"Snow White" Diamond Edition: An Interview with Marge Champion
Marge Champion has had a lengthy and renowned career as a dancer, actress, and choreographer on stage and screen. Her first dance instructor was her father, the noted ballet master Ernest Belcher who was one of the first dance directors for the cinema and also dance instructor for both the stars and their children in Hollywood. In 1946, she teamed up with dancer/choreographer Gower Champion, marrying him one year later. They rapidly became one of the top dancing duos on both the stage and the silver screen, appearing in the legendary musical Show Boat in 1951 and as the leads in Everything I Have is Yours in 1952, while also staging dances for their Broadway musical revues Lend an Ear and Make a Wish.
However, Champion’s earliest screen appearance was as the live-action reference model for Snow White, as well as the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio and the Hippopotamus Ballerina in the “Dance of the Hours” segment of Fantasia (which she also choreographed). On the eve of the release of the Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Diamond Edition, Toonzone News got a chance to speak with Champion over the phone about her experiences working for “Uncle Walt” as the model for the first Disney Princess.
TOONZONE NEWS: By the time you did the work for Disney in Snow White, you were already dancing more or less professionally for some time, is that right?
MARGE CHAMPION: Well, I wouldn’t say professionally because I started when I was 14. I had been in my father’s ballet class, assisting and things like that. I had made my debut at the Hollywood Bowl in one of my father’s ballets. He had a ballet every year and I had a very small part when I was 11. I was a trained dancer and I was his chief demonstrator because in those days, we went into a terrible depression and he had a brand new dancing school that Cecil B. DeMille had built for him with a 99-year lease on it, and he couldn’t pay his teachers, so I became his principal demonstrator.
It was only because he knew Mr. Disney and he knew his daughters because they went to his dancing school, that I even got interviewed with three other girls. They had interviewed about 200, I understand, to do this part, but I was still 13 when I had the interview, and by the time September came around and I was going to Hollywood High School, they called and said, “Come back and get measured for a costume and talk to ‘Uncle Walt’,” as he told me to call him. I was too young to call him “Walt” like everybody else did.
TZN: So, what exactly did you have to do in your audition? Did you audition for Walt Disney?
CHAMPION: Yes. I auditioned in March or April of that year, and I did not hear from them until September, and I had forgotten the whole thing. When I first went out there, they showed me some storyboards and some little Snow White person that looked like Betty Boop. She had a very tiny waist and big, round eyelashes and all of that. They showed me some storyboards and let me loose and just said, “Run through the forest” and all that. They had a few things hung up. For the forest, they had a clothesline with a bunch of ropes hanging off from it so I could push the branches aside when I was running scared through the forest.
I can’t remember the audition very well, but I do remember when they called me to come out there for the job. They had loosened her waistline by then, and her eyes were sort of almond shaped, and it was interesting because she became more of a real character than Betty Boop had been.
TZN: How aware of the cartoons were you before you got the job to be Snow White?
CHAMPION: Well, I grew up on the Silly Symphonies and Mickey Mouse, The Three Little Pigs, Donald Duck…I grew up on all of those. I was born in 1919 in Hollywood, and the studio started in 1923. By the time I was about 9, I began to see quite a few of those cartoons. I was allowed by my father to see the cartoons and the newsreels, and then he would send me and my brother home and he would stay for the feature-length film (laughs).
CHAMPION: Well, I think most people didn’t believe it would work. I don’t remember them talking to me very much about whether it was going to be a success or not, but I do remember that I heard about Uncle Walt having to go to San Francisco to get the Bank of America to back him. It was such a moving experience, but you know, when you’re 13 or 14, or even 16, you’re not really aware of all that backstage stuff. You’re just glad of the chance to have a job so you can earn $10 a day. That was not every day, that was about 2 or 3 times a month.
TZN: Was there anything specific you can remember that you had to do differently as an animation model vs. being a stage or a screen dancer?
CHAMPION: Well, I had not been a screen dancer by that time, so I didn’t know anything about that. There were a lot of things different, though, because I didn’t even know what improvisation was when I first went there, but my high school teacher put me through a couple of improvisations and told me what it was. They were pretty embarrassing because I had to do them in front of the class which was full of football players and other people that (laughing) I would have rather not looked silly in front of, but I was free as a bird by the time I got to Walt Disney and they showed me the storyboards.
That was the beginning, really, of my …what shall I say…my training working as a cartoon, or an animated dancer. Let’s put it that way. It was shorter, but I was a totally different character in Pinocchio. I was the Blue Fairy. Much more grown up and sophisticated, but by then I was 16 (laughs).
TZN: And much more grown up and sophisticated, of course, from the 13-year old you were.
CHAMPION: Yes, of course (laughs). By the time I was 17, and Snow White was released, I had already done a whole bunch of other things, like the hippopotamus in Fantasia, and so on and so forth.
