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Words for a Champion

ART TIMES March 2007

Name 5 outstanding choreographers of the late 50‘s to early 80’s.

Everyone I ask quickly notes Fosse and Robbins. Many named DeMille, Ballanchine, Bennett or Michel Kidd.  If they hesitated before naming all – I’d suggest: include films, TV and classical dance.  Then you might get Alvin Ailey, Twyla Tharp, Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham or half a dozen others.

Ask a choreographer, however, and you’d always get Gower Champion.  As a dancer, choreographer, director and play doctor, he left an impressive list of stage, club, big and little screen mementos of extraordinary energy and style. But do you know the many break-throughs he made?

While Gene Kelly is credited with giving the male dancer a macho image on the big screen, Gower, as a dancer/choreographer, did so in clubs, TV and theatre performances.  His was the image of the nice guy next door, the guy mom wanted her daughter to marry.  See him in one of his old films and you feel “here’s a typical all American guy.”

In fact, whenever I think of him, the image of a good looking guy with a Cheshire cat grin that goes from ear to ear pops into my mind, making me want to smile in return.  Behind that baby face and glowing smile, was a determined, talented and creative man. Some also dubbed him a control freak – but when an entire musical rests on your shoulders, how can you be anything less if you hope to succeed?

Gower, in his teens, with partner Jeanne Tyler, toured clubs as the youngest dance couple in America.  He had an energetic, optimistic style, which he never lost.

After his World War II service, he was a solo dancer on Broadway before he hooked up with Marjorie Belcher, later known as Marge Champion.  The fifties saw them dancing on TV variety shows, in major nightclubs and in a few films. They were quick to rise in the perception of audiences, booking agents and producers.

He and dance partner (later wife) Marge Champion were so successful in their engagements, they soon found themselves at MGM as supporting players in that studio’s fabled musicals.   Within a few years, they were starring in MGM musicals such as “Everything I Have Is Yours,” “Give a Girl a Break” (which he and Nick Castle co-choreographed) and “The Girl Most Likely.”

At the same time, Gower began directing as well as choreographing.  He staged “Lend An Ear” on Broadway, often referred to as “the show that introduced Carol Channing.”  It also earned him his first of several Tony awards. Gower also won the New York Critics Award and the Donaldson Award.

When the Champions broke with MGM, he tried out a new act, which toured such venues as the London Palladium, Monte Carlo and other major European sites, ending at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas.  It was a triumph.

The famed Bob Fosse was one of several dancers who later became choreographers who danced in shows Champion directed or choreographed, much as Champion had previously worked for Agnes de Mille.

 Fosse and Champion had a great deal in common.  Both were born in June, albeit in different years, (Gower’s birth date was June 22, 1919) and both were born in Chicago.  Fosse and his wife replaced Marge and Gower in “The Admirable Broadway Revue.” In nightclubs, the Fosses were second in fame only to the Champions.  It is said he used to announce his dance team with “You know the Champions?  We’re the runners up.”  Things sure changed in the years ahead!  A major difference between them was that although both were ambitious, Gower had a less competitive nature.

Gower also choreographed Debbie Reynolds, who always spoke highly of his talent. He directed her on stage in “Irene” and in “Annie Get Your Gun.”  He stepped into the ailing “The Act,” where he first worked with Liza Minelli.  In fact, he literally stepped in, not only taking over choreographic and directing chores, but replacing the leading man as well.

Because he was so omnipresent as a performer, many people forget Gower’s choreographic contributions. He arrived at the time that film “dream sequences” were hot, and choreographed his share of them.

Agnes De Mille was the first to use dances in Broadway musicals to further the plot and explore characterizations. Gower was hard on her heels and pushed further and further to use dance to add to characterization of the dancers, as well as to move the plot forward.

One of his innovations was the abundant use of props to help delineate character and personalize his dances and dancers.

In his club acts, Gower established continuous action, where dancers segued from one number into another without going off stage.  He used that technique in film as well, where scenery changed behind them and dancing continued in one continuous shot.  He called this filmed continuous choreography “brownouts.”

When he was both director and choreographer, it was even easier for him to control this concept.

Among the plays he choreographed (many of which he also directed) were:

“Bye Bye Birdie;” “Hello, Dolly;” “I Do, I Do;” “Sugar;” “Carnival;” “The Happy Time” and “42nd Street.”  The latter show ran eight years, and was recently revived.

Gower concentrated more on the overall movement of a dance piece rather than individual steps.  It was one of the ways he managed to keep everything moving smoothly with exuberance and style.

Often his choreography scored well with critics even though the movies or plays he choreographed did not fare well.  In this, too, he unfortunately emulated Agnes de Mille.

Unlike de Mille, however, Gower would easily toss out dance numbers he felt were not working or which held up the show.  It was something that caused David Merrick deep concern when he would toss out an entire production number, making costumes and sets a total loss.  Despite their many disagreements, he did six shows for Merrick.

Gower was ambitious and enterprising.  He was daring.   He had to be, to do a dance with eleven elephants, which he called “the girls” in “The Life Of An Elephant.”  He actually auditioned elephants and found them highly intelligent and adaptable.  It was not, however, an experience he cared to repeat.

Ed Sullivan — as big in his day as Oprah now — devoted an entire show to the Champions.  In the mid 1950s the Champions had their own TV show, alternating with the Jack Benny Show.  Gower also choreographed the CBS Musical Review, “Accent On Love.”

They spent 25 years together, and Marge was quoted as having said that only about four of those years had been rocky between them.  They agreed to divorce in the early 1970s.  It was difficult for a while, but soon they became friends again.

 After their divorce, Marge choreographed for film and TV, including “Queen Of The Stardust Ballroom.”

 In 1976 Gower married Karla Robertson, who had helped decorate his California home.  They shared a passion for plants, and their natural friendship, begun while they worked on the house, developed into love.

Although he had studied tap in the mid forties, it’s rat-a-tat-tat beat was basically antithetical to his fluid personal style; still, for his final show, “42nd Street,” he used it to perfection.

His final illness was as secretive as the man himself and as dramatic as his most unique choreography.

He had not let people know he was ailing, claiming merely to be overworked and chronically tired.  He was having weekly treatments, which he knew could be continued in New York.  Karla usually traveled with him when he went off to do a show, but he left her home when he went East to stage “42nd Street.” 

One morning in August, he called Karla and said he needed her.  A few days later, he was taken to Sloan Kettering Memorial Cancer Hospital where he died the day of the opening of “42nd Street.” The announcement was made from the stage after the final curtain call. Producer David Merrick had not told anyone in the cast of the demise until then, not wanting to mar the performance of the first night.  The news made headlines throughout the world – and, since Merrick had always been such a big and occasionally unscrupulous “promoter” many wondered if it could possibly be true.  Unfortunately, it was.

Gower, just entering his sixties, died on August 25, 1980. Karla Robertson Champion was with him, and had called Marge to come to the hospital when she realized the end was imminent.

Unlike today, when it takes months to arrange, his memorial service was held at the Winter Garden Theatre at noon on August 27th that year.  It was a dazzling tribute to a marvelous creative talent, whose work is being restaged even now.