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Author Elizabeth Gitter

Author Elizabeth Gitter. Her book is The Imprisoned Guest: Samuel Howe and Laura Bridgman, the Original Deaf-Blind Girl. (FSG) Gitter came upon the story of Laura Bridgman and was fascinated by this forgotten chapter of history. Bridgman learned to read and write, but her fame was eclipsed by the more charming and attractive Helen Keller. Gitter is a professor of English at the City University of New York John Jay College. She specializes in the Victorian era.

21:21

Other segments from the episode on August 23, 2001

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 23, 2001: Interview with Elisabeth Gitter; Interview with Marge Champion; Commentary on the music label IndigeDisc.

Transcript

DATE August 23, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Professor Elisabeth Gitter talks about her biography
of deaf and blind woman Laura Bridgman
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Laura Bridgman was a deaf and blind woman who died in 1899 when Helen Keller
was nine years old. Bridgman had taught the finger alphabet to Keller's
teacher, Anne Sullivan, at the Perkin's School for the Blind, where Bridgman
studied as a child and resided for most of her life. Sullivan later
introduced Bridgman to Keller.

It was scarlet fever that robbed Bridgman of her sight, hearing and much of
her sense of smell and taste at the age of two. As a child, she became a
phenomenon of the Victorian era. Through her, intellectuals of the day
explored how people acquire language, moral sensibilities and the concept of
God. Tourists came to see her. Dickens and Darwin wrote about her.

My guest, Elisabeth Gitter, is the author of a new biography of Bridgman
called "The Imprisoned Guest." Bridgman's early education was supervised by
Samuel Howe, who ran the Perkin's School. He had been looking for a deaf and
blind child to test out some theories of his own about the mind and religion.
I asked Gitter what Howe hoped to prove by working with Bridgman.

Prof. ELISABETH GITTER (Author, "The Imprisoned Guest"): His hopes, I think,
shifted slightly in the course of the first few years that he was teaching
her. First, he wanted to show it could be done, and that was a very big deal,
to show that the faculty of language was innate; that once you got it going,
once you stimulated it, that any child, even one who could not hear or see,
could gain language. And that was a very big deal. So that was his first
goal.

His second goal, which developed and became more intense a little later, was
to prove the Calvinists wrong, that humans were not innately imps, fallen,
sinful creatures; that they were good, that their moral sense was innate and
that Laura, under the right conditions, would in fact even discover the
existence of God without being taught, without dogma; that she would prove the
Unitarian point which he wanted to make. This was a time of religious
struggle in Massachusetts between the conservative Congregationalists--what we
now call Congregationalists; they called them the Orthodox--and the liberals,
or the Unitarians. And Howe was a rationalist and a Unitarian liberal and he
wanted to teach the Calvinists a lesson.

GROSS: Well, let's start with his ability to teach her language. He taught
her the finger alphabet, which I think is the same alphabet that Helen Keller
later learned.

Prof. GITTER: First learned on, yeah.

GROSS: What was his approach to disciplining her and teaching her the finger
alphabet?

Prof. GITTER: Well, he developed a very clever, elaborate system for teaching
her, which was actually based on the system that had been used with the Wild
Boy of Aveyron in France 20 years before. And he pasted labels with raised
letters onto common objects, like spoon, dish, chair, and taught her to
associate the bumps on the letters with the object. And then gradually she
began to learn to manipulate the letters. It was a complex process. When she
began using the finger alphabet and began to really see that she could
converse, then she just took off. And there was no stopping her. She would
go all day long demanding, `What's this? What's this? What does this mean?'
Her curiosity was exhausting.

GROSS: For those of us who have seen "The Miracle Worker," about Helen Keller
and her teacher, we saw her teacher sometimes be very harsh with her in order
to discipline her and keep her still and keep her focused on things like
learning language. What was Howe's approach to disciplining his student Laura
Bridgman?

