Scenes from a Memoir.
The following excerpt is adapted from a much longer memoir, "Just the Three of Us," about one of the twentieth century's great Broadway director-choreographers, Gower Champion (1919-80), whose early fame in clubs and films was earned in partnership with dancer Marjorie Belcher. As Marge and Gower Champion they were for many years considered one of the theater world's most glamorous couples. This very personal memoir is told from the point of view of the author, Jess Gregg, and it reveals a complex life in the American theater when musicals were in a golden age. Gregg, a playwright and novelist, describes the beginnings of his uneasy, lifelong friendship with "Gar."
Gar, as I called him from early childhood, was so fair-haired that he photographed as if the camera had leaked light. At his third birthday party, he stood radiantly alone, with us other children sitting on the lawn around him in comparative darkness. At school he was called "The Prince." He and I were frequent companions, according to the pile of snapshots that survive--dressed as clowns for Halloween, toasting marshmallows at the beach, or showing off our first long pants. Our families had had a tradition of friendship for four generations, so it was natural to assume that we, too, would be friends. Yet it was not so simple as we grew up and he, effortlessly, took over all the things that I had expected for myself.
Gregg also became a close friend of Marge. In the following excerpts, he recalls the complex, often remarkable man who would create some of Broadway's greatest hits, such as Hello, Dolly! (1964) and 42nd Street (1980).
They were married in October 1947, and the next night opened in New York City at the elegant Persian Room of the Plaza Hotel, for the first time billed as Marge and Gower Champion. It was a stunning debut, although from the way the columnists kept emphasizing Gower's crew cut, one would have thought that his barber had staged the dances. Suddenly, the team was visible everywhere--certifying the virtues of toothpaste in advertisements, appearing weekly on TV with Sid Caesar, beaming out from the cover of Life magazine in 1949. It was breathtaking fun even by proxy. Still, it began forcing a question: what was my place in all this? "The Champs are traveling fast now," one of my friends mentioned. "Sometime soon, you've got to expect they'll leave you behind."
Inevitably, they did sign a long-term contract with MGM and move out to Hollywood. I told myself that it was as good a time as any to return to my own life. And yet, even apart, the bond between us seemed to strengthen. We wrote letters. We phoned. And there were those intuitions! Once, Marge phoned me at four in the morning. "Did you just call out to us?" she asked. I hadn't, but other times we seemed to know, even before we picked up the receiver, when the other was phoning. Times were when they came east or I went west. And unforgettably, there was the week they invited me to spend in Pads with them. "Compound interest on that forty-dollar loan," Gower said, referring to the money I'd gladly given him before they left for their debut in Montreal. ("Smash!" he had telegraphed three days later.)
Of all our good times, it was the most meaningful to me, perhaps because I was able to make some commensurate contribution. I had been to Pads in my teens but had been so pitifully unprepared that I had spent the years since studying up for my next visit. Now, I was able to fill in whatever Marge or Gower did not know about the city--details of the Revolution; how to get to the flea market or see one of Monet's Water Lilies; gossip about Napoleon, Guy de Maupassant, and Colette. Especially Colette. The great writer was dying, our chambermaid told us. "Her life was un scandale," she said. "We must all pray for her."
Humility was not something that had come easily to Gar, nor openheartedness. He had had to learn these qualities to stay in the same league with Marge. "You know how she is," he would say with chagrin and awe. "That shining face, those loving eyes! When she's onstage, nobody knows I'm alive."
They returned to theater and nightclub in 1957, after MGM was finally forced to its knees by television. Once again, we saw each other regularly, and when they toured, I sometimes packed my typewriter and shaving kit and joined them. It was almost like old times, but not entirely. I could not fail to sense Gower's increasing restlessness. "I want to quit dancing," he confided one afternoon as we lay sunning on a high terrace in Miami. "I'm pushing forty, and after that it's all downhill for a dancer."
"What'll you do instead?" I asked. "Direct?"
He nodded. "And not just the dances. I want to stage the whole bloody show."
"What about Marge?"
His glance was wry. "Do you even have to ask? This is what she's been waiting for--the chance to start a family." Late in 1957, she delivered their first son, and they named him Gregg, after me.
The Champions continued their act for two more years. During the 1959 Christmas holidays, however, Champion revealed that he had signed to direct a Broadway musical comedy that would open in the spring.
Called Bye Bye Birdie, it pictured the national chaos resulting from Elvis Presley's induction into the army. Marge sang some of the songs for me, and Gower explained the numbers he visualized. Flushed, animated, he looked years younger already. The next time I saw him, he appeared to have aged by decades: Rehearsal! I was curious to see him at work, but he conspicuously did not invite me. Relentlessly a perfectionist, he never allowed himself to be judged while the work was merely "showing progress." Yet the sad fact was that when I finally was allowed to see a run-through, I didn't much care for the show. He sensed this as we drove uptown in a cab, and his eyes dared me to say it. I said it: the characters were so one-dimensional that I kept losing interest in their outcome. He looked away irritably, and when the cab stopped at my door, only Marge said good night.
