Marge Champion, Fairest of Them All: The Towering Talent Behind Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Summer Fellow Stephanie Ruozzo with a rotoscope from the Champion Papers. Photo credit: Cait Miller.

The following is a guest post from Stephanie Ruozzo, one of the Music Division’s summer Fellows from Case Western Reserve University. Dance Specialist Libby Smigel introduces her: 

Meet Stephanie Ruozzo, a doctoral candidate researching Jerome Kern as part of her doctoral studies in musicology. Stephanie is spending her summer as a CWRU Fellow consulting the Music Division special collections and contributing her expertise in musical theater to organizing the papers of dance choreographer-performer Marge Champion. Champion is most often recognized for her role in the Gower and Marge Champion dance team, but from a young age she herself had a robust career filled with projects, performances, and choreography. Stephanie’s blog post shares how surprisingly early that chock-full career began.

 

 

You might expect someone whose name is Champion to be downstage center in every production, but before she made a name for herself dancing with then-husband Gower Champion, Marjorie Belcher was Walt Disney’s best-kept secret. Happily, the Marge Champion Papers housed at the Library of Congress put this dancer back in the spotlight where she belongs.

An early dance lesson for Marge, undated. Marge Champion Papers, Music Division, Library of Congress.

As a fourteen-year-old, Champion auditioned with two of her classmates from her father’s prestigious dance school to perform as a live-action model for the animators working on Disney’s first feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The competition was stiff (Disney chose Champion out of over one hundred potential dancers), but she was more than prepared for it. As the daughter of Ernest Belcher, Hollywood’s most famous “dance director” (what we would bill as a choreographer today), she began her studies at his dance studio very early. By age eleven, she was assisting her father by demonstrating steps for pupils as illustrious as Shirley Temple; by age twelve or thirteen, she was teaching her own class.

Thanks to her intensive training, Champion’s audition was successful. Disney called her father two or three months later with a job offer: she would spend two or three days a month at the studio to shoot scenes on 16 mm film, which animators would then spend the next few weeks animating. For her hard work, Champion earned what she refers to as “the magnificent sum of $10 a day” – though she claims the real attraction was in getting to skip a few days of school from Hollywood High in Los Angeles.

Champion performing Snow White’s actions for animators, ca. 1935. Marge Champion Papers, Music Division, Library of Congress.

 

She didn’t work alone either; another of Ernest Belcher’s pupils, Louis Hightower, modeled as Prince Charming, and multiple animators took turns dancing with her as dwarfs. In Champion’s interviews and correspondence, she looks back fondly on her time at the studio with animators not much older than she was. She recalls the atmosphere as similar to an average high school or college campus, complete with daily picnic lunches. Since she was too young to address her boss on a first-name basis, Mr. Disney insisted that she call him “Uncle Walt.” Their work for Snow White was completed long before the film’s release, though.

 

Rotoscope print used by animators to trace characters, ca. 1935. Marge Champion Papers Music Division, Library of Congress.

Champion’s work on the project was originally supposed to be as inconspicuous as possible; Walt Disney didn’t want to give the impression that his animators were cutting corners by tracing each individual frame of the live action film rather than drawing the characters from scratch. Alexander King, a journalist for Life magazine however, was eager to be the first reporter with an inside look at the film that people were referring to as “Disney’s folly.” He paid a brief visit to Disney Studios to research the technical process of bringing a feature-length animation from story board to silver screen, where he met and interviewed the creative team. The story published (and maintained for several decades) was that animators merely recorded dancers performing the scenes to obtain a realistic, expressive reference point for their drawings. In actuality, they were using a process known as “rotoscoping.”

