Before the Parade Passes By: Gower Champion and the Glorious American Musical [NOOK Book]

Overview


During the Golden Age of the Broadway musical, few director-choreographers could infuse a new musical with dance and movement in quite the way Gower Champion could. From his earliest Broadway success with Bye Bye Birdie to his triumphant and bittersweet valedictory, 42nd Street, musicals directed by Champion filled the proscenium with life. At their best, they touched the heart and stirred the soul with a skillful blend of elegance and ...
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Before the Parade Passes By: Gower Champion and the Glorious American Musical

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Overview


During the Golden Age of the Broadway musical, few director-choreographers could infuse a new musical with dance and movement in quite the way Gower Champion could. From his earliest Broadway success with Bye Bye Birdie to his triumphant and bittersweet valedictory, 42nd Street, musicals directed by Champion filled the proscenium with life. At their best, they touched the heart and stirred the soul with a skillful blend of elegance and American showmanship.

He began his career as one-half of "America's Youngest Dance Team" with Jeanne Tyler and later teamed with his wife, dance partner, and longtime collaborator, Marge Champion. This romantic ballroom duo danced across America in the smartest clubs and onto the television screen, performing story dances that captivated the country. They ultimately took their talent to Hollywood, where they starred in the 1951 remake of Show Boat, Lovely to Look At, and other films. But Broadway always called to Champion, and in 1959 he was tapped to direct Bye Bye Birdie. The rest is history.

In shows like Birdie, Carnival, Hello, Dolly!, I Do! I Do!, Sugar, and 42nd Street, luminaries such as Chita Rivera, Dick Van Dyke, Carol Channing, Mary Martin, Robert Preston, Tony Roberts, Robert Morse, Tammy Grimes, and Jerry Orbach brought Champion's creative vision to life. Working with composers and writers like Jerry Herman, Michael Stewart, Charles Strouse, Lee Adams, and Bob Merrill, he streamlined the musical making it flow effortlessly with song and dance from start to finish.

John Gilvey has spoken with many of the people who worked with Champion, and in Before the Parade Passes By he tells the life story of this most American of Broadway musical director-choreographers from his early days dancing with Marge to his final days spent meticulously honing the visual magic of 42nd Street. Before the Parade Passes By is the life story of one man who personified the glory of the Broadway musical right up until the moment of his untimely death. When the curtain fell to thunderous applause on the opening night of 42nd Street, August 25, 1980, legendary impresario David Merrick came forward, silenced the audience, and announced that Champion had died that morning. As eminent theatre critic Ethan Mordden has firmly put it, "the Golden Age was over."

