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Happy Birthday, Ginger Rogers: The Original Dancing Queen

Rogers is best known for her partnership with Fred Astaire and the glamor they brought to Depression-era America

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Ginger Rogers presents her Piccolino dress to the National Museum of American History in 1984. Photo courtesy of the museum.

Ninety-nine years ago today, Virginia Katherine McMath was born in Independence, Missouri. At age 9, her mother married John Logan Rogers, after splitting with her husband shortly after Virginia's birth. Although she was never formally adopted, Virginia took her step-father's last name. Her cousin Helen had difficulties pronouncing Virginia's first name, shortening it to Ginga. The result? Ginger Rogers.

Rogers' mother's interest in Hollywood and the theater led to an early exposure to show business. Ginger would often stand in the wings of the Majestic Theater in Forth Worth, Texas, singing and dancing along to the performers on the stage. Her entertainment career was born by chance one night, when Eddie Foy's traveling vaudeville group came to the theater, needing a stand-in to complete their act. After a taste of the limelight, Rogers entered and won a Charleston dance contest, putting her on tour for six months.

Rogers moved to New York City when she was 17 years old, earning several singing jobs on the radio and landing her Broadway theater debut in the musical  Top Speed in 1929. Two weeks after the opening of Top Speed, she was chosen to star in Girl Crazy, a new musical by George and Ira Gershwin. At the tender age of 19, her appearance in this show made her an overnight star.

Following her stint in Girl Crazy, Rogers moved to Hollywood, where she made a series of films with several motion picture companies such as Universal, Paramount and RKO Pictures, the last of which paired her with Fred Astaire for the first time. Astaire and Rogers went on to make nine musical films together at RKO, including Roberta (1935), Top Hat (1935) and Follow the Fleet (1936).

A sculpture of Ginger Rogers by the Japanese-American artist, Noguchi, is on display at the National Portrait Gallery. Photo courtesy of the Isamu Noguchi Foundation, Inc., New York

In early 1942, Rogers commissioned the Japanese-American artist, Isamu Noguchi, to create a sculpture of her. Shortly after Noguchi made the initial sketches, he was forced to relocate by the United States government. But Noguchi took his work with him, even having the pink marble he used to create the piece sent from Georgia to his internment camp in Poston, Arizona. Ginger kept the sculpture in her home until her death in 1995, when it was bought by the National Portrait Gallery, where it is still on view today. Amy Henderson, a cultural historian at the gallery says that it is wonderful to have the sculpture on display: "We’re very proud to have it, because it was such a favorite of this iconic figure," she explains.

During Rogers' long career, she made a total of 73 films and in 1941, she won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in  Kitty Foyle. But it is for her partnership with Fred Astaire and the glamor they brought to Depression-era America that she is best known. To celebrate her life, head to the Portrait Gallery to see the Noguchi bust and watch the clip below of Astaire and Rogers at their best.

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