Prof. GITTER: Well, I have to add that "The Miracle Worker" shows a slightly
sanitized version, because Anne Sullivan had a ferocious temper and she
spanked Helen Keller plenty. But Howe didn't believe in that. He believed in
fostering an intense, almost excruciating sense of guilt. And so everything
that Laura did kind of got a moral mark. This was good, this was bad if she
did something. And Laura had a temper herself and would become very
frustrated and would strike her teachers, bite her teachers. And she would
then get the silent treatment. She would be sent into a room by herself and
cut off from all conversation. And that, for her, as you can imagine, was
like being buried alive; terrifying. And so that was his--he did not see it
as cruel. He saw it as a gentle and non-punitive way of what he would call
awakening her conscience, which he believed was innate and only needed to be
awakened.

GROSS: Well, let's get to Samuel Howe's religious ideas, the principles that
he wanted to be able to prove by seeing how his student, the deaf and blind
Laura Bridgman, learned about religion. He wanted to prove that people had an
innate sense of religion and that they were innately good and they didn't have
to be punished and taught with fear about hellfire in order to have some
spiritual principles. How did she fare in this area, and what was his
approach to conversing with her about religious principles, which are pretty
abstract? It's much easier to teach S-P-O-O-N means spoon than it is to
communicate what God is.

Prof. GITTER: Well, for a child like Laura, of course, a lot of what she
learned was abstract. She learned geography. River was an abstraction.
Mountain was an abstraction. Paris was an abstraction. The Romans--I mean,
all of the, you know--sort of 80 percent of what she eventually learned was
simply an abstraction to her. But he had not a thoroughly, I would argue,
thought-out idea about how he was going to go about this awakening her, what
he thought was innate sense of his kind of God. And his real agenda was to
teach the Orthodox a lesson. This was a time when there was a struggle over
whether there would be religious teaching in the public schools. And he and
Horace Mann were fighting fiercely with the Orthodox against the teaching of
religious dogma in the public schools. So that was really his agenda.

But he had a kind of half-baked idea. He would show her the operation of
magnets and that would teach her about invisible forces. He would show her
plants growing and that somehow this idea would be awakened. He hadn't really
thought it out in a very sophisticated way. And it wasn't the God she needed.
She was frightened, often. The world for a deaf-blind person can be a very
unpredictable place. You're taken here and there; people appear and present
themselves to you and you're not always sure what's going on. And she didn't
need this kind of reasonable, distant, beneficent Unitarian God. She wanted a
God who would keep her company and who would make her feel comforted; that he
would be an intimate God. So eventually she disappointed him bitterly by
becoming a Baptist.

GROSS: That was her parents' religion.

Prof. GITTER: It was her parents' religion, but they hadn't pushed it. They
didn't want to alienate Howe. And so they said it was completely up to him.
Her religious education was completely up to him. The last thing they wanted
was for him to get mad at them and send Laura home where they would have to
deal with her. So they left it to him, but it was something she chose. She
was not indoctrinated. She chose it.

GROSS: So did Howe consider the religious part of his experiment to be a
failure?

Prof. GITTER: He considered his whole experiment to be a failure, ultimately.
He said that the religious failure was the cause of his general
disillusionment with Laura. But really, his disillusionment with her was very
complicated. She just didn't turn out to be what he wanted. And maybe no
child would have because she turned into a woman. And it's one thing to have
an adorable little girl as your experimental subject; it's another to have a
full-grown woman who has demands and can be grouchy and has ideas of her own
and is somewhat stubborn and temperamental. And he just couldn't deal with
that, although he had loved her as a child.

GROSS: He had been separated from her for about 16 months after he got
married, and when he returned to the Perkin's School for the Blind and saw her
again, he thought that she had changed. He described her as sometimes looking
like a wild young witch or appearing to be going mad. Do you think that she
had changed or that he had changed over those 16 months?

Prof. GITTER: I think both had happened. He set off--he married Julia Ward
Howe of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" fame. She was almost 20 years
younger than he. They were the most ill-suited couple you could imagine.
They had a horrible marriage, beginning with their honeymoon. And he came
back from England not in a good mood. Also, Julia Ward Howe did not care for
being around disabled people. They made her uncomfortable. So she was
not--Laura had lived with Howe before he married, and she, like Julia Ward
Howe, was not interested in having this arrangement continue. He had also had
a baby daughter of his own, so whatever paternal needs he had had that Laura
filled were now filled by his own daughter.