CHAMPION: Yes. Pinocchio was released in 1939, so I must have done it in about 1937, and 1937 was when Snow White was released. Fantasia was 1940, I think, but I had worked on it much earlier. I remember I had gone to the movies and seen Vera Zorina in The Goldwyn Follies in 1936, when she comes up out of the pool. It’s all in Mindy Aloff’s book called Hippo in a Tutu on the influence animated dancing had on not only on animated films but also on dancing in America.
TZN: Did you get to see what the animators were doing with the live-action footage?
CHAMPION: I saw some of it. I never saw the completion of any of the movie before it was released. Even with Snow White, and I worked on that movie for a couple of years, on and off, two days a month. I had seen some portions of it. I also did a lot of things that never got into the film. I did learn a lot more about animation because I was married very briefly to Art Babbitt, who invented Goofy and invented the mushroom dance in Fantasia. He was known for his love of dancing and all of that. I had a very brief marriage to him, but during that time, he would not only be working at the studio for all kinds of hours, but he also had a table at home. After supper, he would go into his study and draw whatever he hadn’t finished that day at the studio, so I got a better look at animation than most of the models did.
TZN: Were you married to Art while you were doing the work for Fantasia and as the Blue Fairy?
CHAMPION: It was a month before I was 18, so I had completed most of the things I was doing at the studio. Not too long after we were married, I got a job doing the Three Stooges in a vaudeville act, and they were supposed to be out 10 weeks. We opened at the Oriental Theater in Chicago, and they actually closed in 3 weeks. I used my return ticket to go to New York. I wanted to be in Broadway shows, or at least Radio City Music Hall as a Rockette, and of course I wasn’t tall enough or anything else to be a Rockette (laughs). I actually was never more than 5’2″. So while I was in New York, I got into 5 different shows before before Gower and I got back together again. We had known each other in junior high school.
TZN: What do you think is the strangest thing that the animators asked you to do?
CHAMPION: Well…that’s kind of a hard one. At one point, when I was running through the forest, I also had to run through water, and I don’t remember them putting me in a tub or anything, but I know that the movement had to look as though I was running through water. I was asked to do much stranger things when I had to be swinging up in a chandelier in a movie called Three for the Show with Betty Grable. Nobody had asked me to do that before.
At Disney, everything had to be rather dramatically done. It was a very simple setup that they had. Very strong lights, and they would hang a rope across like a clothesline and hang a lot of ropes from it so that I would be able to push things away. They’d get the motion of not only me but my dress and everything else running, running, running through the forest. That and the fact that when I was working with the dwarfs, it would be an animator who was walking on his knees, practically, when I was shooing them off to work or whatever. They were down on their hands and knees. Ollie Johnston was the tallest one of the animators that I worked with, and he did the part as two of the dwarfs, one of them standing on the other’s shoulders, and with a big long coat on. He was tall enough that I could look up to him. But we improvised all that stuff, and it worked. We got better as we went along because they had never done any of this kind of stuff. They had always gotten all the movement of the dwarfs, and the animals and things like that…really they’d gotten most of the movements out of their own personalities. Looking in a mirror, things like that.
TZN: You had mentioned that you had moved to New York. Is that the major reason why you stopped doing work with Disney?
CHAMPION: No, I think my time had passed, you know? They were doing other things like Sleeping Beauty and a whole bunch of other movies, and I was working on Broadway shows. I had 5 shows before Gower and I teamed up, and one of them was Dark of the Moon, where I played the fair witch. It played on Broadway for years, and it’s also been played in every high school and community theater. So I went from being Snow White to the fair witch. (laughs)
I learned on the job a lot until I was much older and having my children, and then I could study acting and do the things that I wanted to do, but I also studied everywhere I went. Whenever I went to New York, I was studying ballet, and singing and all sorts of things. And acting, at the same time.
TZN: You’ve had a very long career after your work with Disney, and unfortunately we don’t have the time to go too much into that, but can you think of anything that happened where your work at Disney came up again in an unexpected way?
CHAMPION: Well, in our first starring picture, Everything I Have is Yours — that’s the only film that I ever did a full solo in — I did a song called “Derry Down Dilly” and when I look at it now, it looks like I was doing something for Disney. I was trying to convince my husband, of course played by Gower, that I was still a good performer, because we had a baby and they’d moved me to a house in Connecticut, and Monica Lewis was trying to move in on our marriage. I did this really silly number to “Derry Down Dilly,” and when I see that now, I see nothing but Disney coming out of me. It’s quite a good number.
CHAMPION: I’ve been dancing with Donald Saddler for some time. We were in Stephen Sondheim’s Follies together, and they’re doing a documentary. Douglas Turnbaugh has been working on this documentary now for about 3 years, and that’s just about ready to come out. Next year, probably, in some of the film festivals. It’s called Keep Dancing, and I’m still dancing, but (laughs) not the same things I did in those movies. It’s more about aging gracefully and having a passion that you’ve had all your life and not letting it go.
Toonzone News would like to thank Marge Champion for taking the time to speak with us, as well Jackie Cavanaugh at Click Communications and all the folks at Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment PR who set up this interview. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Diamond Edition is available now.
NOTE: Images above may not be representative of the restoration on the Diamond Edition DVD/Blu-ray.