Gower Champion, 61, the famed choreographer and former dancer who was a major figure on the Broadway musical stage and the director of such hits as "Hello Dolly!," died yesterday, hours before his latest show opened in New York.
In a dramatic gesture, perhaps typical of the Broadway world in which he worked, news of his death was withheld until the night's final curtain fell.
The announcement came only after the full performance of "42nd Street," a musical that Mr. Champion directed and choreographed and that embodies the very legend of the Broadway theater to which he was a significant contributor.
While the first-night audience at the Winter Garden theater was still cheering, producere David Merrick walked on stage holding his face in hands to make the stunning announcement.
"It is tragic," Merrick said, "Gower Champion has died."
A veteran of more than 30 years in Hollywood, on Broadway and on television, Mr. Champion had not been feeling well during the recent New York rehearsals of the show. It had played at the Kennedy Center earlier this year.
An official of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, where Mr. Champion died about 1:15 p.m., said he had been suffering for some time from cancer of the lymphoid system. The ailment was specifically indentified as Waldenstrom's disease.
The official said Mr. Champion had been admitted to the hospital five days ago. Finally members were at his bedside in the intensive unit when he died.
When producer Merrick appeared on stage last night, it was after a standing ovation for the melodramatic show had been continuing for a full five minutes.
The cast, still assembled on stage, seemed as startled as the audience when Merrick came out on stage. When he began speaking, saying "This is a very tragic occasion for me," some in the audience chuckled, apparently suspecting a joke. But when he said that Mr. Champion had died, there were gasps and screams.
Merrick embraced actress Wanda Richert, a young star of the show, who was weeping. The audience began to file out silently.
As a performer himself before he turnd to the directing at which he established himself in the last two decades, Mr. Champion was best known for his work with his former wife, Marge.
She was the daughter of one of his early dancing teachers. They were married in 1947, and the couple, as Marge and Gower Champion, became nationally known on television in the days of the infancy of the electronic medium.
They went on to play in such films as "Show Boat," their first important role, "Lovely to Look At," and "Everything I Have Is Yours," which was based on their own story and in which they played themselves.
A slim 6-footer who often wore a crew-cut in his early dancing days, Mr. Champion also choreographed with his wife three Broadway shows, "Small Wonder," "Lend an Ear," and "Make a Wish."
Of their work, a television critic of the 1950s wrote "Each of the Champions' dances tells a story; and virtually every leap, every move, every gesture tells part of that story." They incorporated speech and pantomime as well as dance into their performances, which they described as being "as near creative theater as we dare make it."
In the opinion of some observers Mr. Champion found his true vocation on Broadway in the 1960s. As a director there in that decade he was credited with a series of hits that included not only "Hello Dolly!" but also "Bye, Bye Birdie" and "I Do, I Do."
Toward the end of that decade, his life began to change. In 1972, about the time he was trying to become a film director, he and Marge Champion were divorced.
As a movie director, his credits included "Carnival" and "My Six Loves," a Debbie Reynolds film. Neither picture won great renown.
In fact, Mr. Champion recalled once, they were "sort of flops." Then, he said, "I made a decision to change everything. I had a place in Malibu Beach and was sort of a beach bum, and I got divorced and I finally moved to New York and opted for Broadway.
"That's my world, I found out," he said. "Broadway is what I do."
While directing, Mr. Champion often wore a stern face that conformed with his no-nonsense reputation. It is often recalled that when he directed the 1969 Academy Awards show, he declared that all the lame jokes would be excised, and the show would end on time. If the show threatened to run over its two-hour time limit, he said, "I'll start cutting awards."
Speaking of the Broadway stage, he said that what he sought in a show, straight or musical was "a constant, overall tone. Something that's seamless . . ."
"We pretty much did it in 'Dolly,'" he said. "Yes, that kind of precision about time, place and people."
Mr. Champion won Broadway's Tony awards for both "Hello Dolly!" and "The Happy Time."
To students of the American musical theater, Mr. Champion's career marked a period in which the dance began to play an increasingly important role and in which producers often turned from directors to choreographers for the staging of their productions.
He was devoted to his work and at one time had a home in the Hollywood Hills in which the entire first floor was a rehearsal hall. Furniture was built into the walls, leaving most of the floor for dancing.
Mr. Champion was born in Geneva, Ill. His parents were divorced when he was 2 and his mother took him to Los Angeles. While in his junior year at a Los Angeles high school he won an amateur dance contest with a classmate, left school to begin touring, and never returned.
During World War II he toured in a Coast Guard musical show "Tars and Spars" as well serving at sea. After the war, with his former partner married, he contacted his former dance teacher, Ernest Belcher, to discuss career prospects and eventually married Belcher's daughter Marge. A few days after their marriage they made their dancing debut in New York's Hotel Plaza.
The couple had two children.