Happy Birthday Marge Champion and Willis Pyle

This month marks the birth dates of two nonagenarian wonders who happen to be among the very few remaining participants in the Golden Age of Hollywood Animation of the 1930s: dancer Marge Champion, who turns 91 today, and animator Willis Pyle, who turns 96 tomorrow.

I have been privileged to be a friend to both artists for many years, and they are wonders because, even in advanced age, they remain inspiringly active physically, as well as sharply engaged with the world mentally. They both hold a joyful and a positive approach to living in general, and the creative life in particular, that we all would be wise (or lucky) to emulate.

Willis Pyle animating at the UPA Studio in the late 1940s

Willis Pyle, the son of a farmer, was born in Kansas in 1914. His nearly 40-year career in animation began in 1937, when he dropped out of his senior year at the University at Boulder, Colorado, to join the Disney studio. Willis worked as a 23-year old “traffic boy” for six months, delivering art supplies to the animators for $16 a week. At night, he studied drawing under Rico Le Brun and Donald Graham at Disney’s art school on the studio lot.

Soon his excellent draftsmanship landed him in the Pinocchio unit assisting top animator Milt Kahl, who was also Pinocchio’s designer. Willis made drawings in between Kahl’s main pose drawings, cleaned up them up, and added details. Kahl was “a “tough master,” he recalls, “who’d grab a piece of film out of the moviola [a projector] cause he didn’t like it. And it’d be his own work!”

Easy-going Willis, however, did a great job on the very first scene Kahl handed him: Jiminy Cricket, late on his first day at work as Pinocchio’s conscience, dressing on the run, a scene that is a Milt Kahl tour de force of personality, clarity of action and superb timing.  “He complimented me after I did it,” Willis remembers proudly. “That’s the thing that got me in good with Milt. We got along great!”

Fantasia and Bambi followed, then Willis joined the strike line in 1941, though he had no beef with Disney management. “All my friends were on strike, and I couldn’t pass them in the picket line,” he explains. Afterward, he returned to finish Bambi before joining the US Army Air Corp. While waiting to enter the service, he worked briefly at Walter Lantz’s studio on Woody Woodpecker shorts.

He spent the war years in military service with Disney alumnae at the First Motion Picture Unit film unit at the Hal Roach Studio in Culver City, California, animating training and propaganda films, such as Flathatting, a brilliant John Hubley-directed short released in 1946. That same year, Willis married and began animating at a new studio formed by Disney strikers and F.M.P.U. veterans called United Productions of America.

UPA revolutionized the animation industry with modernist designs far removed from Disney’s “illusion of life” naturalism. “Willis” and sometimes “Willy” Pyle is credited as an animator on several important UPA films, including the Oscar-nominated The Magic Fluke (1949), Ragtime Bear (1949, the first Mr. Magoo short), and the Oscar-winning Gerald McBoing Boing (above, 1951), which contained Willis’s sequence of Gerald performing sound effects for a nationwide radio audience, a model of pared-down, to-the-point performance and charm. Willis’s sequence occurs from the 5:25 – 6:25 minute mark.

“The atmosphere at UPA was very free,” he told me. “It was like no other studio. Like one big family.” By the time Gerald became famous, however, Mr. and Mrs. Pyle had moved to New York City, encouraged by two New Yorker magazine contributors: Willis’ good friend and cartoonist Sam Cobean and the writer E.B. White. Willis did not know White, but he was dazzled by the remarkably descriptive 1949 booklet, Here is New York. “My wife and I read that and we just couldn’t wait to get here,” Willis says of White’s powerful love letter to the Big Apple. They sold their house, he canceled his studio contract, and they drove their Studebacker convertible cross country.

His reputation as a fine Disney and UPA artist brought him steady work in New York for more than three decades.  His services as an animator were sought by both east and west coast studios, including Shamus Culhane, R.O. Blechman (commercials), Bill Melendez (Charlie Brown TV specials), and Richard Willams (the 1977 feature Raggedy Ann & Andy).

Mostly he preferred to freelance out of “my own little shop at the Abbey Victoria Hotel near Rockefeller Center for thirty years. I was by myself, did my own animation. I never hired an animator as long as I was in business.” One ink-and-paint woman prepared the cels for a freelance camera service and also kept his books and paid his bills. When a commercial was completed, “I walked down the street and delivered the film. I was offered [full-time studio] jobs, but I wanted to get up from my desk and go to the Museum of Modern Art at 3 o’clock in the afternoon if I wanted to or go to Macy’s and buy a tie.”

Although his mobility today necessitates the use of a walker, Willis travels throughout the year to a house in East Hampton, Long Island, another in Los Angeles, and a penthouse on New York’s upper west side. He started painting at age 68 and for more than 20 years has exhibited at Manhattan’s Montserrat Contemporary Art Gallery. This month, he’ll be in Boulder attending a ceremony that inducts him into the University of Colorado’s Heritage Center Alumni Hall of Excellence. “I’m upright and I don’t have a single pain,” Willis Pyle told U of C magazine in June. “I’m still painting and drawing. I’m living a pretty good life.”

