For generations of moviegoers around the world, the pinnacle of glamour, romance, grace, and beauty is reached that moment on screen when Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire face the music and dance. Their glorious collaboration on 10 hit musicals determined the way America moved and dreamed throughout the 1930s, and they remain the most popular screen duo in the history of movies. Trying to explain their enduring charisma, a reporter once said, "Together they gave millions a vision of emotion in motion that liberates the heart as wings liberate a bird." Katherine Hepburn said more frankly: "Astaire gave her class; Rogers gave him sex."
Born Virginia Katherine McMath, she was already known as Ginger in 1924 when she made her stage debut. She starred in a play at Central High School in Fort Worth written and produced by her mother. A year later she made the smooth transition from amateur to professional when she became a last-minute replacement as a dancer in Eddie Foy's famous vaudeville troupe. A first prize win in a Charleston contest launched her out of Texas and onto a vaudeville tour of her own throughout the South and Midwest and by 1929 she was singing at the famous Paramount Theater in New York.
That same year she made her musical comedy debut in a Guy Bolton opus called Top Speed, in which she was described by Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times as "an impudent young thing who carries youth and humor to the point where they are completely charming."
She spent one more year in New York working on stage (Girl Crazy) while simultaneously making her screen debut (Young Man of Manhattan), and then Hollywood called. In 1933 alone she made Forty Second Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, Sitting Pretty --all wildly successful--but it was her fourth film that changed her life forever: Flying down to Rio at once catapulted her to stardom and introduced her to Fred Astaire. In the next six years Fred and Ginger starred in eight more lavish musical extravaganzas for RKO--Dance critic Arlene Croce has called them the greatest dance musicals ever made--then she took everyone by surprise by winning an Oscar as 1940's best actress in the poignant nonmusical romance Kitty Foyle.
She dedicated the '40s to the war effort and to sharpening her comedic skills. She toured tirelessly for the USO and promoted the sale of War Bonds by taking part in bond rallies, and she starred in some of the decade's finest comedies including Tom, Dick, and Harry, The Major and the Minor, and Roxie Hart. Her triumphs made her the highest-paid Hollywood star in 1945.
Constantly adapting to the public's shifting tastes in entertainment, Rogers turned to television in the 1950s, appearing in everything from serious dramas to Noel Coward comedies to the top variety shows of Bob Hope and Perry Como.
Throughout her Hollywood years, Rogers would return to the New York stage from time to time, but in 1965, 35 years after her first New York show, she replaced Carol Channing as Dolly Levi in the decade's biggest musical, Hello Dolly, and once again became the toast of Broadway. "The standing-room-only audience stopped the show with ovation a half-dozen times and brought her back with cheers and applause for a dozen curtain calls," reported the New York Post.
For decades--as part of a team and as a one-of-a-kind entertainer--Ginger Rogers was a favorite star of the American public. During the Great Depression, she eased the country's burden with song and dance. During the grim years of World War II, she allowed the country to smile with her smart and funny portrayal of strong independent females, which provided much-needed role models for the American women on the homefront and for generations that would follow.