- Kevin B. Grubb
Champion, Gower (22 June 1921–25 August 1980), dancer, director, and choreographer, was born in Geneva, Illinois, the son of John W. Champion, an advertising executive, and Beatrice Carlisle. Following his parents’ divorce, Champion was raised in Los Angeles by his mother. At the age of twelve he began studying dance with Ernest Belcher, a well-known dance director in films of the 1930s. Some of Belcher’s other students included Betty Grable, Shirley Temple, and Cyd Charisse. Champion’s training encompassed ballet, acrobatic, tap, and Spanish dance. At age fifteen Champion and Jeanne Tyler, who were both students at Hollywood High School, made their professional dancing debut as a couples act. When Tyler quit in 1941 to get married, Belcher’s daughter, Marge, also a student at Hollywood High, took her place in the act. They borrowed $30 from a friend for airfare, flew to Montreal for their first scheduled performance, and went on to become one of the most popular dancing couples in the 1940s and 1950s.
In the beginning of their careers, Champion and Belcher played three- and four-star hotels around the country, receiving good notices. They married in 1947 and had two children. The same year that they were married the Champions were hired for their first Broadway show, Lend an Ear, choreographed by Gower. It won Champion his first Tony Award and helped establish the Champions on Broadway as a formidable song-and-dance act.
Between two more Broadway shows, Small Wonder (1948) and Make a Wish (1951), the Champions segued to television, beginning with Admiral Broadway Revue (1949), starring comedians Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. The Champions’ dances on the show—romantic and comedic pas de deux in which their characters would meet and fall in love—foretold the kind of narrative choreography that would distinguish Champion’s later work on Broadway.
By the early fifties, the Champions were actively working in theater and television, but it was their film work that brought them to a larger public and made them stars. Under contract with Paramount, they danced together in Mr. Music (1950); they then signed with MGM for Showboat (1951), Lovely to Look At (1952), and Everything I Have Is Yours (1952), in which they received star billing. In 1952 the Champions were on the cover of Newsweek and appeared on many television variety shows, including those hosted by Ed Sullivan, Perry Como, Steve Allen, and Dinah Shore. They also appeared in Jupiter’s Darling (1954) and 3 for Tonight (1955). In 1960 Variety reported that they were one of the highest-paid dance teams in the world.
What was it about the Champions and their dancing that drew audiences to the box office? Unquestionably, their chemistry stayed true to the romantic partnering conventions of decades past while offering glimpses of a provocative, playful physicality. As for Gower’s choreography (early in her career Marge preferred dancing to choreography, leaving Gower to stage the dances), the Champions were professed cat lovers and claimed that observing cats informed their dance routines. In a 1954 People & Places magazine cover story, Gower Champion called cats “the most graceful of animals.” He admitted that he scrutinized every movement of his seven felines and sometimes filmed them. “Some people make home movies of their children,” Marge said. “We make movies of our cats.”
Still, the Champions’ dances were not simply catlike; their appeal stemmed from Gower’s ability to make the most conventional dance routines seem inspired. New York Times theater critic Brooks Atkinson wrote of the Champions’ performances in 3 for Tonight, in which Gower danced, directed, and choreographed: “As everyone knows, Mr. and Mrs. Champion are effortless dancers. But they are also people of intelligence who hate the hackneyed and despise the pretentious.”
The Champions dissolved their couples act in the sixties to pursue different projects. They eventually separated and were divorced in 1973. Gower Champion later married Carla Russell.
Gower’s status as a sought-after director-choreographer was cemented with Bye Bye Birdie (1960), an affectionate Broadway spoof of rock ’n’ roll, which garnered him Tony Awards for directing and choreography. A year later he directed and choreographed Carnival!, based on the film musical Lili. After a failed attempt to direct a drama—My Mother, My Father and Me (1963)—Champion rebounded with his greatest success ever, Hello, Dolly! In that 1964 musical, which starred Carol Channing, Champion kept alive old-fashioned music-hall traditions. Hello, Dolly! was a Busby Berkeley–type show business extravaganza that boasted dazzling staging without losing sight of the show’s storyline. Channing’s charisma as the irrepressible matchmaker Dolly Levi, the lavish sets, and Jerry Herman’s eminently hummable score dovetailed with Champion’s staging, and Hello, Dolly! went on to become one of Broadway’s longest-running musicals. Again, Champion won Tony Awards for outstanding direction and choreography.
Champion had other successes on Broadway, including I Do! I Do! (1966), The Happy Time (1968), and Irene (1972)—and three significant flops, Sugar (1972), Mack and Mabel (1974), and Rockabye Hamlet (1976)—but he waited sixteen years for his next runaway hit musical, 42nd Street. This 1980 David Merrick production, based on Busby Berkeley’s 1933 movie starring Ruby Keeler, would be Champion’s last project. As he had shown in Hello, Dolly!, he was fond of old-fashioned, no-expense-spared musical comedy numbers, exuberantly realized in 42nd Street’s “We’re in the Money” and the title song. Sadly, the show’s public and critical praise was offset by an announcement on opening night that Champion had died earlier that day in New York City of a rare cancer of the lymphoid cells. Of Champion’s accomplishments as a Broadway director-choreographer, New York Times theater critic Frank Rich wrote in 1980 that while Champion was not an innovator like Jerome Robbins or Michael Bennett, nor did he develop his own style of dancing like Bob Fosse, “he almost single-handedly kept alive the fabled traditions of Broadway’s most glittery and innocent past.”
Information about Champion’s career can be gleaned from the Dance and Theater Collections at the Library of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. Little information about his life is available in published form. See the article on Champion in Current Biography (1953), and the obituaries in the New York Times, 27 Aug. 1980, and Variety, 27 Aug. 1980.
- Belcher, Ernest (1882-1973), ballet teacher and movie dance director
- Grable, Betty (1916-1973), film and stage actress
- Sullivan, Ed (1902-1974), journalist and television personality
- Como, Perry (1912-2001), singer of popular music and television entertainer
- Allen, Steve (1921-2000), comedian, author, songwriter
- Shore, Dinah (1917-1994), singer and television show host
- Atkinson, Brooks (1894-1984), drama critic
- Berkeley, Busby (1895-1976), stage and film choreographer and director
- Merrick, David (1911-2000), theatrical producer
- Keeler, Ruby (1910-1993), actress and dancer
- Robbins, Jerome (1918-1998), choreographer, dancer, director
- Bennett, Michael (1943-1987), musical theater director and choreographer
- Fosse, Bob (1927-1987), stage, film, and television dancer, director, and choreographer