It was two days before I heard from him again. "What was that crap you were saying?" he demanded. I reiterated my opinion, and he hung up. A moment later, he phoned back. "This is a show about kids," he cried. "You're too old to understand." I hung up this time. Minutes later, I phoned back. Off and on, we discussed it for an hour more, and the next morning met for breakfast to toss around some ideas that might enrich the characters. This was so productive that he eventually had me travel with the show on its tryout as his unofficial devil's advocate.
Notices were mixed when Birdie opened in New York City on April 14, 1960, but the times were more favorable than the Times, and a younger generation made the show an enormous hit. Gower was suddenly catapulted into almost unreachable prominence. For now, anyway, the prince was king. His phone rang full-time despite a secret number, the foyer of his apartment was littered with the scripts of musicals, plays, and films sent for his consideration, and he was applauded when he entered restaurants. "He'll change now," people predicted. "They always do."
But I saw no sign of it. We laughed and kidded together as always. And when he began work on his new show, Carnival (1961), he asked me once more to come out of town with the production as his batting board. "I've reached a point where people only tell me what I want to hear," he said. "I need someone that I can't fire to argue with me."
It is possible that he came to regret this invitation. Perhaps we both did. I kept picking at what I felt were weaknesses in the new production--lines that didn't pay off or story points that weren't clear. Occasionally, he made use of the alternatives I suggested, but more often, in struggling to explain to me why my proposals were sheer nonsense, he would force the right solution out of himself. It was what I was being paid to do, but it put a terrible strain on our friendship.
And there were other strains. Marge had stayed in New York to take care of Gregg, and in her absence, Gower became infatuated with his leading lady, Anna Maria Alberghetti. Sweet-voiced and wide-eyed, she had an air of great vulnerability, perfect for the role she was playing.
I never discussed the matter with Gower. And how much of the gossip reached home Marge never indicated. She looked particularly lovely on opening night in New York City, however, and the photographers, waiting for a confrontation between the two women at the party afterward, had to be content with flashes of them smiling at each other. "All the same," said one interested bystander, "there'll be repercussions; you can count on that."
The only repercussion I could see was that the Champions' second son, Blake, was born about nine months later. I worked much more happily for Gower on Hello, Dolly! and, to celebrate its astonishing success, the three of us visited Greece together. I went into hock for this, since we rented a yacht and cruised around the Aegean Islands, eating artichokes every day, forming a thirst for wine with a pine-resin flavor, and singing "Hello, Dolly!" in Greek (Yasou, Koukla!).
The rumors of "repercussions" started again when Marge did not go out on the pre-Broadway tour of Gower's next production. I Do! I Do! (1966) was a complete musical comedy, but without chorus or change of set, and with only two characters. Mary Martin and Robert Preston played them brilliantly, but to Gower's mind something was still lacking. This story of a marriage from the wedding night on was full of wonderful foreplay, he said, but never quite got around to a climax. I suggested that he find the solution in the study of his own marriage. Dubiously, he tried it, and when it proved useful, continued to sort through his life.
For the first time, he told me about his father's desertion and the near-need he consequently grew up in, the rivalry with his brother, and his resistance to his mother's unyielding demand for excellence. And then, just when I would think I had finally begun to understand him, I'd discover that for every door he opened he would somehow edge another shut. He said it all one day when he asked me to buy him some toiletries and, unasked, I included deodorant. "Are you telling me something?" he challenged wryly. I nodded. "You smell like rehearsal." He laughed. "Then it's lucky nobody gets very close to me."
It probably wasn't a remark meant for careful scrutiny, but it kept bumping around my mind over the next few years and finally found lodging in a rift. I was working on a new book and so did not go on tour with Gower's next production, The Happy Time (1968), but saw it only when it began giving previews just before its Broadway opening. It was probably too late to make suggestions, but I offered some anyway in a stage-door bar after the performance. This time, the sharp line between criticism and remedy seemed to cut too close, and he rose abruptly from the table. "Your ideas used to be helpful," he said, quietly, "but I can't listen to them anymore."
It stopped all communication, and neither of us seemed to know how to start it up again. It was Marge who eventually engineered an accidental meeting. He and I immediately began kidding, and pounding each other's arms, but we never really discussed his work again.
