This morning Norman Rockwell Museum held a press conference to mark the opening of its newest exhibition, Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs: The Creation of a Classic. In addition to exhibition curator Lella Smith (Creative Director, The Walt Disney Company Animation Research Library) and The Walt Disney Family Museum’s Director of Communications Libby Garrison, we were honored to have award-winning dancer Marge Champion join us and share her memories of serving as a live reference model for Disney’s first full-length animated feature starting in 1934.
Marge Champion (then Marjorie Belcher) was just 13 when she auditioned for the part of Snow White. Out of some 200 girls who auditioned, Marge won the part, helped in part by the ballet training she received from her father’s dance studio in Los Angeles. Ms. Champion remembers improvising many scenes on the Disney Studio soundstage, such as running through a “forest” of ropes hanging from clotheslines and fetching water from a prop wishing well. The animators then studied her filmed performance to understand how to more realistically animate the movement of Snow White.
“The animators weren’t dancers,” Champion told Norman Rockwell Museum during an April 2013 interview. “They could do all the funny, silly things like Goofy… they took those out of their own personalities, but they didn’t know exactly how a young girl moved… how the dress would swing, how heads would turn…” Marge even spent a day dancing as Dopey: “They gave me this big flappy coat, and for a whole day they photographed me doing silly things that I just made up.” The dancer was paid between $10 and $25 a day for her work. “I loved doing it. I even loved doing a very small part like the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio, and the hippopotamus in Fantasia… both of which were done before they released Snow White.”
Marge remembers the opening night premiere of Snow White at Hollywood’s Carthay Circle Theater on December 31, 1937, and how moved the audience was by Disney’s groundbreaking film. The movie once referred to as “Walt’s Folly” was an instant success, and even won the first Oscar for an animated feature (a special statuette with seven additional miniature statuettes) at the 1939 Academy Awards. It paved the way for the studio’s prolific run of animated feature films, which continues to this day.
Ms. Champion went on to have success in her own right as an accomplished dancer and choreographer. In the 1940s and 1950s she teamed up with her then-husband Gower Champion, starring in numerous MGM musicals and Broadway shows. A star of stage and screen, she splits her time between New York City and Stockbridge, Massachusetts (home of Norman Rockwell Museum), where she has a part-time residence.
This past Monday, June 3, Marge Champion received the Douglass Watt Lifetime Achievement Award, to honor her inspiring career, at the 2013 Fred Astaire Awards, held in New York City. This weekend she will be further honored at Norman Rockwell Museum’s Enchanted Evening Gala, to celebrate the opening of the Snow White exhibition (you can see examples of her early work in the exhibition). Remarkably young at age 93, she still hasn’t forgotten her first big break, courtesy of “Uncle Walt.”