Meanwhile, Laura at home had had a very difficult time. She was abandoned by
this man who had been the center of her life for several years, who had been a
father to her, and then suddenly he took off. She didn't know where she was
going to live when he got back. He left her in the care of two very chilly
women; one, his sister, who was a most peculiar, reserved, remote person, and
a young teacher named Mary Swift Lambson(ph), who was well-meaning but very
severe and didn't go in for a lot of play or hugs and cuddles, which Laura
liked. So Laura had probably had a difficult time emotionally, and then there
was puberty. When he left, she was a child; when he came back, she was
adolescent. She was 15. And she had undoubtedly changed physically. She was
no longer a cute little girl.

GROSS: My guest is Elisabeth Gitter, author of "The Imprisoned Guest,' a
biography of Laura Bridgman. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest, Elisabeth Gitter, is the author of a new biography of Laura
Bridgman, a deaf and blind woman who learned to read and use the finger
alphabet 50 years before Helen Keller. Her first teacher, Samuel Howe, ran
the Perkin's School for the Blind in Boston, where Bridgman lived most of her
life.

Well, after Samuel Howe, she had another teacher who was very important in
her life. Who was the other teacher?

Prof. GITTER: After Howe was disillusioned with her when he came back from
his honeymoon, he turned her over to this extraordinary woman named Sarah
White(ph). She devoted herself to Laura. This was Howe's idea. Laura was to
be, basically, in quarantine. She was not to be contaminated by anyone else.
And three girls chosen by him from the school could come and visit her at set
times, but otherwise she was to be with Sarah White exclusively, 24 hours a
day, and nobody else and--so that her moral character could be shaped to be as
refined and virtuous as possible. And Sarah White, for several years, was
with her in this unbelievably suffocatingly intimate way. They were literally
joined, because Sarah was writing into her hand--into Laura's hand and back
and forth all day long. And everything that Laura did was supervised and
monitored by Sarah White. There were no boundaries.

So, for example, one day they had quite a blowup because Sarah White
instructed Laura to open her mouth so that another blind child could feel
Laura's teeth because the little girl--the other little girl had a loose tooth
and Sarah White wanted to show her something about teeth. And Laura, who was
then a young woman, said, `No, I don't want to open my mouth and have some
child stick her finger in--you know, hand in my mouth.' And they had a huge
fight about it and Laura was sent into isolation and so on until she
submitted. There were just no boundaries, but all in the name of awakening
conscience, developing self-control and so on.

GROSS: One of the things it seems that Laura Bridgman did learn very
thoroughly was
guilt and self-recrimination. You describe these episodes of self-punishment.
She once, in the closet, hurt herself and she wrote, `Did you see what I was
doing in the closet? My left hand harmed me to blame me for doing wrong; to
make me sorry.' Talk a little bit about the self-punishment that she
inflicted.

Prof. GITTER: Well, she inflicted self-punishment in a couple of ways. One is
through what we would now call anorexia. Shortly after Sarah White took
over as her teacher in this very intense program of moral education, Laura
stopped eating and really was at the point of death. And Howe, who in many
ways was a sensible man--not in every way, but in many ways--sort of figured
out what was going on and he instructed Sarah White to back off and let Laura
have a little period of relaxation and sea baths and carriage riding.

The other way that she seems to have hurt herself--and I'm not quite sure
what she meant by my ...(unintelligible), but I suppose that she struck
herself as a way of expressing her frustration with her own inability to
control her outbursts. It's very frustrating being a blind, deaf person.
You can't express yourself. You can't make yourself understood. You don't
know what's going on and it's not so surprising that this frustration should
take the form of kind of violent acting out, especially when you've got a
teacher who is telling you, `Put on your gloves. Take off your gloves. Put
on your galoshes. You're too hot. You're too cold;' you know, giving you no
space at all.

GROSS: How old was she when she died and what were her circumstances at the
time?

Prof. GITTER: She died in--when she was 59 and she...

GROSS: This was in 1889.

Prof. GITTER: Mm-hmm. She died at the Perkin's School. She had gone back and
forth in her later years between her home in Hanover, New Hampshire, and
living at the Perkin's School. And--but she spent most of her time living at
Perkin's, even though it was a school for children. And she had a kind of
diminishment at the end of her life, I guess you would say. She didn't have
enough stimulation. There weren't enough people. Anne Sullivan was a bright
exception, but she didn't have enough people to talk to in her last years and
so she spent a lot of time thinking about religion. And that was her main
moral support and emotional support. Howe was basically out of the picture.
He was still--he died a few years before she did, but--he died in 1876, but he
had gone on to other things and she didn't see much of him, although she
continued to be very fond of him. The teachers of her early days, the female
teachers, were all gone and so she--she was rather lonely. It was a sad, but
not tragic, last years that she had.

