By Susan M. Kelly
You 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
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.
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
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
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,
she also managed a few roles in more serious films,
including “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
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
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
The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.
Other Ginger Rogers Pages:
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