancer, by the time you're 40 you're done. If I ever come back, I want to be an actress- it lasts long. But I was 81 when I was in "Follies".[20]

Legacy and honors[edit]

  • Champion choreographed Whose Life Is It Anyway?, The Day of the Locust, and Queen of the Stardust Ballroom, for which she received an Emmy Award.[1]
  • In 2007, Champion was honored with the Disney Legends Award[10]
  • Champion (90 in 2009,) partially resides in Stockbridge, Mass. She still dances twice a week with choreographerm actor, and an original member of American Ballet Theatre.Donald Saddler, who first performed at Jacob's Pillow in 1941. The still-spry dance partners are making a documentary "Still Dancing," which chronicles their biweekly dance sessions.[21]
  • 2009, Champion was inducted into the National Museum of Dance's Mr. & Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Hall of Fame
  • 2013 she received The Douglas Watt Lifetime Achievement Award at the Fred and Adele Astaire Awards ceremonies.[22]

Marge Champion has been interviewed in numerous documentaries, including for the behind-the-scenes documentary directed by Oscar-winner Chris Innis, The Story of the Swimmer, which was featured on the 2014 Grindhouse Releasing/Box Office Spectaculars Blu-ray/DVD restoration of The Swimmer. She was also interviewed at a Hollywood film festival screening of The Swimmer by filmmaker Allison Anders for the same release.[23] Champion and Donald Saddler, who met while performing together in the Follies in 2001, are the subjects of a short film about the two dancers leading meaningful lives at age 90.[24]

Selected filmography[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "Marge Champion". D23. Retrieved 2020-01-24.
  2. ^ a b c Prevots, Naima (January 1986). "Ernest Belcher and American dance". Dance Chronicle. 10 (2): 170–222. doi:10.1080/01472528608568944. ISSN 0147-2526.
  3. ^ “Marge Celeste Belcher .” Marge Belcher and Gower Champion,
  4. ^ a b c King, Susan. "Marge Champion Still Has the Dance Moves" Los Angeles Times, September 30, 2009
  5. ^ Nesbet, Anne (July 1997). "Inanimations: "Snow White" and "Ivan the Terrible"". Film Quarterly. 50 (4): 20–31. doi:10.1525/fq.1997.50.4.04a00040. ISSN 0015-1386.
  6. ^ a b c "Marge Champion". The Interviews. 22 February 2019.
  7. ^ a b Hoffman, Jan. "Public Lives. A Dancer's 8-Decade Arc to Top Banana" The New York Times, July 14, 1999
  8. ^ a b Payne-Carter, David. "Fall and Rise" Gower Champion: Dance and American Musical Theatre, Greenwood Publishing Group, 1999, ISBN 0313304513, pp. 119-120
  9. ^ Kennedy, Shawn G. "Boris Sagal, 58, Movie Director, Dies After a Helicopter Accident" The New York Times, May 24, 1981
  10. ^ a b Desk, BWW News. "Tom Jones to Interview Legendary Dancer Marge Champion at NYPL, 3/15". Retrieved 2020-01-24.
  11. ^ a b "Marge Champion Broadway", retrieved October 28, 2017
  12. ^ a b "Marge Champion Films", retrieved October 28, 2017
  13. ^ Lovely to Look At, retrieved October 28, 2017
  14. ^ Giordano, Ralph G. "Television" Pop Goes the Decade: The Fifties, ABC-CLIO, 2017, ISBN 1440844720, p. 57
  15. ^ Hal Erickson, Overview: The Awakening Land, The New York Times Archived 2013-08-07 at the Wayback Machine
  16. ^ The Awakening Land, retrieved October 30, 2017
  17. ^ "MARGE CHAMPION TAKES STAGE ROLE; First Part Since 1955 Will Get Her Out of Kitchen."". 24 November 1964. Archived from the original on 24 November 1964.
  18. ^ Rich, Frank. "Theater: 'Stepping Out,' Staged by Tommy Tune" The New York Times, January 12, 1987
  19. ^ Barnes, Clive. "Revivals a Bit of a Folly" New York Post, April 6, 2001
  20. ^ Kaufman, Joanne (27 May 2013). "Her Animated Life".
  21. ^ ""Gower Champion." Streetswing's Dancer History: Gower and Marge Champion".
  22. ^ Harry Haun (2013). "Still Lovely to Look At: A Lifetime Achievement Award for Dancing Diva Marge Champion From 'Walt's Folly' to 'Follies'—at 93, she has all the right moves". The New York Observer. Retrieved 2013-07-14.
  23. ^ Film Score Monthly “Aisle Seat 3-25: The Swimmer, Wolf of Wall Street” by Andy Dursin, March 24, 2014 Archived July 13, 2015, at the Wayback Machine
  24. ^ Gans, Andrew. "Keep Dancing Film, About Marge Champion and Donald Saddler, Available for Free Streaming", Playbill, 29 January 2016
  25. ^ O'Connor, John J. "TV: Imaginative 'Queen of the Stardust Ballroom' " The New York Times, February 13, 1975

External links[edit]