Though the Golden Age of the Broadway musical is over, John Gilvey brings it to life again by telling the story of Gower Champion, one of its most passionate and creative legends.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
When Gower Champion died in 1980 at age 59, the lights on Broadway dimmed. It was a fitting tribute to the visionary director/choreographer responsible for Mame; Bye, Bye, Birdie; and 42nd Street. Enrolled in dance classes as a child, Champion turned pro as a teen and by age 27 had teamed with wife Marge to great acclaim. Champion's distinctive style used "story dances," or narratives told through dance and pantomime. Smart and stylish, they became the trademark of the team's nightclub and film work in the 1940s and '50s. When Champion's dancing career ended, he expanded his repertoire as a director and choreographer. His specialty was "two- and three-dimensional choreographic movements" that integrated song, dance, theme and props to dazzling effect. Though Champion directed early TV specials and did innovative work for MGM, his biggest coup was electrifying Broadway. Hypersensitive to criticism, he found his defeats, such as Prettybelle, crushing, but his successes were legendary. (Hello, Dolly! was the first Broadway musical to receive 10 Tony Awards.) Gilvey, a theater professor at St. Joseph's College, has written an exhaustive biography. Though the book suffers occasionally from detail overkill (there's too much information on failed musicals), it reveals the grit behind Broadway's glamour. Photos. Agent, Eric Myers. (Nov. 15) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Most fans of the American musical know how director/choreographer Gower Cham-pion (1919-80) tragically died on the afternoon of the Broadway opening of 42nd Street, the culmination of a lengthy and genre-changing career that included Bye Bye Birdie and Hello, Dolly! Gilvey (theater & speech, St. Joseph's Coll., NY) repositions Champion at center stage with this extensively researched, well-written biography that incorporates information from the Champion archives and those associated with the artist, e.g., his wife and Broadway luminaries Carol Channing and Jerry Orbach. Champion's personal life is intermingled with the story of his professional life, with a focus on the development of his choreography. Covering both the hits and the flops, the personal triumphs and the failures, Gilvey follows Champion's major contributions to the American musical: his use of choreography to tell a story with "seamless transitions from dialogue into song" and his use of "continuous staging," which "dissolve[ed] one scene into the next in full view of the audience." David Payne-Carter's Gower Champion covers similar ground but without the benefit of his subject's archives. Highly recommended for theater and dance collections.-Laura A. Ewald, Murray State Univ. Lib., KY Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Packed with detail, anecdotes and insight, this look at director-choreographer Champion's work leaves no step unturned. In case anyone wonders, Gilvey (Theater/St. Joseph's College) makes clear that Gower Champion ranks next to giants Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, Agnes DeMille, et al., as one of the great talents of Broadway's golden age. And in case anyone forgets, or wasn't on the scene, Gilvey's vivid descriptions recall the look and sound of a Champion show taking off. The author begins with Champion's early dance work in clubs with partner Jeanne Tyler, later replaced by Marge Belcher, whom he partnered in marriage and movies (notably 1951's Show Boat). From the start, Gilvey shows, Champion's dances always made a point-told a story, illuminated a character, celebrated a moment. Eventually, the choreographer aimed to direct on Broadway. He hit with Bye Bye Birdie, topping that with Carnival! and then Hello, Dolly! Gilvey provides a full, illuminating account of how Champion turned Dolly from an initially unfocused, battle-scarred show into one of Broadway's most critically acclaimed, longest-running musicals. The second act of Champion's career was less successful. I Do! I Do! did well, but The Happy Time wasn't, and Rockabye Hamlet, his attempt to wed the Bard and rock music, flopped, as did Prettybelle and Mack and Mabel. Tastes and styles were changing, and, Gilvey suggests, Champion's problems with drugs, affairs and divorce marred his work. About to hang it up, Champion returned to Broadway with 42nd Street, an all-out dance musical that summed up and topped off career. In one of the most dramatic finales in Broadway history, Champion, 61, died the day the show opened. Gilveyreaches the top shelf of high-kicking Broadway biographies.
From the Publisher
"Packed with detail, anecdotes and insight, this look at director-choreographer Champion's work leaves no step unturned.In case anyone wonders, Gilvey (Theater/St. Joseph's College) makes clear that Gower Champion ranks next to giants Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, Agnes DeMille, et al., as one of the great talents of Broadway's golden age. And in case anyone forgets, or wasn't on the scene, Gilvey's vivid descriptions recall the look and sound of a Champion show taking off. The author begins with Champion's early dance work in clubs with partner Jeanne Tyler, later replaced by Marge Belcher, whom he partnered in marriage and movies (notably 1951's Show Boat). From the start, Gilvey shows, Champion's dances always made a point—told a story, illuminated a character, celebrated a moment. Eventually, the choreographer aimed to direct on Broadway. He hit with Bye Bye Birdie, topping that with Carnival! and then Hello, Dolly! Gilvey provides a full, illuminating account of how Champion turned Dolly from an initially unfocused, battle-scarred show into one of Broadway's most critically acclaimed, longest-running musicals. The second act of Champion's career was less successful. I Do! I Do! did well, but The Happy Time wasn't, and Rockabye Hamlet, his attempt to wed the Bard and rock music, flopped, as did Prettybelle and Mack and Mabel. Tastes and styles were changing, and, Gilvey suggests, Champion's problems with drugs, affairs and divorce marred his work. About to hang it up, Champion returned to Broadway with 42nd Street, an all-out dance musical that summed up and topped off career. In one of the most dramatic finales in Broadway history, Champion, 61, died the day the show opened.Gilvey reaches the top shelf of high-kicking Broadway biographies."—Kirkus Reviews, STARRED Review

"A vivid portrait of a wildly talented and wildly complicated man."

