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By Susan M. Kelly

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1930's Ginger Rogers Dixie Lid Premium1936 M23 Ginger Rogers & Fred Astaire Philadelphia Record PremiumYou would think being one half of America’s most beloved movie dance team would be the stuff dreams are made of for any young actress, but Ginger Rogers wasn’t just any actress and she longed to be known for her own individual talents.  Fortunately for her, those talents were many…and marvelous.

Virginia Katherine McMath was born in Independence, Missouri in 1911.  Her mother, Lela, had separated from her father before Virginia was born and the little girl was brought up with the help of her maternal grandparents, Walter and Saphrona Owens.

In 1920, Lela married insurance salesman John Logan Rogers and the family moved to Fort Worth, Texas.  Though never formally adopted, Ginger took her stepfather’s surname.  Lela took a job as a theatre critic for the Fort Worth Record and the exposure to the theatre would have a lasting effect on young Ginger.  She began to spend a lot of time backstage at the Majestic Theater, waiting for her mother, and she was soon picking up song and dance tips from the performers.

Ginger’s stage career began with one of the classic performing clichés…a performer can’t go on and an unknown substitutes.  In this case, the performer was a child in the vaudeville dance team of Eddie Foy and his children.  Ginger had learned the Charleston from Eddie Foy, Jr. so she stepped in to fill the void and the rest, as they say, is history.  The Charleston would play another key role in Ginger’s career several years later when, at the tender age of 14, she won a Texas state Charleston contest.  The prize was a four-week vaudeville tour, which Ginger promptly turned into twenty-one.

By 1931, with her mother as her constant companion, Ginger had moved her vaudeville act to New York where she also began to make some radio and film appearances.  She debuted on Broadway in 1929 in a show called “Top Speed” and soon moved on to George and Ira Gershwin’s “Girl Crazy”.  Ginger was a hit, singing what would become Gershwin classics, including “Embraceable You” which was written especially for her.  She signed a seven year contract with Paramount Picture’s New York office and spent the next year making movies during the day and hitting the stage at night.

1936 Ginger Rogers Godfrey Phillips "Stars of the Screen" Tobacco Card

Eventually, Ginger managed to get herself released from the Paramount contract and she quickly signed with Pathé and moved to California. Her movie career didn’t take off quite as quickly as her stage career had, but by the end of 1933 she’d made an impression and was signed by RKO.

Ginger once again found herself filling in for a missing actress when she was called in to take over as the second female lead in “Flying Down to Rio” (1933).  The film also happened to feature a young dancer named Fred Astaire, and by pure happenstance the most famous dance team in the history of film was born.  Fred and Ginger would eventually make ten musical films together, helping to take some of the sting off of the Great Depression.  “Top Hat” (1935) was their biggest success, breaking box office records at Radio City Music Hall and earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture.

Even as she reigned at the box office with Fred, RKO kept her busy making as many as six pictures a year on her own.  Ginger loved the work, throwing herself into each character with gusto.  She was cast primarily in comedies, making a strong impression in such films as “Stage Door” (1937) where she managed to be a standout in a cast which included the likes of Lucille Ball, Eve Arden, Ann Miller and Katharine Hepburn; and “Vivacious Lady” (1938).

Ginger made her last two RKO musicals with Fred Astaire in 1938 (“Carefree”) and 1939 (“The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle”).  In 1940, she dyed her hair dark and finally began to get some dramatic parts.  In 1940’s “The Primrose Path” she took on the decidedly unglamorous role of a prostitute’s daughter.  The same year, she received the acclaim she’d always coveted when she took home the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of a white-collar working girl who falls in love with a Philadelphia socialite in “Kitty Foyle”.

A blonde once again, Ginger returned to comedy with “Tom, Dick, and Harry” (1941) and “The Major and the Minor” (1942), among others.  When not doing her part in the war effort by performing with the USO and selling war bonds, December 9, 1940 issue of LIFE Magazine with Ginger Rogers on Covershe also managed a few roles in more serious films, Ginger Rogers Standard Oil Premiumincluding “I’ll Be Seeing You” (1944).  By 1945, Ginger was the highest paid performer in Hollywood, earning an astonishing $300,000.  Soon after, though, her movie career began to decline.

After a string of disappointing films, she was called in to replace Judy Garland opposite Fred Astaire in “The Barkleys of Broadway” (1949), which would be the pair’s final film together, and the only one to show them in color.  Over the next decade, Ginger would bounce between Broadway and Hollywood, never one to want for work.

In the early 60’s, Ginger took on tours of the classic musicals “Annie Get Your Gun” and “The Unsinkable Molly Brown”, both of which were successful.  She made her final film appearance in 1965 playing the mother of starlet Jean Harlow in “Harlow”, but continued to work on stage and television throughout the 60’s and 70’s.

In 1991, Ginger published her autobiography, “Ginger: My Story”, in which she once again lamented her fate at being remembered chiefly as half of Astaire and Rogers.  Though famously complimented for being able to do everything Astaire did except “backwards and in heels”, for Ginger Rogers, it never seemed to be enough.  Though she died at age 83 in 1995, her fans continue to cherish the legacy she left.  A legacy, she’d undoubtedly be glad to know, that is very much her own.
Susan M. Kelly has been working as a freelance writer for the last 12 years, during which time she has written everything from press releases and brochures to newspaper articles and web text.  She currently lives and works in Dunellen, NJ.  Watch for more of Susan's profiles in The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.

Other Ginger Rogers Pages:

Denny Jackson's Ginger Rogers Page -- The Dancing Actress of the 1930's!
A Tribute to Ginger Rogers She was so much more than Fred Astaire's dancing partner, and she would have been 90 years old on July 16, 2001. A salute to the one and only Ginger.