Ginger Rogers embodied Cyndi Lauper’s 1983 assertion that “girls just wanna have fun.” Ginger Rogers made fun look graceful, elegant and kinda sexy as early as 1925. Ginger Rogers celebrated fun and took it to a level of virtuous generosity. She said, “The most important thing in anyone’s life is to be giving something. The quality I can give is fun, joy and happiness. This is my gift.”
Ginger Rogers was born Virginia Katherine McMath on July 16,1911 in Independence, Missouri. She quickly became Ginger because her young cousin Helen could not pronounce Virginia. Virginia became Badinda, which became Ginga, which became Ginger.
Ms. Rogers was not only a stunning Hollywood actress and dancer. She delighted in the outdoors and sports, and excelled at tennis, sharpshooting and fishing. In her teen years, teaching was her first ambition. But while she was waiting for her mother in the wings of the Majestic Theatre, she began to sing and dance along with the performers on stage. The theater bug bit, and she was smitten. In 1925, when she was 14 years old, she won a Charleston dance contest. That launched her vaudeville career, which launched her Broadway career, which led to a contract with Paramount Pictures, which introduced her to RKO Pictures and Fred Astaire.
In the 1930s, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire made 9 films with RKO, introducing elegant dance routines that revolutionized the genre. I know you have heard it, and probably said it yourself, “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but she did it backwards and in high heels.” (But did you know that quote comes from a 1982 Frank and Ernest comic strip by Bob Thaves?) Ginger Rogers was not only a peerless dancer, she was also strikingly beautiful, and she seamlessly wove her skills as a dramatic actress and comedian into her dancing. John Mueller summed up Rogers’s abilities: “Rogers was outstanding among Astaire’s partners, not because she was superior to others as a dancer, but, because, as a skilled, intuitive actress, she was cagey enough to realize that acting did not stop when dancing began … the reason so many women have fantasized about dancing with Fred Astaire is that Ginger Rogers conveyed the impression that dancing with him is the most thrilling experience imaginable.”
Remember, she began her career in the 1930s and 40s. The studios paid Ginger Rogers substantially less than Fred Astaire. The studios paid her less than many of the male actors despite her more central role in the films. She did not take this easily, and fought persistently and intelligently for her contract and salary rights and for better films and scripts. After winning an Academy Award for Best Actress and an Oscar, she eventually became one of the biggest box-office draws and highest paid actresses of the1940s. She returned to Broadway in 1965, directed an off-Broadway production in 1985 and continued to act, making television appearances until 1987 and wrote an autobiography Ginger: My Story, which was published in 1991.
Throughout her life, she remained on good terms with Fred Astaire; she presented him with a special Academy Award in 1950, and they were co-presenters of individual Academy Awards in 1967, during which they elicited a standing ovation when they came on stage in an impromptu dance. She was also lifelong friends with actresses Lucille Ball and Bette Davis.
In 1992, the Kennedy Center honored Ginger Rogers.
Rogers has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6772 Hollywood Boulevard.
Ginger Rogers made her last public appearance on March 18, 1995, when she received the Women’s International Center (WIC) Living Legacy Award.
She died at her Rancho Mirage home on April 25, 1995, from natural causes. She was 83 years old. She was cremated and her ashes interred in Oakwood Memorial Park Cemetery in Chatsworth, California.
Ginger Rogers said, “The world needs strong women. There are a lot of strong women you do not see who are guiding, helping, mothering strong men. They want to remain unseen. It’s kind of nice to be able to play a strong woman who is seen.”
Let’s all dedicate ourselves to becoming strong women who see each other, and who have fun along the way.