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Gower Champion
1919 – 1980  Class of 2012  Choreographer
Not counting the years he danced as a boy, Gower Champion was a distinguished and influential dancer, director, and choreographer in the American musical theatre for 41 years, from 1939 to 1980.  Born in Geneva, Illinois, on June 22, 1919, Gower was the son of Beatrice Carlisle and John W. Champion, an advertising executive.  Gower was named after his uncle, Gower N. Carlisle, using his grandmother’s maiden surname, Sbella Gower. Beatrice Carlisle was a descendent of Alfred L. Carlisle, a well-known Fox Valley realtor and one-time Kane County deputy sheriff.  

When Beatrice and John divorced, she moved to California with the couple’s two sons, Gower and his brother, John, who was two years older.  There she resettled near her sister and other relatives and made a living as a dressmaker.  According to columnist Hedda Hopper, the Champions’ Hollywood home was originally built by Ronald Reagan. When not in school or delivering newspapers, Gower could be found singing for 50 cents and his dinner at the Pig’n Whistle, a popular family restaurant next door to Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard.

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At age twelve, Gower entered Lawlor’s School for Professional Children, then the Norma Gould School of Dancing, and eventually the Elisa Ryan School of Dancing in Beverly Hills, which Shirley Temple also attended. Although his preference was always ballroom dancing, he also studied ballet on a scholarship at the Ernest Belcher studio, where he met his future wife, Marge, the owner’s daughter.

As a young man, Gower teamed with Jeanne Tyler, and their dancing attracted the attention of talent scouts from MGM, the president of the Screen Dancers Guild, and the famed dance team of Veloz and Yolanda. Gower and Jeanne’s appearances at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel led to featured dancing roles in the Broadway musicals Streets of Paris in 1939, Count Me In in 1941, plus a prime engagement in the Gold Coast Room of the Drake Hotel in Chicago.

During World War II, Gower served in the Coast Guard and toured with a show called “Tars and Spars,” along with another serviceman, Sid Caesar. During his time in the service, he also got to know his father better.

Gower found performing fame after World War II with his wife and dance partner, Marge Belcher.  They appeared with Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, Eddie Duchin, Guy Lombardo, Bing Crosby, Julie Andrews, Harry Belafonte, Carol Channing, and Ethel Merman. Together Marge and Gower starred in the 1951 motion picture, Show Boat. They were featured again in 1952 in the MGM musical, Everything I Have Is Yours.  
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Gower was cast in ten major films after that and was the director of two others.  In 1950, the couple began appearing in dramatic television productions.  In 1957, they hosted their own television
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show, The Marge and Gower Champion Show, a situation comedy in which they played dancers trying to start new lives. He made his final acting appearance playing an exercise instructor in the 1977 NBC-TV movie, Sharon: Portrait of a Mistress.

As the Hollywood musical and similar television programming began to decline, Gower turned back to the Broadway stage. His first Broadway show was Streets of Paris in 1939, but his first truly big hit was Bye, Bye Birdie in 1961. Then he made Broadway history with Hello Dolly! in 1964, winning multiple Tony Awards.  Additional Tonies were earned for choreography and musical direction in Lend An Ear  (1949) and The Happy Time  (1968). Gower’s legendary choreography and musical direction was recognized repeatedly from 1949 through 1981, as he accumulated an amazing eight Tony Awards from 15 different nominations.

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“The choreographer,” Gower stated, “requires that his dancers be expressive in dance terms while the director, in working with actors, tries to elicit the inner feelings of a character through both speech and gesture.  The middle ground – not the dividing line – between choreography and direction is what I call staging.  This is what links dancing and acting and I think that the choreographer in the role of the director, can bring something special to the business of staging.”

Gower was highly respected and sought after for film, television, and Broadway productions by such well-known notables as Julie Andrews, Harry Belafonte, Bob Fosse, Neil Simon, Ruth Gordon, Ethel Merman, Chita Rivera, Jerry Orbach, and Dick Van Dyke.

In 1980, Gower choreographed and directed the newest version of 42nd Street.  Sadly, he passed away just hours before the show opened on August 25, 1980. He was only 59 years old. A few years earlier his doctors had diagnosed a rare form of blood cancer. Producer David Merrick did not tell the cast the tragic news until after the curtain fell.

With 42nd Street, Gower drew on everything he had learned from almost fifty years of dance. He drew from road shows with Jeanne, story dances and films with Marge, and every musical he had ever staged. More than once he added a favorite step or routine. His distinctive touch paid off, when he was recognized posthumously for his work on 42nd Street in 1981, receiving one more Tony Award for Best Choreography and earning the 1981 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Choreography.

Although Marge and Gower Champion divorced in 1973, they remained close. They had two sons, Gregg and Blake.  Gregg is a film and television director in California, but Blake died in an auto accident when he was only 25. Marge, now in her 90s and still dancing, lives in New York.

In his 2005 biography about Gower Champion entitled Before the Parade Passes By, author John Gilvey wrote this:

“…Gower Champion’s artistry made Broadway’s golden age all the more golden because of the dazzling musicals he created – streamlined, dance-propelled musicals each unique in concept and choreography. In one after another, he filled the stage from top to bottom with a ceaseless array of sights and sounds that seamlessly unfolded to thrill, delight, and deeply touch audiences. His artistry was also his legacy – one that continues to shape and inform our musicals twenty-five years after his death. In the history of the American theatre he stands apart as the quintessential showman, who, to his dying day, literally lit up Broadway, the nation, the world – with a rare and incandescent genius never seen before – or since…”

Along with other clippings about Gower Champion and his family, the Geneva History Center has made a permanent home for the medallion he earned when he was inducted into the Fox Valley Arts Hall of Fame with the Class of 2012. Just as his spirit kept alive the old-fashioned tradition of brilliant show-business extravaganzas, the story of this artist will continue to inspire and challenge the young dancers of today.
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 Winner 8 Tony Awards for choreography and musical direction
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