19 Things You Should Know About Gower Champion

Legendary director/choreographer Gower Champion was born on this day in 1919. A multiple Tony Award winner, Mr. Champion began his career as a dancer/choreographer and ultimately directed such Broadway landmarks as BYE BYE BIRDIE, HELLO DOLLY!, and 42ND STREET.

As a birthday tribute, here are…

19 Things You Should Know About Gower Champion!

 

Gower Champion working

 

1. Gower Champion was nominated for 15 Tony Awards and won 8 times. That’s just one shy of director/choreographer Bob Fosse, who won 9 Tonys in all.tony award

 

2. When he was only a junior in high school, Champion won a dance contest with his dance partner, Jeanne Tyler. The duo promptly quit school and hit the road, touring nightclubs as “Gower and Jeanne.” foxtrot gower champion

 

3. Gower and Jeanne made their Broadway debut in a 1939 revue called THE STREETS OF PARIS. The show also featured Abbott & Costello and Carmen Miranda.

Lou Abbot, Carmen Miranda and Lou Costello Gower Champion

Bud Abbott, Carmen Miranda and Lou Costello in THE STREETS OF PARIS (1939)

 

4. After serving in the Coast Guard during WWII, Champion partnered with Marjorie Belcher, the daughter of his former dance teacher. First billed as “Gower and Bell,” they soon found acclaim as “Marge and Gower Champion,” and married in 1947. Marge and Gower Champion

 

5. Gower was 6’1” and Marge was only 5.”Gower Champion Marge Champion Beach

 

6. After staging the numbers for a Broadway revue called SMALL WONDER, Champion won his first Tony in 1948 for choreographing the musical revue LEND AN EAR. The show featured Carol Channing as a French movie star, a British Christian Scientist, and a 1920s flapper, among others.

Carol Channing and William Eythe in the "Gladiola Girl" sketch from LLL

Carol Channing and William Eythe in the “Gladiola Girl” sketch from LEND AN EAR (1948)

 

7. Marge and Gower appeared in several films of the 1950s. In 1951, they played Ellie and Frank, the dancing players of MGM’s Show Boat.Marge Gower Champion Show Boat

 

8. In 1959, Whitman Publishing Company released The Marge and Gower Champion Cut-Outs, a book of dress-up paper dolls featuring the famous duo.Marge Gower Champion Cut Outs 1 Marge Gower Champion Cut Outs 2

 

9. In 1961, Gower Champion directed the megahit BYE BYE BIRDIE, winning his first Tony Award for Best Director of a Musical, along with his second Tony for Best Choreography.

"The Telephone Hour" from BYE BYE BIRDIE (1960)

“The Telephone Hour” from BYE BYE BIRDIE (1961)

 

10. BYE BYE BIRDIE was originally titled LET’S GO STEADY, and Conrad Birdie was named “Ellsworth,” until Charles Strouse and Lee Adams decided to parody the name of singer Conway Twitty.

bye bye birdie

Dick Gautier and Company in BYE BYE BIRDIE (1961)

 

11. In 1962, Champion’s work on CARNIVAL! earned him another Tony nomination for Best Director of a Musical. CARNIVAL! had its roots in the classic TV series Kukla, Fran and Ollie. The children’s series inspired a short story (“The Man Who Hated People”) about a misanthropic puppeteer. That short story inspired a novel entitled Love of Seven Dolls, which in turn became a film titled Lili, which ultimately became the musical CARNIVAL!

Jerry Orbach in CARNIVAL!

Jerry Orbach in CARNIVAL! (1962)

 

12. CARNIVAL! was originally called CARROT TOP.carrottop

 

13. HELLO DOLLY!, the blockbuster hit of 1964, won a record ten Tony Awards, including two for director/choreographer Gower Champion.

David Burns and Carol Channing in HELLO, DOLLY! (1964)

David Burns and Carol Channing in HELLO, DOLLY! (1964)

 

14. HELLO DOLLY! ran for 2,844 performances, making it (at the time) the longest-running musical in Broadway history.

Ethel Merman in HELLO DOLLY!

Ethel Merman starred in HELLO DOLLY! for the show’s final 9 months (1970)

 

15. Champion’s 1972 musical, SUGAR, was a musical version of Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, with a score by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill. SUGAR starred Robert Morse and Tony Roberts as a pair of two-bit musicians who hide from the mob by dressing as women and joining an all-female band.

Tony Roberts and Robert Morse in SUGAR

Tony Roberts and Robert Morse in SUGAR (1972)

 

16. In 1973, Champion directed and choreographed a revival of IRENE, starring Debbie Reynolds. The musical, which opened in 1919 – the year Champion was born – was for twenty years the longest-running musical in Broadway history.

Debbie Reynolds and Company in IRENE (1973)

Debbie Reynolds and Company in IRENE (1973)

 

17. The 1973 IRENE revival cast also included Debbie Reynolds’ 17-year-old daughter, Carrie Fisher.

Carrie Fisher gathers material for her memoirs in IRENE (1973)

Carrie Fisher gathers material for her memoirs in IRENE (1973)

 

18. Gower Champion won his final Tony Award in 1981, for his choreography of the blockbuster hit, 42ND STREET, which he also directed. Mr. Champion was not there to receive his Tony, however; he died in 1980 of a rare blood cancer, just hours before the show’s opening-night performance. Producer David Merrick, never one to miss a marketing opportunity, famously waited until the show’s curtain call to publicly announce Champion’s death.

Wanda Richert and Company in 42ND STREET

Lee Roy Reams, Wanda Richert and Company in 42ND STREET (1980)

 

19. Though Gower Champion helmed numerous Broadway hits, 42ND STREET would prove to be his greatest success– the show ran for nine years, led to a successful 2001 Broadway revival, and continues to thrive in professional and amateur productions worldwide.FOR-005

…and that’s 19 Things You Should Know About Gower Champion, born on this day in 1919.

Gower Champion

Thank you, Mr. Champion– you really got Broadway dancing. And now that we’re dancing, who cares if we ever stop?