GROSS: For many years people have read Helen Keller's story or even seen the
movie about her for inspiration. She's a very inspirational figure. She
overcomes incredible odds. She was very intelligent. She used language very
well. The Laura Bridgman story isn't inspiring in quite the same way. She
didn't have as many triumphs. The later years of her life were kind of sad.
She was isolated. Do you think that one reads the Laura Bridgman story for
different reasons than one reads the Helen Keller story?

Prof. GITTER: Yes. I think Laura Bridgman's story is inspiring in a different
way. She was not a poster child for disability. She was who she was. She
was ornery. She was demanding. She complained when she was unhappy. And she
was fully a human being. She was not an angel in the way that Helen Keller
sort of made herself into, with Anne Sullivan's collaboration. She was who
she was, and I find that just as inspiring; maybe in some ways more inspiring.
It's so liberating. She didn't have to live up to any--even the ideal of the
Victorian, you know, suffering angel. She said, `No thanks. You know, I want
people to talk to. I'm bored. I need more books. My throat hurts.' You
know, she was--and she was really, really smart, so she was--her story is a
story about, I think, a person who under the most difficult circumstances
formed a complete, human, complicated self and held onto it. And I find that
inspiring.

GROSS: Why didn't Laura Bridgman and Helen Keller hit it off?

Prof. GITTER: Well, by the time--Helen Keller was just a little girl and
Laura was a frail, older woman. And Laura at the end of her life became more
and more fastidious. She couldn't stand the idea of rambunctious children and
dirty hands and disorder. And Helen Keller was a very ebullient,
affectionate, bouncy little girl, so she came bouncing in to meet Laura
Bridgman, who had made a doll for her. Laura sent the doll down--made the
doll's clothes and the doll was sent down to Alabama. Anne Sullivan brought
it with her, so Helen Keller was very eager to meet the doll's dressmaker when
she got to Perkin's school, and walked in and Laura was sort of horrified by
this rambunctious child and said, you know, `Don't touch this. You'll get it
dirty. And don't touch that. You'll get it dirty.' And then at the end of
their not very happy interview, Helen threw her arms around Laura's neck, you
know, to--Helen Keller was a bigger hugger and kisser in those days--and
stepped all over Laura's feet and Laura was not very happy about it. So they
were very different personalities.

GROSS: Well, Elisabeth Gitter, I want to thank you for talking with us.

Prof. GITTER: Well, thank you.

GROSS: Elisabeth Gitter is the author of "The Imprisoned Guest." She's a
professor of English at the City University of New York's John Jay College.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Credits)

GROSS: Coming up, dancer Marge Champion. She was the live-action model for
Snow White in the Disney animated film. She performed in many movie musicals
and was in the recent revival of Sondheim's "Follies."

And critic Milo Miles tells us about a new record label that puts out vintage
and current African pop.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Marge Champion discusses her career in films and in
theater as a dancer and an actress
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Marge Champion learned to dance from her father, a ballet teacher who also
taught Shirley Temple, Cyd Charisse and Gwen Verdon. As a girl, Marge
Champion was the live-action model for the hippopotamus in "Fantasia" and for
Snow White in the Disney animated film "Snow White," which will be released on
DVD in just a few weeks. Marge Champion became famous when she formed a dance
team with her husband, Gower Champion. In the '40s and '50s, they danced in
such movie musicals as "Till the Clouds Roll By", "Showboat" and "Lovely to
Look At." They had their own TV show in the late '50s.

Earlier this year Marge Champion danced in the Broadway revival of Stephen
Sondheim's "Follies." I asked her how she enjoyed dancing on Broadway in her
early 80s.

Ms. MARGE CHAMPION: Well, it was probably the biggest learning experience
I've had in my entire life because dancing in an older body, if you're going
to continue and feel that you're doing the--you know, the very smoothest, best
you can, it's a whole different experience. And I had to have a couple of
little in--not injuries. Yes. One was a sprained hamstring and the other was
a massive back spasm. And I have never had either one of those before in my
lifetime of dancing.