So is Marge Champion, the legendary film and stage performer and choreographer. Born in 1919 the daughter of Hollywood dance instructor Ernest Belcher, she gained lasting fame in a series of dazzling MGM musical films, such as Show Boat (1951) and Lovely to Look At (1952), and television and nightclub appearances teamed with her husband Gower Champion, future director of Broadway hits, including Hello Dolly! Marge and Gower’s performances endeared them to audiences. Critic John Crosby described them as, “Light as bubbles, wildly imaginative in choreography, and infinitely meticulous in execution. Above all, they are exuberantly young.”

Marge’s connection to animation occurred early in her career. In 1934, Walt Disney selected her at age 14 to be the main live-action reference model for the princess in his first animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).

Part-time for more than two years, she improvised in front of a live-action camera and her pantomimes were used as a visual reference by the animators. “The [animation supervisor] would say very often, ‘Well, now run through the forest the way you would see it,’” Marge told dance historian Mindy Aloff, author of Hippo in a Tutu: Dancing in Disney Animation. “They had a clothesline lined up, and they had a bunch of ropes hanging from the clothesline, and that was the trees, what I had to push aside … All of that gave them much more than a guide for their actions.” The animators traced her actions and poses from the live-action footage, a technique known as rotoscoping. “When I finally saw the finished product, I realized,” she recalled to Aloff, “that every single movement was mine.”

Disney next hired her as the reference model for the ethereal Blue Fairy in Pinocchio (1940). For Fantasia (1940), she became the stand-in for a huge but dainty, tutu-clad hippo ballerina, and she also dance-directed other live dancer/models as a chorus of fan-wielding ostriches and bubble-dancing pachyderms.

But one of my favorite Marge Champion screen performances occurs in a sequence in the live-action 1955 Columbia musical Three for the Show (1955), a surreal, cartoon-ish faux-ballet. To the strains of Swan Lake, the great Jack Cole’s sardonic choreography presents a most un-Snow White-like Marge as a distraught, but elegantly ball-gowned, murderess. What a range she displays in this parody of over-the-top Hollywood musical numbers: sexy, athletic, funny and technically perfect.

During her long career, she assisted her husband Gower on numerous Broadway shows (they divorced in 1973), and she created dances for film (The Day of the Locusts, etc.), theatre (Stepping Out; Grover’s Corners) and television (her choreography for the TV special Queen of the Stardust Ballroom won her an Emmy in 1975).

When she appeared on Broadway in Follies in 2001, she became friends with her dancing partner, Donald Saddler, who was an original member of the American Ballet Theatre and choreographer of 21 Broadway shows including Wonderful Town and No No Nanette. He is four and a half months younger than Marge. When Follies closed, Marge and Donald decided to continue dancing, and twice a week, they rent a private studio in which they simply dance and choreograph for themselves and the sheer joy of it.

Marge Champion, the original model for Disney's Snow White, shoos me away at the Katonah Museum of Art in 1994, mimicking the action of Snow White shooing the dwarfs in the original cel and background on the wall behind her.

Keep Dancing, a new documentary film, captures the tender and inspiring bi-weekly dance get-togethers of Marge and Donald. The film “seamlessly blends nine decades of archival film and photographs with present day footage to tell a story through dance of the passage of time and the process of aging. The title,” Marge says, “is a euphemism for keeping your passion alive.” What Marge Champion and Willis Pyle, and Donald Saddler, have done and continue to do as artists requires a rare combination of insouciance, courage, and verve. They are true inspirations to us all.

As actress Billie Burke (Glenda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz) once said, “Age is something that doesn’t matter, unless you are a cheese.”

7 thoughts on “Happy Birthday Marge Champion and Willis Pyle

  1. Harriet (Townsend) Dickman

    I have a sketch by Willis Pyle drawn in 1945 of me when I was 15 years old.   He was visiting my parents in Manteca, California with his brother, Denver Pyle.  Willis’ Uncle, Albert Pyle, married my Aunt, so we were relatives by marriage.  His Pyle family were raised in the same part of Kansas and Colorado as mine.   I am glad he is still living and wish I could say “hello” to him  personally.  I hope he will read this.  I live in Morro Bay, California.

  2. Dan Haskett

    Thanks, John. I really needed a lift tonight, and this article really did it for me. Willy is definitely a hero of mine, and this is such a lovely re-introduction to Marge Champion. Thank you so much for some much-needed inspiration.

  3. Larry Ruppel

    Thanks for the terrific article on these two important contributors
    to our business. Marge Champion is indeed a lovely woman,
    thanks John for introducing me to her last year.

    And Hats Off to Willis Pyle! Any man who got along well with
    the very demanding Milt Kahl is alright in my book.

    It’s quite heartening to learn that these two, as well as a few others
    from the first “golden age” of animation are very much with us today.

    Cheers!

  4. Mindy Aloff

    I agree with Richard O’Connor: a very lovely column, a model of its kind. As always, John has taught this reader so much she didn’t know. And wonderful photographs and film clips!
    Wouldn’t it be charming if Willis Pyle were to animate a little dance that Marge Champion were to choreograph? Marge looks fabulous, and she still, literally, kicks up her heels.

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