—-John Kander

"John Gilvey's god-given talent for accuracy, sensitivity, tireless research, and objectivity over the past 13 years has surely filled a serious gap in the musical theater libraries of the world. I offer him a profound bow of thanks to the tune of my favorite song we danced to, 'They'll Never Believe Me.'"—-Marge Champion

"Before the Parade Passes By is a meticulously researched, well written account of the life and, more important, the work of dancer-choreographer Gower Champion. Its detailed chronicling of the gestation of Champion's Broadway hits and flops makes it a must for anyone interested in learning about how a Broadway musical is made and sometimes unmade. Lovers of backstage gossip will relish the saga of the clash of control freaks Champion and producer David Merrick. Everyone interested in the American musical will enjoy and learn from this fine book."—-John Clum, Duke University, author of Something for the Boys: Musical Theatre and Gay Culture

"Gower Champion's Broadway musicals make us smile, tap our feet and dance in our heads. Gilvey's "Parade" of Gower's life and work mesmerizes, as sure as, 'house to half,' the opening notes of Hello, Dolly's overture give us goose bumps."—-David Hartman

"John Gilvey's insightful biography gave me a detailed glimpse of the workings of a great theatrical mind. Reading it brought back so many memories of these fantastic shows that I first saw from Broadway balconies."—- Charles Busch

"Before the Parade Passes By is fascinating. At last the many mysteries and questions concerning a major director/choreographer, Gower Champion, can be answered. At his best, beautiful successful musicals emerged. When his demons took over, look out! Enjoy reading about the glamour of Broadway in its Golden Age and the insight which John Gilvey has given us."—-Don Pippin

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781429925594
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 11/1/2005
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Format: eBook
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 955,290
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author


John Anthony Gilvey is a graduate of New York University’s doctoral program in educational theatre and is a professor of theatre and speech at St. Joseph’s College in New York.
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Read an Excerpt


