Daniel Osman, the owner of Dream Away Lodge in Becket, remembers the late dancer-choreographer-actor Marge Champion as a “complicated, feisty, opinionated woman with a strong moral center.
“I loved and adored her,” he said by telephone from his iconic dining establishment and nightspot in the Becket hills.
Champion, who died Wednesday at the age of 101 at the Los Angeles home of her son, Gregg, cut a wide swath through not only Hollywood history — she was a model for three Walt Disney animated features; her graceful moves helped create Disney’s Snow White in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” and her career spanned Broadway and television appearances — but her impact was felt in the Berkshire arts scene as well.
In addition to Jacob’s Pillow, the part-time Stockbridge resident served on the boards of the Berkshire Theatre Festival (now the Berkshire Theatre Group) and the Williamstown Theatre Festival, where she created a fellowship for young, up-and-coming directors in memory of her third husband, television and film director Boris Sagal, who died in a helicopter crash in 1981.
But, it was the Pillow that drew much of her attention and passion.
Blake’s Barn — it’s a spacious gallery and home to the Jacob’s Pillow Archives — was donated to the Pillow by Champion in memory of her son, Blake, who died in an automobile accident in 1987 at age 25. He had been a student at the Pillow in the 1980s. One year before his death, Blake joined his mother in a tribute to her late first husband and longtime dance partner, Broadway director-choreographer Gower Champion, to kick off the Pillow’s 1986 season.
In addition to Blake’s Barn, over a period spanning more than three decades, Champion was involved deeply in special events, galas, exhibitions and talks.
“Everyone at Jacob’s Pillow was touched in some way by Marge Champion over her decades of involvement here,” Pillow Executive and Artistic Director Pamela Tatge said in an email. “From the time she joined the Pillow board in 1984 until she moved back to California in 2014, she was a frequent presence; attending performances, observing classes, appearing at special events, and participating in PillowTalks. ... She was unfailingly generous in every way.
“I was lucky enough to visit with Marge and her son, Gregg, in California a couple of years ago, and I can understand why she was so beloved by one and all.”
Tatge said the Pillow will, at some point, memorialize her “more personally.”
“Marge took her responsibilities to the arts very seriously,” Osman said.
Champion came to the Berkshires in the late 1970s/early 1980s and divided her time between her home on Prospect Hill Road in Stockbridge and an apartment in New York. Osman met her in 1985, while he was appearing in a production of “As Is” at the since-defunct Berkshire Public Theatre on Union Street in Pittsfield — the building that now houses Barrington Stage Company’s Boyd-Quinson Mainstage.
“When Blake died, I spoke at his funeral and said something that Marge later told me meant everything to her,” Osman recalled, laughing at the notion that he never could quite bring himself to ask her what he had said. They formed a close friendship and, in 1990, at Champion’s invitation, Osman moved into her home and lived there until 1997, when he moved out to take up residence at Dream Away Lodge, which he had purchased one year earlier.
Champion was a regular guest at Osman’s annual public Passover Seder at Dream Away. He frequently “got to be on her arm,” he said, accompanying her to various show business events and openings.
“As a member of the Tony Awards nominating committee for 13 years, she had the best seats on Broadway. I saw some of the best Broadway had to offer,” he said.
“I was her not-son,” Osman said. “She taught me so much; life lessons. She really touched on so much. There aren’t many people with her kind of breadth; 101 is a helluva run for anyone.”
In an email, Jacob’s Pillow Director of Preservation Norton Owen said he “loved the time I got to spend with Marge over the years, whether it was at her home in Stockbridge, over a hamburger at the Dream Away Lodge, or taking a turn with her on the dance floor (which was fun even while it was more than a little intimidating).”
“Because I’m lucky enough to work each day in Blake’s Barn, the building that she literally gave us 30 years ago, Marge continued to be part of my daily life even after she moved away. And it’s a comfort knowing that this will not change.”
Among the highlights of his professional association with Champion, Owen cites a 95th birthday salute to Champion with an exhibition of movie posters that included a corner devoted to her career with Gower Champion, and a special conversation with Robert Osborne of Turner Classic Movies that was recorded for the Pillow Archives; and a 25th anniversary program in 2012 in memory of Blake’s death.
“Marge and her family participated in this program, involving many of the local dancers who had worked with Blake, ensuring that there would be a recorded history of a life cut tragically short by a car accident,” Owen said in his email.
“Marge and I always saw eye-to-eye in wanting to make Blake’s Barn much more than a memorial,” he said. “I can still hear her exclaiming, ‘You make the barn live!’, which I always interpreted as both an enormous compliment and a rallying cry.
“I look forward to following Marge’s marching orders for years to come.”