GROSS: So what are some of the things you feel that you learned?

Ms. CHAMPION: I learned to be much more patient with myself. I learned that
I needed to warm up very slowly. I learned that I had to get to the theater
an hour before anybody else did.

GROSS: There's a dance that you did in "Follies" with Donald Saddler called
Danse D'amour.

Ms. CHAMPION: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And I want to read something that Nancy Franklin in The New Yorker
wrote about this. And I should explain that you're dancing and then a couple
that represents your younger counterparts are dancing, too.

Ms. CHAMPION: Our ghosts.

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. CHAMPION: These are our darling ghosts.

GROSS: And they're shadowing your moves. So, Nancy Franklin writes, `The
older couple,' which is you and Donald Saddler. `The older couple make
gravity work in their favor. They dance together as two human beings, not as
two perfect, but easily replaceable instruments. Champion and Saddler, both
of whom are in the ballpark of 80, are radiant. There's something in their
eyes that is missing from the youth behind them. When the young man carries
his partner off the stage on his shoulder, it's about firm muscles. When
Champion and Saddler glide off the dance floor, his arm wrapped around her,
the counterpoint is deeply moving. He can't carry her off the stage, but he
doesn't need to. Their movement expresses their love and support for each
other. It's the most romantic moment in the show.'

I'm wondering if you felt more frustration or pleasure when you were doing the
number; frustration at the limitations of your body or pleasure at what your
body was able to do in spite of the fact that you're in your 80s.

Ms. CHAMPION: I think it's a combination of both. I don't waste much time
in regretting anything because I have been an--I've had an extraordinary life.
And, actually, it's kind of fun to know that you still can make a dramatic
point, even though you may not be able to do the lifts and spins. And there
is something of both.

GROSS: You started dancing when you were very young. Your father, Ernest
Belcher, was the founder of the University of the Dance(ph) and his
students...

Ms. CHAMPION: Well, that was his press agent's title there. I don't think he
ever got any degree heading a university.

GROSS: Oh, OK. OK. OK.

Ms. CHAMPION: But it...

GROSS: But he had a well-known dancing school.

Ms. CHAMPION: He certainly did and he created many, many top dancers and
many, many top teachers.

GROSS: And I think among the people he trained were the young Gwen Verdon
and the young Shirley Temple.

Ms. CHAMPION: Well, they were in the school from time to time. That's
absolutely true. And I assisted him. You know, there was a big Depression
at that time and he could no longer--which was very lucky for me. I was only
about 11 or 12--'32, '33--13. And he needed to have assistance and especially
when we got to Shirley's house because he would sit at the piano and teach her
and play for her and I would demonstrate. So I also had to go through the
teacher's courses about--oh, I think I must have gone through--they were in
the summertime in California. They were a month long and I think I started
when I was about 11.

GROSS: As a child you were the live-action model for the animated Disney
movie "Snow White" and for the dancing hippo in Disney's "Fantasia." What
exactly was required of you?

Ms. CHAMPION: A couple of days a month I would--when I was 14, when I was
15, when I was 16, I went to the studio and they would show me storyboards.
And they would play, in the case of "Snow White," the voice of Adriana
Caselotti, if it were a number. And they would show me the storyboards and
say, `Well, we'--you know, they had very crude--and it was 16 millimeter; very
hot lights so that everything stood out very strongly, you know, almost in
silhouette sometimes, especially when Snow White was running through the
forest or doing anything of that nature. Now naturally--I was 14 or 15 years
old. It took two years to actually do all the animation that I was connected
with. And I made it up, you know. I was a dancer. I was not an actress at
that time, although I was studying acting in Hollywood High School. And I got
out of high school two days a month and I got the magnificent sum of $10 a
day. And I really--you know, it was almost like extended play for me.

GROSS: So in part, you were responsible for the choreography, but I imagine
the animators were also looking at your anatomy when you danced or moved in a
certain way...

Ms. CHAMPION: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: ...so that they could draw it correctly.

