Backwards in High Heels: Ginger Rogers’ Texas Roots
Ginger Rogers, the dancer who famously did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels, was a legend of the silver screen in the 1930s and 1940s thanks to roles in films like Swing Time, Monkey Business, and Top Hat. She wowed the world with her dance moves and acting chops, earning her spot among Hollywood's biggest stars. While Rogers may have followed her dreams to California, it all started in the South.
Virginia Katherine McMath was born in Independence, Missouri on July 16, 1911. In traditional Southern fashion, young Virginia quickly earned the nickname “Ginger” when one of her young cousins couldn’t pronounce her first name and the name stuck. At age eight, she moved with her mother and stepfather (whose last name she later adopted) to Dallas and then Fort Worth.
According to The Independent, Ginger was enamored with Hollywood from a young age, thanks in part to her mother, Lela, who worked both as a script writer for silent stars and then as a theater critic for the Kansas City Post and, later, the Fort Worth Record. Her mother introduced her to the actors and dancers who were appearing in the city, and Ginger was smitten with the idea of stardom. Luckily, she was already proving herself to be quite the dancer. Like many little girls, Rogers loved to dance, attending lessons since she was a small child.
When she was fourteen, Rogers won the Texas State Charleston Championship. According to TIME, that victory made it possible for Rogers to get her own dance troupe, Ginger Rogers and her Redheads, after her mother hired the contest’s two runners-up to support her. From there, Rogers was off and running. The victory launched her on a three-year tour as a vaudeville performer, always accompanied by her mother (who long oversaw her career, which lead her to Broadway and then to the silver screen. It wasn’t an easy path, of course, as TIME reports, when LIFE profiled the star, they wrote, “Rehearsing sometimes for 18 hours straight, Ginger often left the studio at night with her feet bleeding.” The hard work paid off. As Texas Monthly reports, when the calendar turned to 1930, Ginger was nineteen years old and earning the queenly sum of $1,000 a week starring in the Broadway musical Girl Crazy alongside another newcomer, Ethel Merman. Hollywood was beckoning, though.
WATCH: Dances Every Southerner Should Know
Ginger moved to Hollywood a year later and started making feature films for RKO. By the time she was cast alongside Fred Astaire in Flying Down to Rio, she had already made 19 movies (by contrast, it was only Astaire’s second film), including 42nd Street. The chemistry between Astaire and Rogers was immediately obvious and after their dance in the film, The Carioca, became a smash, the studio set out to make more movies with the duo. They went on to make nine more films together and would credit each other as their best screen partners, but their films together were just the start of their long and storied careers.
After a string of comedies and musicals, Ginger wanted to establish herself as a serious actress. She managed that with Kitty Foyle, a performance that not only made it clear she had real acting chops, but earned her an Oscar, besting both Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn.
As TCM notes, Ginger’s film career started to disappear in the 1950s, when audiences’ tastes changed. That didn’t slow Rogers down though. She returned to Broadway in shows like Annie Get Your Gun, Bells Are Ringing, and Hello, Dolly. She also decided to take her tennis skills on the road: According to Vogue, she entered the U.S. national championship's mixed doubles at age 39 in 1950.
Rogers passed away in 1995 at her home in Rancho Mirage, California, with a resume that spanned more than 70 films, an Oscar, and a lasting legacy as an icon of dance, that all started with a Charleston contest in Texas.