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Champion, Gower

CHAMPION, Gower

(b. 22 June 1919 in Geneva, Illinois; d. 25 August 1980 in New York City), noted dancer, choreographer, and director of stage, screen, and television.

Born to John W. Champion, an advertising executive, and Beatrice Carlisle, a custom dressmaker, Champion was raised by his mother in Los Angeles after his parents divorced. He studied dance and, at the age of seventeen, quit Fairfax High School to spend the next six years, 1936 to 1942, touring fashionable cabarets with his dancing partner, Jeanne Tyler. Billing themselves as "Gower and Jeanne, America's Youngest Dancers," the pair eventually made their way to Hollywood, where they had cameo roles in the films Streets of Paris (1939), The Lady Comes Across (1942), and Count Me In (1942).

During World War II, Champion briefly left the stage to enlist in the U.S. Coast Guard. After the war he returned to film and in 1947 found a new dance partner in his childhood sweetheart, Marge Belcher, who became his wife on 5 October 1947; the couple had two children and divorced in 1973. The Champions' stylish and energetic performances were especially suited to the new medium of television, and they appeared on virtually every TV variety show of the 1950s. They also appeared in a number of big-screen movie musicals, including Show Boat (1951) and Jupiter's Darling (1955). By the late 1950s Champion made the decision to return to Broadway—where, almost a decade earlier, he had successfully choreographed and directed his first musical stage production.

At first glance Champion's choice for his return to Broadway appeared doubtful. The 1960 production of Bye, Bye Birdie was a first-time effort not only for its producer but for its lyricist, composer, and many cast members as well. But under Champion's sure-handed direction, the production maintained an energy that was punctuated by stirring and stunning choreography. One opening-night critic found the play "the funniest, most captivating and most expert musical comedy one could hope to see in several seasons of showgoing." Others agreed; Champion was awarded two Tonys, one for direction, the other for choreography, for Bye, Bye Birdie.

From this point on Champion was known not only for his superb direction of farce but also his ability to entertain audiences. His productions had more in common with the Hollywood musicals of the 1940s and 1950s, in that they were often comedic, light in tone, and colorful in presentation. Like Jerome Robbins, also active in the theater at this time, Champion looked for so-called triple-threat performers—those who could sing, act, and dance—rather than those whose talents were limited to the chorus line. Also like Robbins, Champion relentlessly worked to design sets that provided a seamless flow from scene to scene, as in films.

Throughout the 1960s Champion produced hit after hit. His successes rank among the greatest musicals of the American theater, including Carnival! (1961), Hello, Dolly! (1964), for which Champion won two more Tony Awards, and I Do! I Do! (1966). He did some of his most notable work in collaboration with the producer David Merrick, with whom he had a fruitful if stormy relationship for nearly two decades.

With Carnival!, Champion tried a different approach in his direction. His decision to make the audience participants in the show allowed them to experience much of the same enchantment the main character, Lili, has for the traveling carnival troupe. The technique also succeeded in creating an intimate rapport with the cast and audience. Champion heightened the intimacy by doing away with the curtain and the opening overture and by having some of the actors make their entrances and exits via the theater aisles. Both critics and audiences responded enthusiastically to Champion's innovations; Carnival! was one of the season's biggest hits.

Hello, Dolly! was another rousing success for Champion, who took what many thought was an uninspired and disjointed story and turned it into one of Broadway's most memorable productions of the decade. Carol Channing's starring performance and the show's score were so memorable that Champion's direction and wildly exciting choreography were often overlooked by critics. But with I Do!I Do!, Champion once more directly enjoyed the critics' toasts to his fast-paced direction and choreography.

In 1966 Champion took on the production of The Happy Time, which had enjoyed a run on Broadway in 1950. To make the production more current and more of a concept musical, Champion employed a triple-tiered revolving stage. The stage allowed the actors to move seamlessly from one scene to the next without breaking the play's continuity or flow. These smooth onstage transitions gave the effect of watching a series of "photographs" as the storyline progressed. Champion also took advantage of the sophisticated film effects used in IMAX productions. While a bold move on Champion's part, the technology dwarfed the performers and contributed to the play's failure. When The Happy Time opened in 1968, critics praised Champion's direction but found the play sentimental and old-fashioned. Champion nevertheless won a Tony for the play's choreography. The following year he experienced yet another disappointment with the doomed production of A Flea in Her Ear. By the end of the decade it was clear Champion was out of step with the times; he had become a handsome anachronism.

Unfortunately, the successes Champion enjoyed on the Broadway musical stage never translated in his attempts to direct drama or films, which were often critical and commercial failures. The irony is that many of his stage productions of the 1960s relied on cinematic techniques such as the close-up, flashback, and cross-fade. Champion's directorial work was a great influence on the imminent technological revolution of the Broadway stage in the coming decades; as one artistic director noted, "He modernized the old Broadway style."

In 1980, after an absence of nearly five years from the director's chair, Champion agreed to choreograph and direct a theatrical adaptation of the 1933 movie musical 42nd Street. Even though he was not Merrick's first choice as the director, Champion proved to be the right choice in directing the old-fashioned musical. However, he was suffering from a rare blood disorder and was supposed to cut back on his activities. As the task of directing rehearsals took its toll, Champion was no longer able to conceal his illness. Instead, he pushed Merrick to hasten production of 42nd Street.

On 25 August 1980, only hours before the play opened, Champion died. The ordinarily reclusive Merrick came on stage after the numerous curtain calls to make the announcement. Champion's death only heightened the play's own tale of show business, adversity, and the old adage "The show must go on." Although he was never considered a choreographic or directorial innovator after the fashion of Robbins or Bob Fosse, Champion left his own imprint. His productions were elegant and sophisticated yet unpretentious. While his plays tended to avoid social commentary or taboo subjects, they did help to break new ground in their use of technology and staging and set a new direction in American theater.

There is no biography of Champion, but see William Goldman, The Season (1969); David Payne-Carter, "Gower Champion and the American Musical Theater" (Ph.D. diss., New York University, 1989); and Robert Emmet Long, Broadway, the Golden Years: Jerome Robbins and the Great Choreographer-Directors 1940 to the Present (2001). See also Jess Gregg, "Scenes from a Memoir," Dance Magazine 73, no. 9 (Sept. 1999). An obituary is in the New York Times (27 Aug. 1980).

Meg Greene

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