Ms. CHAMPION: And--well, in some cases, as in the parts of "Fantasia" where
Louis Hightower--who was my--he was a student in my father's school, and my
partner at that time--we danced as the alligator and the hippo, and whirled
around and all of that. In some cases, they asked us to wear bathing suits,
which we did. And...

GROSS: So they could see more of you anatomically?

Ms. CHAMPION: Yes. And that was the purpose of a great deal of it, even
though they translated me to this hilarious hippopotamus with a little ballet
skirt, you know.

But even after "Snow White"--in '37, "Snow White" was released, and I was not
allowed to have any publicity because they said that the public would
misunderstand. They would think that they traced me. And, frankly, in a
sense, they did. But they were very--they would blow up--it was called
rotoscoping. They would blow up every frame of the 16-millimeter film that
they had taken of me. But then, the animators would be selective about
whether they used it as guide for their action, whether they needed to have it
because the skirt flowed after, you know. There are all kinds of things that
animators, you know--they're not acquainted with little girls like Snow White,
and so they need some of that.

They also had other models. There was another young man who played the wicked
witch, and his name was Paul Garchan(ph), and he was a student at my dad's
school.

GROSS: It's interesting that they got a man to be the model for the wicked
witch.

Ms. CHAMPION: Well, he was quite remarkable, you know. I later danced with
him in a show called "Beggar's Holiday," which was the Duke Ellington version
of "Three Penny Opera." And he was slender, he could stand in one place and
just, without even seeming to, prepare--he could do a double air tour(ph), he
was very light, and he was--and he had a rather large nose. And so he was not
appropriate for the usual romantic things. And he also had a--he became a
choreographer, himself. And later on in his life when he stopped dancing, he
became a caterer. And we used to--I'd have him come over and cater a dinner
or something, and we'd dance around the kitchen because he couldn't keep me
out of the kitchen. And we'd have a wonderful time.

GROSS: Well, one more thing on the subject of "Snow White" and "Fantasia."
Did you recognize yourself when you watched these animated films?

Ms. CHAMPION: Oh, yes. Especially "Snow White," because they showed me
pictures of the original drawings of Snow White, and she had kind of round,
Betty Boop kind of--with very exaggerated eyelashes, eyes. And she had a very
tiny waist like the cartoon ladies of that time did. And by the time I saw,
you know, the finished product, she had almond eyes like mine, you know,
very--well, they're almond eyes and very dark. And she also had a much more
human waist. And...

GROSS: You mean less thin, or what?

Ms. CHAMPION: No--yes, less thin.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Ms. CHAMPION: I mean, it was more like a person, a girl.

GROSS: Right.

Ms. CHAMPION: And I think that part of that, you know--well, I know it was
after I came on the scene, so they must have thought maybe that she was too
cartoonish before they started to animate "Snow White." They had done a
great deal of work on the film before I came on.

GROSS: My guest is dancer Marge Champion. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Dancer Marge Champion is my guest.

Some of the movies that you and Gower Champion danced in include "Jupiter's
Darling," "Three for the Show," "Give a Girl a Break," "Everything I Have Is
Yours," "Lovely to Look At" and "Showboat." Let's talk a little bit about how
dance was filmed in Hollywood in the '50s. One difference between now and
then is that, first of all, you more often than not see the whole body
dancing. You're not just looking at the feet or just looking at the torso.
You're seeing the whole body. And the takes are so much longer. There isn't,
like, 17 edits in a dance sequence and--you know, I mean, you just see
uninterrupted movement, and then maybe there's an edit. Talk a little bit
about how the sequences were filmed, and what the language of the day was.

Ms. CHAMPION: First of all, you had a big rehearsal hall, especially if it
was a big number like "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes." There were only two people
in it, but we had the biggest sound stage at MGM to film that.

GROSS: This was in the movie "Lovely to Look At."

Ms. CHAMPION: Right. And you had a month to rehearse. And every single
thing would be thought out from the viewpoint of not only the camera and what
angle you wanted, but also the editor. You had to do what they called a
master shot, where they prerecorded music. And sometimes it took two days to
film these things. In that case, it was Hermes Pan, who, of course, was the
great sidekick of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers--in fact, he's the only one
who's got two Academy Awards because after that, they eliminated choreography
from the Academy Awards departments. Anyway, it took a long time to rehearse,
and we would rehearse, really, from about 9 to 5 six days a week. If you were
shooting, you shot six days a week.

