Marge Champion, Actress, Dancer & Model for Snow White, Dies at 101

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Marge Champion, the dancer and actress who helped bring Disney’s Snow White to life, has passed away aged 101. Over 7 decades her sense of movement lent itself to some diverse Hollywood productions, either in the spotlight or behind the scenes.

Champion’s dance teacher father Ernest was pals with Walt Disney. As a teenager she went to work at the “House of Mouse”. “Starting at age 14, she performed for them one or two days a month (for $10 a day) for two years.

During this time she became the model for Snow White. As Champion revealed in a 1998 Television Academy interview, some characters were drawn by animators copying their own expressions in the mirror. The title role in this 1937 classic was a little beyond them. Or as she puts it: “None of them had been a young girl”.

Champion in 1952

The result, ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’, was America’s first fully animated American feature. And she didn’t just play the princess. For the fondly-remembered ‘Silly Song’ sequence, Dopey had to stand on Sneezy’s shoulder. Champion put a coat on to simulate both dwarfs, according to a 1997 issue of Film Quarterly.

Audiences will have watched Champion throwing shapes in various other Disney productions, albeit in cartoon form. BBC News notes she modeled for Pinocchio’s Blue Fairy (1940), Fantasia’s Hyacinth Hippo (1940) and Dumbo’s Mr Stork (1941). She also got to play Snow White in person, as part of a traveling show alongside The Three Stooges.

Marge and Gower Champion (1957)

Born Marjorie Celeste Belcher in LA 1919, her mother was Gladys (Basquette) Belcher. Her brother was Richard and half sister Lina Basquette also trod the boards. The New York Times reports Ernest Belcher coached the likes of Shirley Temple, Cyd Charisse and Gower Champion.

She married the latter in 1947, following a 3 year union with animator Art Babbitt between 1937 – 40. The Times writes the twinkle-toed pair proved “pivotal in the transition from the escapist musicals of the Depression to an exuberant new postwar age”. 1951 movie musical ‘Show Boat’ was one of their notable appearances together. Early in their career, they performed with legendary comedian Sid Caesar.

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Walt Disney introduces each of the Seven Dwarfs in a scene from the original 1937 Snow White theatrical trailer.

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers may have ruled the big screen, but the Champions cornered TV. They were the “first dance team to achieve national popularity” via the medium. A sitcom, ‘The Marge and Gower Champion Show’ aired on CBS in 1957. Buddy Rich co-starred. The working relationship between man and wife stopped in 1960.

Broadway beckoned frequently. Beggar’s Holiday (1946) demonstrated her ability in numerous roles. She worked behind the scenes on ‘Hello, Dolly!’ (1964) and Stepping Out (1987).

Marge and Gower split in 1973, with Gower passing away in 1980. They had 2 sons, Gregg Champion, now a director, and Blake who sadly died in a car crash aged 25. Champion wed director Boris Sagal (‘The Omega Man’) in 1977. He passed away in 1981 after an on-set accident. Actress Katy Sagal (Sons of Anarchy) is one of her stepchildren. She continues Champion’s behind the scenes legacy as a voice artist, playing Leela in Futurama.

Champion also appeared as an actress in 1968’s ‘The Party’ with Peter Sellers and ‘The Swimmer’ the same year alongside Burt Lancaster. She supervised the dancing for savage Tinseltown chronicle ‘The Day of the Locust’ (1975).

Her choreography work won her an Emmy for ‘Queen of the Stardust Ballroom’ (1975). The TV movie starred Maureen Stapleton and Charles Durning and focused on a widow who is drawn into the world of ballroom dancing later in life.

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Appropriately enough, she appeared in the second season of 1980s small screen dance drama ‘Fame’. News of her passing was relayed by dance instructor Pierre Dulaine. RIP to a true Hollywood icon.

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