Suddenly, the three of us were fifty.... He had me seated beside him at the huge birthday bash he threw for Marge. Toward one o'clock, when the candles on the cake had been blown out and the rock combo temporarily silenced, Gower lifted his glass and spoke quietly, ardently, in tribute to Marge. It had been a love affair, he said--was a love affair still.
And yet, within a few years, they were apart. I was out on the West Coast again, doing the screenplay for a novel I had written, and heard the details from each. It was familiar stuff: Home and family had taken her in one direction; career had swept him far out in another. Their house was up for sale, and I helped Marge sort and pack.
Gower had already moved into an empty crag-top mansion that had once belonged to Charles Boyer. At the push of a button, the roof of the formal dining room could slide back to reveal the sky, and from the walls that precariously encircled the estate, he could look down on his neighbors sunning themselves far below. Lofty, isolated, he seemed to have set himself up in some kind of metaphor.
We still saw each other when he came east, but there wasn't as much to talk about now, the past being off-limits and his current output requiring the utmost tact. Prettybelle (which closed out of town in 1971). Sugar (1972). Mack and Mabel (1974). Vacant lots in a posh neighborhood, someone called them. The fashionable seers were even now predicting that one more flop would finish him forever. Heedlessly, he sank everything into an iconoclastic rock version of Shakespeare, Rockabye Hamlet (1976). Rawly creative, mammoth, and even at its most imaginative, offensive, it was fated to close almost as soon as it opened. I went to see it at a preview and again on opening night, both times sweating, clenching my muscles in an effort to make it work. It did, magically, in the final duel scene, but the audience shuffled its feet and fell silent only when it came time to applaud.
I went backstage to see him after the curtain fell. He was standing alone, wearing the red jacket he wore for luck on his opening nights. He listened impassively as I told him the things I admired about the show, but he only liked to be seen at his best, and suddenly an impossible silence fell between us. After a moment, he took a breath and began backing away. "I have to see some friends," he said.
He married again. Karla Russell was a handsome young woman who encouraged us to resume our old companionship. But without the balance that Marge had supplied, he and I began to slip back into the petty needling that had marked our adolescence. Temporarily, Gar took over a leading role in a Liza Minnelli musical, The Act (1977), but I only learned of it from the papers. Stung at being excepted, I didn't go to see his performance. In response, he didn't come to see a show that I had adapted, then at the Booth Theatre. I made up my mind to let the friendship lapse, but the timing was wrong for that--now that his career was beginning to falter, too many other people were abandoning him.
Too proud for sympathy, too braised to roll with the punches, he went back to his mountaintop isolation in California. I, too, was in the process of leaving New York City, my friend and I gradually settling into life a hundred miles out on Long Island. I saw Marge often but didn't hear from Gower or even about him until a few years later, when a mutual acquaintance phoned. Incredibly, he said, Gower was hammering at the gates again--a big new musical was already in rehearsal. "But he's pretty mn-down physically," he added. "Might perk him up if you dropped by, like you used to." But by now, "used to" had been all used up.
Five weeks later there was another phone call, this one from Marge. "Gower's in the hospital," she said. "You'd better come." I took a train to New York City and joined her. In a traffic-locked taxi, she explained Gower's condition, but the medical terms had neither meaning nor immediacy for me. Visiting hours were over by the time we got to the hospital, so I left a note saying I would be back the next day. His new show, 42nd Street, was due to open on Broadway that night, but I had not planned to go. Marge found a ticket for me, however, and I borrowed a tux.
Being late August, it was still daylight when we entered the Winter Garden Theatre. The first-night crowd was dazzling but skeptical, perhaps inured. Even so, everyone was suddenly jolted into applause before the show had even begun. Instead of an overture, a hundred tap shoes and a rehearsal piano began thunderously banging out a basic routine from behind the curtain. The backstage world of the early 1930s that this called up presented Gower at his most certain. Never patronizing the grand cliche of this show-biz fable, he showed it off with wit, tenderness, and imagination. Long before intermission, he had climbed back to the pinnacle of his profession, and at the triumphant final curtain, the cheers and bravos almost made up for the damnation of Hamlet. It was then that the producer, David Merrick, came out on the stage to tell the audience, the cast, and especially the media that Gower was dead.
I kept waiting for regret to hit me, but it didn't. Not when I read the accounts of his death on the front pages the next day, not when I went to the huge memorial for him at the Winter Garden, not when I saw the lights of Broadway turned off for a moment in his memory. The fact is, I felt nothing at all but the surprise of feeling nothing.
Jess Gregg's memoir of Agnes de Mille, "Eaten Alive," appeared in the January 1998 Dance Magazine. He has written several novels, including the prison classic, Baby Boy. His play The Seashell, was produced in England and starred Sean Connery.
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|Title Annotation:||choreographer Gower Champion|
|Date:||Sep 1, 1999|
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