GROSS: Were you always aware of where the camera was?

Ms. CHAMPION: Yes, because the editor would come down to the rehearsal hall
and would watch very carefully. In that case, it was a woman, one of the
first and only woman to be an editor, Adrienne Fazan, and she was
extraordinary. And she would come down from her little cubbyhole, wherever
that was, to the rehearsal hall, watch the performance that we did for her and
then suggest maybe that she would need more of an overlap on this take or less
of one on that take, whatever it was. It was a very ensemble, collaborative
kind of effort between Hermes Pan--he shot it. Mervyn LeRoy was the director
of that movie, but he felt that he was not equipped because he was used to
doing Edward G. Robinson pictures, and things like that. And he thought he
was not equipped to shoot the number. So he would always put Hermes on the
boom.

GROSS: You did a lot of dancing in heels.

Ms. CHAMPION: Very, very low ones.

GROSS: But still, they were heels.

Ms. CHAMPION: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Many of us would find it difficult enough to walk in heels, let alone
to dance and come down from lifts in heels. Was that ever a problem for you?

Ms. CHAMPION: Yes. It was always a problem, and that's why in clubs, I very
often didn't. I wore what they called Hermes sandals, and made those pretty
popular. But they were never more than an inch and a half because in the New
York theater when I was there, I had fractured both of my big toes at various
times--at two different times, I should say. And so, it was always a problem
for me to wear heels.

In movies, I could do it because you rested a long time between takes in those
days. You didn't have, you know, those handheld cameras that can take you in
the dark or the light or anything else. You rested a long time. You spent
more time waiting than you actually did performing before they got--while they
changed all the lights and the camera angles and things like that.

GROSS: I want to skip ahead a little bit. Your first husband, Gower
Champion, died in 1980 just hours before the opening of his last musical,
"42nd Street." Nine months later, your second husband died on location in a
helicopter accident. He was a director. And six years after that, your
younger son, Blake, died in a car crash. How are you able to go on after all
of those losses in such a short period of time?

Ms. CHAMPION: It was not easy. It really was not easy. And I think you
either get a lot of help and you start really relying on yourself through that
help. I went through two very deep depressive periods, clinically depressive.
Found out a lot about myself that I had probably ignored my entire life. And
you either--you know, you either become a drunk or obsessive about birds or
something, or you pick yourself up and find what--you know, what you're
supposed to do now. And it's not easy. And...

GROSS: What got you back?

Ms. CHAMPION: I think, as much as anything else, I had always been what I
thought of as an assistant. I was my father's assistant. I had to find out
if I, you know, could exist even in a world without a man. I had always
been--I used to say, `Gower is the captain, and I'm the first mate.' And I
really believed that. And I think it made have held the marriage together for
a lot longer than it would have because I did have directorial and
choreographic talents that I hadn't even explored because of the
father-daughter, husband-wife continuing. In a sense, I must have married a
version of my father. And when that over--and it was over, actually, in '73
because that's when we divorced. I went right in--well, I shouldn't right in.
It was three and a half years later--into a marriage with another director, an
absolutely enchanting man who had five children.

GROSS: So did you feel that when you came out of your depression that somehow
you became...

Ms. CHAMPION: That was the long...

GROSS: ...more of your own person and you weren't the number two anymore. Is
that what you're saying?

Ms. CHAMPION: Yes. I had the qualities of being a partner and also being,
let's say, a first--what we call in show business a first banana.

GROSS: Right. Are you in a relationship now?

Ms. CHAMPION: No. Haven't been for many a year. But I also have found that
friends are probably--friends and family are probably your base.

GROSS: Marge Champion, thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. CHAMPION: Well, thank you for asking me.

GROSS: Marge Champion recently danced in the Broadway revival of Stephen
Sondheim's "Follies." She was the live-action model for Snow White in the
Disney animated film. It will be released on DVD in a few weeks.

Coming up, critic Milo Miles on a new record label specializing in African
pop. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Profile: New music label IndigeDisc offers listeners vintage and
modern African pop music sounds
TERRY GROSS, host:

IndigeDisc is a new record label that specializes in vintage and current
African pop. Critic Milo Miles argues that every music style needs specialty
labels that release distinctive, discerning albums, and he offers IndigeDisc
as an exemplary operation.