If you look closely at the stills obtained from Champion’s film footage, you’ll see thin, black outlines penciled over the actual image. Indeed, animators were tracing frame after frame of Champion’s dancing (she did not find this out until a celebration for the opening of an exhibit featuring artwork from Snow White at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco). Though rotoscope was not Walt Disney’s invention and was in fact an accepted practice in the animation industry, Disney Studios worked hard to maintain the impression that their characters were entirely free-handed. Whatever their methods, the results were undeniably accurate: Champion explained the odd sensation she experienced at the premiere of simultaneously watching herself and seeing a cartoon for the first time.

Champion posing next to a character sketch of Pinocchio’s Blue Fairy, ca. 1936. Marge Champion Papers, Music Division, Library of Congress.

Walt Disney was satisfied, at least. He hired Champion to model for his next two feature films, Pinocchio and Fantasia. Her influence is easily seen in the girlish Blue Fairy who brings the endearing puppet to life; more surprising is her work as Hyacinth Hippo and the ostriches in the ballet sequences of Fantasia. As the animators codified and refined their technique, the models’ jobs changed. For Snow White, Lead Animator Ham Luske would simply explain the actions required for a certain scene and then allow Champion to improvise; on the two later films, she had to choreograph her movements ahead of time. In total, Champion spent three years as a teenager contributing dance work that established her career and the reputation of Disney’s artists.

Her career as a live-action model remains with and colors the rest of Champion’s career as a dancer. She even considered titling her (alas, unpublished) memoirs Life upon the Wicked Stage Ain’t Nothin’ for Snow White. She has periodically corresponded with Diane Disney Miller (Walt’s daughter, and another of Ernest Belcher’s students) and been honored as a Disney Legend. She participated in promotional work for the 50th- and 75th- anniversary commemorations and the curation of exhibits of artwork from Snow White for the Norman Rockwell Museum, Disney Family Museum, Fresno Metropolitan Museum, and Portland OR Animation Festival.

The recent accrual to the Marge Champion Papers documents all of these milestones; they contain personal and professional correspondence arranging her appearances for gala events to honor her achievement as Snow White’s real-life inspiration. Though the bulk of Marge Champion’s collection has already been processed and is navigable via the online archival finding aid, the new additions enrich her life story with the warmth and depth of personal experience.

5 Comments

  1. Dianna Mitzner
    June 28, 2018 at 12:29 pm

    As well as Disney, credit might be given to the animators who created these films. Art Babbitt, Marge’s husband, was responsible for translating her dance moves with the birds to the screen. He also, tried to make certain that the people under him, as he told me while stopping outside my house on one of his regular morning walks, had enough money for milk for their children.

  2. Cristobal Diaz Ayala
    June 28, 2018 at 1:38 pm

    Very interesting! Good for Marge Champion and her discovered, Stephanie Ruozzo! CDA

  3. June Parker Beck
    March 25, 2019 at 5:53 pm

    I was in high school in the 1950s and loved Marge and Gower beyond belief. My favorite routine was “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” I believe it was from “Lovely to Look At” – and I still routinely watch it on YouTube. Back in the early 1990s I talked to Marge on the phone and she was so charming. I still have a beautiful autographed photo of them from “Give A Girl a Break.” Oddly, I did a website for actress Maureen O’Hara beginning in the 1990s that I maintained for 20 years “Maureen O’Hara Magazine” – now also on Facebook. I should have done one for Marge also; very special lady. God Bless her always.

  4. sandra mackenzie-cioppa
    June 30, 2019 at 10:41 pm

    My parents, dancers and teachers, were friends of Marge and Gower. They had their own studios, MacKenzie School of the Dance, in Montebello and other LA areas. When my dad could no longer teach due to a bad hip, we spent occasional Saturdays in the Hollywood studio of Marge and Gower, Dad chatting, me watching. Their studio manager, whose name escapes me, was my god-father. I’m now 74 and look back so fondly at those times. So happy to see that Marge is still kicking.

  5. sandra mackenzie-cioppa
    June 30, 2019 at 10:44 pm

    Ah, now I remember, Tom Sheehy! He gave me the most beautiful Madame Alexander ballerina doll on the day I was baptized.

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