In the Limelight

Many actresses of the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s can be categorized as classy women. They were beautiful, most could sing an enchanting melody, and mesmerized audiences with confidence pose. Of that classic era of stars, a few shone brighter because they possessed a little bit more. Usually, that was gumption.

Ginger Rogers, born Virginia Katherine McMath on July 16, 1911 in Independence, Missouri was one of those women. Her film career spanned over a period of 50 years with 73 pictures, but that doesn’t represent the depth of her character. Rogers was a determined woman ever since childhood. She was brought up in the entertainment industry, alongside her mother who was a script writer, reporter, and movie producer. As a teenager she considered a career in teaching, but while spending time with her mother at the Majestic Theatre, she began singing and dancing along with the performers, and fell in love. When she was 14 years old, Rogers won the Texas State Charleston Championship and began touring. She performed throughout the country for years then stopped in New York City to sing on the radio and perform on Broadway. In the early 1930s Rogers became a star in films like Girl Crazy, when she was only 19 years old. 

In the ‘30s, she became part of one of the most famous movie pairings with Fred Astaire. From 1933 to 1939 they made nine musicals together at RKO Radio Pictures including Roberta, Follow the Fleet, Swing Time, and Shall We Dance. They created dance routines with levels of elegance and pose unmatched by other couples making their names “Fred and Ginger” a term in the film industry to reference a successful partnership between two dancers.

Rogers and Astaire complimented each other very well as her natural acting ability balanced his dance skills, and vice versa. Though Astaire and his assistant Hermes Pan choreographed their dance numbers, Rogers often gave input and suggestions. Astaire admired her class and clear-headedness, saying in 1986, “All the girls I ever danced with thought they couldn’t do it, but of course they could. So they always cried. All except Ginger. No no, Ginger never cried.” Though the partnership between her and Astaire was fantastic, Rogers wanted to attain other goals. After 1939 she took a break from musicals to pursue other film genres which proved successful when she won a Best Actress Oscar in 1941 for Kitty Foyle, and was recognized as the highest paid actress in Hollywood in 1945.

Outside of the entertainment industry, Rogers proved she was a Renaissance woman encompassing more than the triple threat of actor/dancer/singer. In 1940 she bought a 1,000 acre ranch in Shady Cove, Oregon, which was also a dairy. To support the war effort of World War II, Rogers supplied milk to Camp White, where almost 25,000 soldiers were stationed. She was also a talented painter and sculptor and was offered a one woman show in New York. Her athletic dancing ability extended into tennis, which she won several cups for, and skeet shooting for which she earned high-score card records. In the in early 1970s she became the spokewoman of, and designed a line of lingerie for, JC Penney. Socially conscious, two speeches she made at the White House, one for the Congressional Women’s Luncheon in 1973 and the other about the American Bicentennial in 1975 are included in the Congressional Record. All this and more was accomplished before her death in 1995 at the age of 83.