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!
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
13. HELLO DOLLY!, the blockbuster hit of 1964, won a record ten Tony Awards, including two for director/choreographer Gower Champion.
14. HELLO DOLLY! ran for 2,844 performances, making it (at the time) the longest-running musical in Broadway history.
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.
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.
17. The 1973 IRENE revival cast also included Debbie Reynolds’ 17-year-old daughter, Carrie Fisher.
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.
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.
…and that’s 19 Things You Should Know About Gower Champion, born on this day in 1919.
Thank you, Mr. Champion– you really got Broadway dancing. And now that we’re dancing, who cares if we ever stop?