Before the Parade Passes By
ONEThe Young Prince1919-1935 
 
 
"At ten pounds, two ounces, he's likely to become an All-American fullback," declared the doctor in attendance at the birth of the second son of John Champion and Beatrice Carlisle on June 22, 1919.1 Almost immediately, however, the appeal of the child and his future prospects were lost on the boy's discontented father. John's work as an advertising executive for clothing manufacturer Munsingwear, though it lacked the thrill of the gridiron, was satisfying and productive enough. His marriage was not. Beatrice, or Betty, as she was called, was as intelligent, conscientious, and competent a wife as one could hope for, but her warmth and affection seemed ever distant. With hope of bridging that distance long gone, he grew wearier of her emotional aloofness each day.Betty, on the other hand, was equally perturbed with the escalating indifference her husband was displaying toward their three-year-old elder son, John, and herself. Even the details of welcoming their new child to 402 South Fifth Street, the family's home in the prosperous Chicago suburb of Geneva, Illinois, were left to her. When she proposed Alfred Gower Carlisle Champion as the name for the boy and further suggested they call him Gower after her mother, Belle Gower, in whose home they resided, John voiced no objection. Whether preoccupied with the children or in denial over the perilous state of the marriage, Betty underestimated John's passive indignation. One evening about four months after Gower's birth, he brusquely declared that he was divorcing her to marry his secretary. Betty was stunned and became enraged. Apart from the divorce itself, what she resented most was the callous way he had chosen to reveal his decision. Her devotion deserved better, and his utter disregard of that fact would embitter her for life. The divorce followed quickly; Betty retained custody of the boys, and John remarried at once.Continuing to raise the children in the Chicago area under the specter of this humiliation was not for Betty. Distance was what she needed, and the greater the distance between her and the philandering playboy who had failed to meet herstandards, the better. However, a $90 monthly alimony check would not support her and the boys. By the time Gower was two and a half, she had used her skills as a dressmaker to forge a new life. She purchased a car, loaded it with the boys and everything she owned, and then drove across half the continent to Los Angeles, a place where her sister and many of her relatives had already resettled.2Staunch Christian Scientist that she was, Betty had to concede that California did seem to be the new promised land touted by radio evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. Indeed, the fair Los Angeles climate that greeted the family in January 1922 was a happy contrast to the bleak, icy weather of northern Illinois they had left. A happy reunion with her sister Patricia and her husband Bud March in Hancock Park and the picture of the boys at play on the beach were confirmation enough that here their lives could begin anew.3 Days later, Betty acquired modest housing in town and began to renew contacts with friends in the area, many of whom were also Christian Scientists.4 Among them was Edna Gregg, who had moved to Santa Monica sometime before with her husband and two children. Her son, Jess, was Gower's age, and the two boys quickly became friends. Whenever the families gathered for Sunday jaunts, holidays, or birthdays, Jess and Gower, whom Jess dubbed "Gar," were inseparable. When the boys were five, the Greggs moved closer to central Los Angeles; Gar's family eventually did, too, but to a different neighborhood. The families still kept in touch, but Jess and Gar would travel in different circles until young adulthood, when they would renew their old friendship. 5Like her circle of friends, Betty Champion held high regard for the studied, sedate, and personal nature of Christian Science, which she preferred to the faddish and common display of Aimee McPherson's fiery Pentecostal Revivalism with its throngs of frenetic believers. Even so, the two faiths had some striking similarities. Both stressed the power of spiritual healing as understood and practiced by their founders, two dynamic female ministers. Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy, who in 1879 established the Church of Christ Scientist in Boston, taught that there is only one reality--the spiritual. All else--the physical world with its affliction, dissension and death--is merely a misconception or a distortion of the divine universe made apparent when the healing power of Jesus Christ is manifested. Thus there are many believers who, in time of illness, favor divine revelation over medical or medicinal treatment. In Eddy's unique philosophy with its "things-are-not-as-they-seem" view of the world, Betty Champion found the perfect explanation for what happened in life.Betty's practice of Christian Science was the austere kind--assiduous, resolute, sober, but joyless. With John's divorce, joy had perished along with the love that had engendered it. Since then, an overweening religiosity to which she steadfastlyclung had supplanted the loss. As she confided one afternoon to Edna Gregg, "I could not live my life without this faith. It has given me the only hope I have--the only love I have."6However great the love Betty found in Christian Science, it would never be sufficient to quell the pain of John's infidelity and rejection. She began to coach her sons in her own version of the divorce, making every effort to portray their father as a salacious good-for-nothing. Taking little pleasure in life, she grew increasingly suspicious and sanctimonious--attitudes that not only tested close friends like Edna Gregg, but also made her a rigid overseer of Gower and John, whose every move she strictly monitored.7The divorce had turned Betty into a very private person whose sole form of socializing was the bridge club she hosted weekly in her home. Yet even these occasions failed to temper her austerity. Once when Gower defied her, she lost her composure and slapped him across the face in full view of her guests. Still, physical punishment of this kind was rare, the usual practice simply to consign the offender to a corner of the kitchen where he stood facing the wall until he had learned his lesson.8Although puritanical, Betty's parenting technique was not without love or purpose. The boys had to learn that success in life stemmed from setting high standards, then achieving them through unwavering discipline and care. To this end, and also to compensate for the absence of the family's father, Betty often played father as well as mother. She was determined that John and Gower should become conscientious, respectful, and industrious men of breeding. They were encouraged to take pride in themselves and were given every affordable advantage. With family income barely sufficient to support a middle-class existence, those advantages often came with difficulty, which she resourcefully overcame by taking on a host of small jobs like selling subscriptions to magazines and memberships to the Del Mar Club, the local beach club where John and Gower would take their girlfriends to dance as