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Famed dancer Ginger Rogers dead at 83

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif., April 25 -- Ginger Rogers, the platinum- haired beauty who was Fred Astaire's glamorous song-and-dance partner in a string of hit movies in the '30s and '40s, died Tuesday at her home. She was 83. Barry Freed, Rogers' agent for 26 years, said she died in her sleep about 7 a.m., apparently of natural causes. A stroke in the mid '80s left the once light-footed dancer reliant on a wheelchair, but she did not shy away from public appearances. Rogers was seen often in recent years at Los Angeles-area charity events, movie premieres and play openings, still wearing her platinum blond hair in waves to her shoulders. She was among dozens of Hollywood women who posed for a first-of-its-kind group photograph in 1993 of Oscar-winning women. Rogers was best known for the 10 movies she made with Astaire, light romantic comedies brimming with sparkling tap and fluid ballroom numbers. They packed movie houses with fans seeking escape from the realities of the Great Depression and World War II. To fans of old movies, 'Fred and Ginger' are the enduring symbol of grace and panache. In addition to her musical credits, Rogers had several dramatic screen roles, including the title character in 'Kitty Foyle' that earned her an Oscar in 1940 and became her personal favorite. Born Virginia Katherine McMath in Independence, Mo., July 16, 1911, Rogers adopted her stage name 'Ginger' because a baby cousin couldn't say 'Virginia.' Rogers came from her stepfather, John Rogers.

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Gently prodded by her mother, a fashion editor for a Fort Worth, Texas, newspaper, Rogers entered a Charleston contest in 1925 at the age of 15 and won a four-week vaudeville contract that extended to 21 weeks. At the start of the Depression in 1930, the 19-year-old Rogers starred in the Gershwin musical 'Girl Crazy' on Broadway. She earned $1,500 a week between the musical and films she made at the Paramount lot on New York's Long Island. A year later, Hollywood beckoned. Her first role was a walk-on one- liner in a 1931 movie. She sauntered across the screen, rolled her big blue eyes and drawled, 'Cigarette me, big boy.' That flirtatious bit was enough to launch her into a successful screen career that lasted nearly four decades. She played small parts in such movies as 'Gold Diggers' and '42nd Street' before hitting it big in 1935 in a non-starring role with Astaire in 'Flying Down to Rio,' the beginning of the wildly popular song-and-dance team. The duo followed 'Rio' with such smash hits as 'Gay Divorcee,' 'Roberta,' 'Top Hat' and 'Follow the Fleet.' In 1987 Rogers recalled, 'He would signal me in my hand what I should be doing. I'd know exactly what he was telling.' She once said Astaire was her favorite dancing partner, but that her 'all-time favorite leading man' was Cary Grant. She worked with Grant in 'Once Upon a Honeymoon' and 'Monkey Business.' Determined to prove herself as a dramatic actress in the early 1940s, Rogers starred in 'Kitty Foyle,' 'Stage Door,' 'Primrose Path' and 'Tom, Dick and Harry.' In all, she made more than 70 movies, starred in a variety of stage plays and appeared occasionally on television and radio. She helped introduce feathers into the fashion world when she asked the costume designer to 'do something with feathers' for a 1930s movie. The resulting outfit, which had a skirt of floating ostrich panels, started a feather fashion motif. She enjoyed sports and was particularly adept at her favorite, tennis. She once teamed with then Davis Cup captain Frank Shields to enter the U.S. mixed doubles tournament. She was also a whiz at golf, badminton, table tennis and skiing and had a fistful of medals to prove she was one of California's better skeet shooters. Perhaps as well-known as her movies with Astaire were her many marriages. Her first was with Jack Culpepper, followed by Lew Ayres, Jack Briggs, Jacques Bergerac and William Marshall. All ended in divorce, the last in 1972. During her marriage to Marshall, who was a producer, Rogers tried her hand at producing motion pictures and television shows. She had a short-lived television show, 'The Ginger Rogers Show,' a half-hour situation comedy. Rogers scored a triumphal comeback on Broadway in 1965, taking over the starring role in 'Hello, Dolly!' from Carol Channing. In 1969 she starred as 'Mame' in a highly successful London production of that Broadway musical. She also toured the United States in the musical 'Coco.' Rogers' last movie role was as the mother of Jean Harlow, played by Carol Lynley, in the 1965 'Harlow.' In the 1970s she served as a fashion consultant for the J.C. Penney department store chain. Rogers seldom worked in television, but in September 1987 she appeared in an episode of the TV series 'Hotel' on ABC, playing a psychic. 'I've never played a psychic before,' she said at the time. 'It was a phony psychic. That's why I took it. One of the problems is they always want me to play an actress. I'm so sick of it. I'd do anything else.' Rogers said over the years she turned down many projects she didn't 'want to get involved in.' 'I've tried very hard to be very selective. Of course making money is always a joy, but the work is No. 1,' she said. A decade ago she said she still danced, but added, 'It's very hard to find a partner who doesn't want to throw you up in the air. I like a partner who loves the beat, who knows how to keep the rhythm.' She acknowledged watching her own movies on television. 'Yes, I do. Peoplecall me and say 'Do you know such and such is going to be on tonight?' Sometimes I tape it. I still critique my performance. I'd think I could do better. But watching the films brings me to those wonderful times.'

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