Gower Champion

Eight-time Tony Award® winner Gower Champion (b. Geneva, Illinois, 22 June 1919; d. New York City, 25 August 1980) was a dancer, film actor, choreographer, and stage director best known for his work in the Broadway hit musicals Bye Bye Birdie (1960), Carnival! (1961), Hello, Dolly! (1964) and 42nd Street (1980). As a dancing team, he and his wife Marge were one of the most popular attractions on television variety shows in the 1950s, appearing on Jack Benny, Garry Moore, Dinah Shore, Ed Sullivan, and even their own series, The Marge and Gower Champion Show, in 1957. The pair also appeared in several film musicals with the likes of Bing Crosby (Mr. Music, 1950), Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel (Show Boat, 1951; Lovely To Look At, 1952), Debbie Reynolds (Give a Girl a Break, 1953), Betty Grable (Three for the Show, 1955), Esther Williams (Jupiter’s Darling, 1955) and occasionally with their own top billing (Everything I Have Is Yours, 1952).

Although born in Illinois, Champion grew up in Los Angeles where his mother moved after his parents divorced. He attended Hollywood’s “High School of the Stars,” Fairfax (Mickey Rooney would have been a year behind him), where he became an avid theater performer. By the age of fifteen, he and partner Jeanne Tyler were dancing professionally in L.A. nightclubs. They landed on Broadway in 1939, dancing backup for Carmen Miranda in the fairly successful revue Streets of Paris.

Their next show, The Lady Comes Across (1942) was a complete flop. Champion then appeared in another dud, Count Me In, but without Tyler. Service in the Coast Guard intervened during World War II, putting a hold on his Broadway career, but he kept up his entertainment skills before the troops in USO shows.

Returning to show business in a star-studded film (Till the Clouds Roll By, 1946) about the life of Jerome Kern, he met Marjorie Belcher, formed a new dance partnership, and married her in 1947. Gower Champion made his stage-directing debut in 1948 with the musical Lend an Ear, for which he won the first of his Tony Awards®. Yet despite this early success on Broadway, Marge and Gower spent most of the 1950s in Hollywood, in film and television. Champion directed a musical short film called Once Upon a Honeymoon in 1956, but it had little impact and the rest of his screen directing was intermittent and mostly for television specials.

At the beginning of the ’60s, Champion had a smash hit on Broadway directing and choreographing Bye Bye Birdie (1960); it starred Chita Rivera and Dick Van Dyke, both as yet unknown. The production landed him two more Tonys® and led to another triumphal musical, Carnival! (a nomination for Best Director in 1962). Hello, Dolly! (1964) not only won Tonys® for Champion for direction and choreography, but also the Tony® for Best Musical, and the show set a performance record (2,844). Although not on the blockbuster level of Dolly, two more musicals brought honors to Champion: for I Do! I Do! (1966) he was nominated for Best Director, and for The Happy Time (1968) he was awarded another double Tony®.

Scattered among the triumphs were a handful of failures: Sugar (1972), Mack & Mabel (1974), Rockabye Hamlet (1976), A Broadway Musical (1978 – one performance only!). Further, his longtime partnership and marriage with Marge dissolved in 1973. He remarried in 1976 to Karla Russell.

In early 1979 Champion received a diagnosis of a rare form of blood cancer. Against his doctors’ advice, he undertook the direction and choreography of a new musical, 42nd Street (1980), based on the classic film. It opened August 25, 1980, the very evening that Gower Champion died at New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. It ran for 3,486 performances – beating Dolly’s record – and won posthumous Drama Desk and Tony Awards® for Champion’s choreography in 1981 (as well as Best Musical). It was Champion’s eighth Tony®, another record: one more than Bob Fosse’s seven. The show was revived in 2001 and won for Best Revival, running for 1,524 more performances.

Other honors attached to the name of Gower Champion are a nomination for an Emmy in 1959 for Best Direction of a Single Musical or Variety Program, a New York Critics Award, a Donaldson Award, a 2002 Career Achievement Award shared with Marge Champion, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

– EB / LEC