teens.9 If her motherly approval had to be withheld from her children to insure they conformed to her quality standards, then so be it. She was not raising a pair of "momma's boys." With time Betty's manner of discipline proved to have the intended effect on her sons--at least externally. Inwardly, however, Gower resented his mother's perfectionism and, in self-defense, began withdrawing from her emotionally.John, in comparison, took his mother's high-powered expectations more in stride. College-educated at the University of Southern California for a leading place as a businessman in his uncle's oil company, he eventually would opt for a simpler life with a relative modicum of prosperity as the proprietor of a boys' and men's retail clothing store on Ventura Boulevard near Laurel Canyon. From boyhood, hisrelationship with Gower was a warm one, moderate in its show of affection, but always respectful. Even in college, John, the tall, handsome, and excellent ballroom dancer saw to it that his brother also had his fair share of cavorting at the Del Mar Club. With John at the wheel, together the brothers would go dating with their girlfriends. In later years, when Gower's professional dance career began to flourish, it would amuse John greatly to have a younger brother who was becoming a star. Eventually, however, traveling in different circles and the lack of common meeting ground would take a toll, and they would begin to grow apart.Young Gower's education began in the local public grammar school until his poor performance there (due to a hearing disorder) prompted his mother to transfer him to Lawlor's School for Professional Children, a private grammar school for child performers, which Judy Garland also attended. A year later, he returned to public school after the nurse at Lawlor's pinpointed the source of his hearing problem--excessive earwax. (Betty would never think of consulting a physician about her son's condition; her strict religious mores forbade it.) Still, his introduction to the arts at Lawlor's, short-lived as it was, impressed him deeply. As a result, he began appearing on local children's radio programs like Bill, Mack and Jimmy. When not in school or delivering newspapers, he 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.Performing was far more fun than delivering newspapers, and the money he earned was almost as good. By the fall of 1931, the twelve-year-old joined his brother at the Norma Gould School of Dancing on Larchmont Boulevard near Paramount Film Studios to take dance and piano lessons. His mother, who never had any intention of training either son for the stage, was convinced that social dancing should be a necessary part of their development.10 By the end of the first term, however, pigeon-toed Gower had displayed such skill that his schoolmates refused to participate in any of the ballroom dancing contests he entered. Their reluctance was quite understandable, for once he began teaming with a beautiful brunette (almost a full head taller than him) by the name of Jeanne Tyler, all competition ceased.11Because Norma Gould's classes were more etiquette lessons than serious dance, Gower and Jeanne decided to leave after two years to seek more advanced training at the Elisa Ryan School of Dancing in Beverly Hills. There, amid the school's white-glove cotillions and child film performers like Jane Withers and Shirley Temple, they studied under Thomas Sheehy, learning rudimentary tap and ballroom dancing, including the waltz, fox-trot, and quickstep. They also participated in the dramatics program headed by Ben Bard. Before long, Gower and Jeanne were testingtheir skills in numerous dance contests at Los Angeles-area beach clubs, junior high schools, even airports, winning most of the competitions they entered.12Apparently young Champion cut quite a figure at the Ryan Studio, even captivating five-year-old Shirley Temple, who later confessed an "unrequited love" for the "happy and handsome"13 young man. In the dramas staged by Bard, he frequently played her father and, as a result, quickly became her idol. Some years later, when Temple was a teen, they occasionally dated, but the results were to yield only "a low-tempo flirtation"14 because of his career ambitions and inability to overcome her father's objections. Mr. Temple, uneasy with the nine-year age disparity between his daughter and the dancer, was further aggravated when his would-be-son-in-law peeled flakes of sunburned skin from his arms and dropped them on the floor of the family's latest Cadillac. Still, Gower continued his pursuit undaunted. As late as the fall of 1945, on the eve of Temple's marriage to Sergeant John Agar (a B-movie actor seven years her senior), he arrived at her residence, begged her to cancel the wedding, danced with her, and then kissed her. She later mused: "For true lovers it would have been a savored moment of regret. In our case, it was more dumb than daring. Had I agreed to jilt Sergeant Jack, Champion would have been lost in the dust of his own departure."15By 1932, Gower, now a good-looking, charming, bright, and perfectly mannered thirteen-year-old with an aristocratic bearing, was attending Bancroft Junior High School. With no father to emulate and a rigid disciplinarian for a mother, he was also developing into an overly deferential and elusive teen. To some, like the girls who admired him, he was "the young prince."16 To others, put off by his perceived diffidence, he was simply "the prince."17 He paid them no mind.In history class at Bancroft, he sat behind Marjorie (Marge) Celeste Belcher, a petite, vivacious blonde later to become his co-performer and first wife. His interest in dance had never surfaced in their conversations and remained virtually unknown to her until he and Jeanne performed a ballroom number in the school's annual ninth-grade talent show. The revelation was especially surprising to Marge. Her father was the renowned silent film choreographer Ernest Belcher, who operated one of the largest and most prestigious dance schools in Los Angeles, where she was both a student and an instructor. While attending the talent show to help with programming and to watch his daughter perform her specialty, a Portuguese hat dance, Belcher became so taken with Gower's talent, charm, and natural stage presence that he offered him a full scholarship to his school at once.18The response of Belcher's new pupil to systematic dance training was remarkably undistinguished: he would fall out of the most elementary pirouettes, then make light of his error by shamefacedly crawling toward the piano and climbing tothe top. (His antics, amusing at the time to the class and his good-natured teacher, contrasted remarkably with the fierce discipline he would later exhibit as a choreographer and director.) Ballet classes at Belcher's, often two or three times a week, failed to temper Gower's preference for ballroom work. With Jeanne, he continued to study at Elisa Ryan's studio and win local competitions. Dance was merely a pastime, and secondary to more important things like going to the beach and socializing with his girl. All that was about to change.BEFORE THE PARADE PASSES BY. Copyright © 2005 by John Anthony Gilvey.
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Table of Contents

