Marge Champion, Disney and Art Babbitt

On Monday I had the honor of meeting the lovely Marge Champion in her Manhattan apartment.

Marge Belcher was born on September 2nd, 1919.  When she was 13 years old, she tried out as for the part of a reference model for Snow White for Walt Disney’s first feature film.

Her father, choreographer “dance director” (as they were called) Ernest Belcher wanted to keep her out of the limelight at such a young age, but deemed the Disney audition acceptable because she was merely artists’ reference.

Over the summer Marge forgot about the audition she did.  As the school year started and she had turned 14, she got the call.

Marge and Ernest Belcher

When Marge entered the studio, they gave her a Snow White costume, and she acted in front of the animators to inspire the movement of the character.  According to Marge, Art Babbitt (who was assigned to animate the Wicked Queen), began filming her for his own general movement reference with his personal 16mm camera before anyone else was.

The animators were all very protective of young Marge and Walt Disney insisted she call him “Uncle Walt.”  Marge would only work a few weeks of the year at Disney’s, but the boys began seeing her growing up, including Art Babbitt.

He must have been a very charming 20-something:  He dressed well, was in excellent shape, had a sense of humor, was very perceptive and intuitive — and most significantly, he was incredibly confident.

Marge and Art

In the ’30s, the Disney Studio on Hyperion Avenue was populated like a college campus.  There were:

  • jocks (Jack Kinney, Roy Williams),
  • musicians (Ward Kimball, Pinto Colvig),
  • hard drinkers (Bill Peed — later Peet, John Hubley),
  • serious fine artists (Bill Tytla, Hardie Gramatky),
  • and intellectuals (Les Clark, Art Babbitt).

Babbitt was a sensitive observer.  He naturally studied the people around him, their movements, their knacks.  On the outside, he enjoyed being the life of a party.  Both these facets materialized in his ability to hypnotize people.

“People would bring in their bag lunch, and Art would sit at the middle and put people under.  He could hypnotize people – like it was a party trick,” remembers Marge.  “He could never put me under, though.  I just laughed at him!”

Marge and he began a chaste courtship, because “in those days, nice girls did not go to bed,” she says.  They were married on August 8th, 1937 without a big wedding, and Marge moved into Art’s house at 5700 Hill Oak Drive.

5700 Hill Oak Drive then and now

Marge Champion co-hosting brunch at Hill Oak Drive. Sculptor Pierre Gagnine is at right.

Throughout the months, Art worked his long hours at the studio and continued to work hard at his home animation desk.

There were parties, cocktails and social breakfasts, with friends of Art who were the creative elite, and Marge found herself to be a glamorous housewife, but a housewife nonetheless.

In 1940 Art wanted children.  Marge didn’t want to discard her years of training at 20 and instead took a job touring with the Three Stooges across the east coast, settling in New York.

The divorce was filed on 6/21/40, and was finalized on 10/2/41

“… adjudging that plaintiff [Arthur Harold Babbitt] was entitled to a divorce from defendant [Marjorie Celeste Babbitt], and more than one year having elapsed and no appeal having been taken from said judgement, […] that the bonds of matrimony between plaintiff and defendant be, and the same are, dissolved.

They remained good friends, and Art would meet her (and her live-in beau) when he returned to New York to visit.  On April 25th, 1942, he writes:

“Marge met me at the train and soon as I collected my baggage and my car – we went out to visit my mother who’s in New York at present.  This procedure is anything but conventional — since Marge + I have been divorced 2 years + she has remarried [sic].  I’m trying hard to grow civilized and I can’t make myself dislike a very charming person just because our marriage bumped into a career.”

_________________________________

Art and Marge continued to stay in touch throughout the years, and as time marched on, Marge would eventually meet each of Art’s future wives and children.

In 1992, when Art was on his deathbed, Marge was one of his last visitors before he passed away.

The photos below are original prints that Art Babbitt saved for 52 years.

“This is how I really looked,” says Marge.

Marge with partner Louis “Louie” Hightower, the model for Snow White’s prince, in a publicity shot

In a special costume for the 1938 Rose Parade

Marge laments that whenever a photographer had you facing up, you end up squinting.

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This entry was posted in 1932-1941: Disney Glory Days, Dance, Disney, Photography and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Marge Champion, Disney and Art Babbitt

  1. Terrific post and great pics! Thanks for sharing. It’s wonderful that you were able to Marge in person.

  2. I took dance lessons from Marge’s father Ernest Belcher in the 1960’s. I never met Marge, wish I had. We share the same birthdate. Her father was an amazing teacher. Such a nice nice man too. Lots of memories there…. Thanks for the post.

  3. I took dance lessons, ballet, from Marge’s dad, Ernest Belcher in the 1960’s. He was a fabulous teacher and a nice nice man. I never met Marge, he talked about her a lot, and we share the same birthdate. Thanks for the post. Lots of memories here.

  4. Pingback: Babbitt Birthday Brunch | babbittblog

  5. Pingback: Babbitt’s Footage of the 1938 Oscars | babbittblog

  6. Pingback: Snow White on Tour | babbittblog

  7. My grandmother Mary Fanjoy’s dance instructor was Ernest Belcher in the 1920s. She danced at the grand re-opening of the Hollywood Bowl and on the stage and was the dance double for silent film star Colleen Moore. I enjoyed this post and learning more about Marge.

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