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GINGER AND FRED PROVIDED ESCAPE FROM DEPRESSION

She matched Fred Astaire step for step, dancing backward and in high heels through glamorous musicals that provided an escape for Americans mired in the Depression.

Ginger Rogers was 83 when she died Tuesday at her home in Rancho Mirage near Palm Springs, apparently of natural causes."She was one of the truly great ladies of the silver screen, she had few equals," Bob Hope said.

Miss Rogers won dance contests in Texas when the Charleston was the rage, launching a career that spanned 65 years, from vaudeville to television. She also proved herself as a singer and actress to a disbelieving studio system.

"She was a genuine, 14-karat gold legend," said actress and dancer Ann Miller, who at age 14 starred with Rogers in the 1937 classic "Stage Door."

Miss Rogers proved herself a dramatic actress with an Oscar for "Kitty Foyle" in 1940, and was the highest-paid woman in Hollywood at one point, starring in hits such as "Lady in the Dark" and "Weekend at the Waldorf." She also exhibited a flair for comedy in "Tom Dick and Harry," "The Major and the Minor" and "Bachelor Mother."

But it was her gliding celluloid partnership with Astaire that made Rogers a legend. They swept through a glittering string of Depression-era musicals that helped Americans forget the emptiness of their wallets and the grumbling in their stomachs.

Astaire was the one in top hat and tails. She was the one in feathered, sequined gowns that trailed across polished floors. Together, they set a standard that remains unmatched today.

Their most notable pairing was in "Top Hat," a 1935 musical featuring Irving Berlin's score. The dance numbers included "Cheek to Cheek" and "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails."

Miss Rogers said her partnership with Astaire, who died in 1987, "turned out to be magic." But it began as pure happenstance, during Broadway rehearsals for "Girl Crazy," a 1930 Gershwin musical.

The producers weren't happy with a routine featuring "Embraceable You." Astaire said "Here, Ginger, try it with me." So began their first dance.