Prologue: Late Spring 1979 1
1 The Young Prince 1919-1935 3
2 The Dance to Fame 1936-1942 9
3 Story-Dancing Champions 1943-1947 22
4 Broadway, Televisionland, Hollywood 1948-1950 34
5 MGM 1951-1953 42
6 Performer and Choreographer 1953-1955 55
7 Director 1956-1959 67
8 A Revusical: Sardonic, Yet Stylish: Bye Bye Birdie 1960 79
9 Gentle Blockbuster: Carnival 1961 91
10 Down the Stairs, 'Round the Orchestra, Affirming Life: Hello, Dolly! 1962-1964 114
11 Metaphorical Marriage Presentational Style: I Do! I Do! 1965-1966 155
12 Memories, Imax, and a Million Bucks: The Happy Time 1967-1968 182
13 A Most Peculiar Lady: Prettybelle 1969-1971 202
14 Confections New and Old: Sugar and Irene 1971-1973 220
15 Bathing Beauties, the Bard, and Bitterness: Mack and Mabel and Rockabye Hamlet 1974-1976 240
16 Reworking, Doctoring, Capitulating: Annie Get Your Gun, The Act, and A Broadway Musical 1976-1979 261
17 Going Into His Dance Once More: 42nd Street 1979-1980 274
Epilogue 301
Late Summer 1980
Afterword 303
Acknowledgments 305
Notes 307
Selected Bibliography 349
Index 359
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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 11, 2006

    Love Broadway? Read this!

    If you loved 'Hello Dolly' and other Broadway musicals, you will love this book. If as a teenager, you loved movie musicals such as 'Show Boat' you will love to read about Marge and Gower Champion - dancers that I have never forgotten.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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