“Part of the joy of dancing is conversation.
Trouble is, some men can’t talk and dance at the same time.”
Virginia Katherine McMath (1911-1995) was born on July 16, 1911 in Independence, Missouri to Lela Emogen Owens and William Eddins McMath. Lela, known as Lelee, traveled to Independence to have Virginia away from William because in her last pregnancy, Mr. McMath allowed the doctor to use forceps on the baby and the baby died. Virginia was kidnapped by her father many times until Lelee brought him to court and became Virginia’s sole legal guardian.
Virginia’s nickname, “Ginger,” originated from her younger cousin Helen who pronounced “Virginia” as “Ginja.” Family and friends continued to call her this, and later theatre men who understood the name to be “Ginger” billed her as such on their marquees.
In 1918, Lela joined the Marines and Ginger was left in the care of her grandparents. It was during her time with the Marines when Lela met John Rogers who later would become Ginger’s father figure and whose last name she would eventually borrow. Those who knew her as a little girl said that Ginger could dance before she could walk. At the age of 10, she was appearing at local charity shows, celebrations and lodge meetings with her stepfather.
At 14, Ginger won the Texas State Charleston Championship where her prize was four weeks of appearances on the Interstate Theatre Circuit. She chose two red-headed Charleston dancers, and billed the act “Ginger and the Redheads.” The performances continued well beyond their four-week engagement when Junior Orpheum sent the trio on an extensive tour across the western United States.
Ginger appeared in vaudeville acts with her mother by her side to guide her until she was 17. Ginger obtained an agent, did several short films and then went to New York where she appeared in the Broadway production of “Top Speed” which debuted Christmas Day, 1929. Her first film was in 1929 in “A Night in a Dormitory” where Ms. Rogers had a small part, but it was a start!
For awhile she did both movies and theatre. The movie that enamored her to the public was “Gold Diggers of 1933” (1933). She did not have top billing but her beauty and voice was enough to have the public want more. One song she popularized in the film was the now famous, “We’re in the Money”.
Ginger’s real stardom occurred when she teamed with Fred Astaire where they were one of the best cinematic couples ever to hit the silver screen. Lovingly referred to simply as, “Fred and Ginger”, they made beautiful movies together where they ballroom danced across the screen. The Frank and Ernest cartoonist, Bob Thaves, said of the couple, “[About Fred Astaire] Sure he was great, but don’t forget Ginger Rogers did everything he did backwards . . . and in high heels!” in a 1982 Frank and Ernest cartoon strip. Fred and Ginger were first paired in 1933’s “Flying Down to Rio” and later in 1935’s “Roberta” and “Top Hat”.
Ms. Rogers made several dramatic pictures but it was 1940’s “Kitty Foyle: The Natural History of a Woman” that allowed her to shine. Playing a young woman from the wrong side of the tracks, she played the lead role so well that she won an Academy Award for her portrayal.
After “Oh, Men! Oh, Women!” in 1957, Ms. Rogers did not appear in movies for seven years. In 1965, she made one last appearance in “Harlow”. After 1984, she retired and wrote an autobiography in 1991 entitled, “Ginger, My Story”. On April 25, 1995, Ginger died of natural causes in Rancho Mirage, California at the age of 83.
Ginger Rogers’ true style and class lives on today with the increasingly popular ballroom dance television shows. As a ballroom dancer myself, I can only say that she is the epitome of grace on the dance floor. Next time you are watching a football player dancing the Foxtrot on television, think of Ginger Rogers and her contribution to this lovely dance style.
“When two people love each other, they don’t look at each other;
they look in the same direction.”