MILO MILES reporting:

In its first three releases, IndigeDisc concentrates on Nigeria, a country a
bit neglected in the world music scene recently. Two of the albums are
historic recordings never--or rarely--available in the United States.
Afro-pop gourmands will feast on them.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing in foreign language)

Group of Singers: (Singing in foreign language)

MILES: Haruna Ishola was an originator and the first superstar of the
neoclassical percussion style known as apala; hugely popular in Nigeria since
the 1950s, but largely unknown in the West. The album "Apala Messenger" is a
sampler from the height of his career in the late '60s and early '70s. Ishola
died in 1983 at age 65.

Usually I say that albums with only drums, percussion and voices are for
specialists. But Nigerian drum styles are an exception. Like all the great
masters of talking drum groups, Haruna Ishola does rhythm as melody better
than anyone. The overriding impression from apala is relaxed rather than
frantic. There's room to ease your ears into the polyrhythms that move fast
and slow at the same time. Those who appreciate the talking drums of King
Sunny Ade's Juju should get into this easily. Ishola and his large group have
a potent sense of flow that holds attention even in a 20-minute medley at the
end.

Still, there's no question many listeners need guitars and horns for full
achievement. And Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe's highlife music offers a
bountiful band.

(Soundbite of music)

MILES: Highlife is the original African fusion music of the modern era,
mixing Cuban song, jazz and folk forms. The Nigerian variety is especially
robust; big on electric guitars. Even so, Chief Osadebe's "Sound Time"
collection shows all highlife is innately elegant and restrained. Moreover,
Osadebe is a highlife conservative, who has stuck with the style since his
first record came out in 1958 when he was 22.

Those who enjoy the classy, ballroom manner of the Buena Vista Social Club
performers will recognize a kindred spirit in Osadebe. Even newcomers can
slide into the non-stop action of highlife tunes, which are arranged rather
in the manor of big band swing jams.

For those who want to get out of the past and into Nigeria now, nothing will
do but the sly and irreverent Lagbaja and his American debut, "We Before Me."
Lagbaja takes a lot from his famous countryman Fela Kuti, but Lagbaja covers
his face with a cloth, and presents himself as every man, not Superman. He's
a chastened Fela, perhaps, who keeps his cool.

But Lagbaja is more suited to the international stage of today. I don't
think Fela could even joke about being unattractive to women as Lagbaja does
in "Nothing For You."

(Soundbite of "Nothing For You")

LAGBAJA: (Singing) Come on, ...(unintelligible) desire, ...(unintelligible)
desire. (Singing in foreign langauge) Look into your mouth to make me
(unintelligible). I might be 40-something, I might be 50-something. In my
heart, I'm 20-something. ...(Unintelligible) so you would no say bye-bye now
(unintelligible). I might be 30-something, I might be 40-something. In my
heart, I'm 20-something ...(unintelligible).

MILES: Lagbaja is also in the tradition of Nigerian social progressives who
perform their broadsides. He's a lot more nuanced and feel-good than Fela,
but still quite explicit and aggressive by African pop standards. He even has
an imaginary dialogue with Fela where they discuss how English cannot convey
the subtle messages of the Yoruban language. Lagbaja doesn't even have to
take a stab at rap because the interaction among singing voices, speaking
voices and his female chorus has its own kind of hip-hop cadence.

By exposing right-on-time performers like Lagbaja, IndigeDisc proves it is a
label to watch.

GROSS: Milo Miles is a music critic based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing in foreign language with digitized voice)

Chorus: (Singing in foreign language)

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing in foreign language with digitized voice)

Chorus: (Singing in foreign language)

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing in foreign language with digitized voice)

Chorus: (Singing in foreign language)

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing in foreign language with digitized voice)

Chorus: (Singing in foreign language)

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing with digitized voice) You better
(unintelligible) yourself, ...(unintelligible) yourself for (unintelligible).

Chorus: (Singing in foreign language)

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of song)

Chorus: (Singing in foreign language)

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing in foreign language with digitized voice)

Chorus: (Singing in foreign language)

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing in foreign language with digitized voice)

Chorus: (Singing in foreign language)
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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