Virginia Katherine McMath was born on July 16, 1911 in Independence, Missouri. Her 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.
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Those who knew her as a little girl often 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, "Daddy John," whose last name, Rogers, she eventually borrowed.
Going on tour
At the age of 14, young Ginger won the Texas State Charleston Championship. Her prize was four weeks of appearances in four Texas cities 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.
When the show reached Chicago, a famous vaudeville act stole the redheaded dancers, and Ginger found herself doing a single for the Skouras Brothers at their Ambassador Theatre in St. Louis. She continued for 28 weeks, with a new act each week, using the Master of Ceremonies as her straight man.
When Paul Ash invited her to appear with his band at the Oriental Theatre, Ginger left St. Louis and traveled to Chicago. After performing for nearly four months with Ash, Paramount Publix lured her away to New York to perform at Broadway's Paramount Theatre. They also began preparing a stage show for Ginger to tour in at their theatres across the country. However, her routines with the Master of Ceremonies were so successful, she was held over for several weeks and the touring show went on without her. The Paramount Theatre subsequently brought Paul Ash and his band to New York and invited Ginger back to join them.
Ginger's first Broadway musical, Top Speed, featured her in the ingénue role. The show opened Christmas Day 1929 and ran for less than 20 weeks, but Ginger was hailed as a promising up-and-comer. Walter Winchell said she was ". as poised as a veteran," and Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times noted, ". an impudent young thing, Ginger Rogers carried youth and humor to the point where they are completely charming."
While Ginger was performing eight shows a week in Top Speed, she was also making films for Paramount at their studio in Astoria, Long Island. Her first film, Young Man of Manhattan, starred Claudette Colbert and featured Ginger as a 16-year-old flapper. Her line "Cigarette me, big boy," became a classic phrase in the American vocabulary.
Ginger's first starring role on Broadway was in George and Ira Gershwin's Girl Crazy. Her two hit songs from that show, Embraceable You and But Not For Me, have since become musical standards.
After Girl Crazy closed, Ginger moved on to Hollywood. Nineteen films into her career she joined Fred Astaire at RKO Radio Studios in Flying Down to Rio. The new team took the world by storm, subsequently making eight more pictures together at RKO: Gay Divorcee, Roberta, Top Hat, Follow the Fleet, Swing Time, Shall We Dance, Carefree and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle. Ten years later they made their 10th film together for MGM, The Barkleys of Broadway.
Garson Kanin wrote of them, "The magic of Astaire and Rogers cannot be explained; it can only be felt. They created a style, a mood, a happening. They flirted, chased, courted, slid, caressed, hopped, skipped, jumped, bent, swayed, clasped, wafted, undulated, nestled, leapt, quivered, glided, spun - in sum, made love before our eyes. We have not seen their like since."
In addition to her films with Astaire, Ginger also starred in a variety of comedies and dramas in the 1940s and 1950s. They included Vivacious Lady, The Major and the Minor, Lady in the Dark, Weekend at the Waldorf, Storm Warning and Monkey Business. Her leading men included Cary Grant, Henry Fonda, David Niven, Burgess Meredith,, William Powell, Ronald Colman, Dennis Morgan and James Stewart. She was honored in 1940 with a Best Actress Academy Award for her performance in Kitty Foyle, and in 1945 she was recorded as the highest paid female performer in Hollywood.
That same year, Ginger bought a 1000-acre ranch on the Rogue River in Southern Oregon. She built a modern dairy complex and bred Guernsey milk stock for seven years. Some of the milk went to Camp White, where almost 25,000 soldiers came and went during World War II. Even today, in the Rogue River Valley, there still are strains of purebred Guernsey cattle with Ginger's name on their breeding records.
Ginger replaced Carol Channing for the starring role in the fizzling 1965 Broadway play Hello! Dolly. Ginger brought the play back to life, increasing ticket sales and thrilling the producers. She performed to packed houses, standing ovations and an 18-month run, as well as on tour with the national company. In addition, she took Mame to London for a successful 14-month engagement, which included not only a command performance for Queen Elizabeth, but a presentation to the Queen as well.
Ginger made guest appearances on a variety of TV shows. In addition to having her own special, she has appeared with Perry Como, Bob Hope, Pat Boone, Steve Allen, Merv Griffin, Dean Martin and Lucille Ball. Though not often credited, Ginger helped Lucille Ball overcome being camera-shy, a trait that almost forced the studio to give up on her. Ginger was also a guest on nearly every TV talk show, including The Tonight Show and Mike Douglas. In 1973, she traveled more than 60,000 miles throughout the United States, South America, Italy, England, Lebanon and Greece, and served as a judge in the Miss Universe Pageant.
In 1969, Ginger sold her Beverly Hills home (which she had lived in for 34 years) and made a permanent move to her Rogers Rogue River Ranch.
Ginger the wonder woman
While Ginger is best remembered for her stage and screen performances, she was also an accomplished artist. She was both a talented painter and sculptor and could have excelled in either had she more free time. She was offered a "one woman show" in New York, but declined indefinitely until she had more pieces to put on exhibit. An avid athlete as well, Ginger enjoyed golf, swimming, skeet shooting and tennis. She won several tennis cups and earned some high-score card records at skeet.
In the early 1970s, Ginger became the spokeswoman for JC Penney, designing a line of lingerie for them as well. Traveling thousands of miles across the United States, she delighted fans of all ages with her charm. A few years later, she took a very successful nightclub act to New York's Waldorf Astoria, Las Vegas, Sydney, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, San Francisco and a number of other cities in between.
Ginger was awarded many honors and citations. In 1973, a speech she made before the Congressional Women's Luncheon in Washington, D.C., found its way in to the Congressional Record, read by Congressman Robert McClorey of Illinois. Again in 1975, while at the White House reception for Emperor and Empress Hirohito, Ginger's thoughts and remarks on the American Bicentennial were read into the Congressional Record. In addition, she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate Degree by Austin College, Sherman, Texas, and in 1992, the Kennedy Center Honors were bestowed on Ginger in Washington, D.C.
In 1985, Ginger was given the chance to direct a musical comedy, Babes In Arms. It proved a hit with the Tarrytown, New York audiences and verified that Ginger Rogers could do anything she set her mind to. Several years later, Ginger wrote her best selling autobiography, Ginger: My Story. She traveled thousands of miles across the United States and to London to promote the book and sign autographs for fans.
Sadly, on April 25,1995, 83 year old Ginger Rogers died as a result of congestive heart failure. Millions of fans worldwide mourned the loss of this multi-talented wonder woman. She was buried in Oakwood Memorial Park in Chatsworth, California.