May 19, 1980 12:00 PM

In the 48-year history of New York’s Radio City Music Hall, she has appeared on its movie screen more than any other actress—in 21 films, from Professional Sweetheart to Weekend at the Waldorf. Now Virginia McMath of Independence, Mo., whom the world knows as Ginger Rogers (the surname was taken from her stepfather), is on the colossal stage in the flesh, kicking up her heels for three weeks with the famed Rockettes. Rogers, 68, began her career at the age of 14 by winning the Texas state Charleston contest and promptly moved into vaudeville as a hoofer. She triumphed on Broadway singing Embraceable You in George Gershwin’s 1930 musical Girl Crazy and made 20 films before teaming up with a Hollywood newcomer named Fred Astaire for Flying Down to Rio in 1933. While she and Fred were making nine more films together—including The Gay Divorcee, Roberta and lop Hat—Ginger also pursued a solo career as a dramatic actress in movies like Stage Door, Lady in the Dark and Kitty Foyle, for which she won the Academy Award as Best Actress in 1940. She has been married five times—to vaudevillian Jack Culpepper, actors Lew Ayres, Jack Briggs and Jacques Bergerac and producer William Marshall. The last marriage ended in 1970 after nine years. Although Rogers has a ranch on Oregon’s Rogue River and a house near Palm Springs, she spends seven months a year on the road performing in nightclubs from Las Vegas to Paris. Between rehearsals for her debut with the Rockettes, Rogers sipped grapefruit juice and chatted with Christopher P. Andersen of PEOPLE about disco, marriage, morals and Astaire.

Do you ever get tired of constantly being linked with Fred Astaire?

I know we weren’t born Siamese twins, but sometimes you’d think we were. Wherever I go people ask, “Hey, where’s Fred?” He gets a little bored being asked about me all the time, too. We are great friends with tremendous affection for one another. He’s charming, gentle, shy and the perfect performer—my idea of a super man.

What accounts for the enduring Astaire-Rogers mystique?

Singing, dancing, joy. In a word, entertainment. It’s something you don’t see much anymore.

Do you remember your first meeting with him?

Yes. I was in rehearsal for Girl Crazy on Broadway in 1930 and our mutual friend New Yorker editor Harold Ross took me to meet this young man starring in Smiles. But it wasn’t until three years later that we teamed up. Flying Down to Rio was Fred’s first feature. During the time we worked together he would make one film a year, and I would be making two or three more on the side. This was because casting me was so much easier than casting a male dancer.

Did you and Astaire ever quarrel?

Even married people have differences of opinion, I’m told. Studio publicity men were always trying to make it look like we fought, just to keep our names in the papers. There actually were a few disagreements—like the time I insisted on wearing a feather-trimmed gown when we did Cheek to Cheek in Top Hat. He complained that the feathers kept getting in his mouth and up his nose, but it was the most beautiful dress I’d ever worn and I knew it was right. It proved to be a trademark for us. Years later he even gave me a gold feather for my charm bracelet.

Do you approve of his plans to marry Robyn Smith, a jockey 45 years his junior?

It’s his business. To each his own, if I may use the title of one great movie I turned down.

Which are you first, dancer or actress?

What do you want? That’s what I’ll do! Seriously, I prefer comedies and dramas more than musicals. But once producers see you in a certain way, their minds are set. That’s not to say I haven’t turned down my share of good dramatic roles—The Snake Pit and The Song of Bernadette are a couple. We all make mistakes.

Who was the most influential person in your life?

My mother, Lela. She had good horse sense. Some author in New York whose name I will not mention wrote a scathing article calling her a stage mother, and that article was read to her while she was on her deathbed. She was not a stage mother; she was not a fishwife. She was a very dignified woman. During World War I she served as one of the first women Marines. At one point she was editor of The Leatherneck—the Corps’ official newspaper. Some people assume that behind every performer is a stage mother. Well, it’s also assumed that all actresses are bitches, and they’re not.

What achievements are you proudest of?

Getting from one day to another, from one challenge to another. I’m no nostalgia nut. Who wants to live in the past? I don’t.

Surely you have favorite roles?

It’s like asking a mother which child she loves most. Primrose Path was a turning point in my career, and right after that came Kitty Foyle. Roxie Hart was another favorite. After hearing just the first 15 minutes of dialogue from a comedy called The Major and the Minor, I agreed to do it. The producer said, “We hope you don’t mind, but we’re going to try out this new director.” His name was Billy Wilder.

What is your opinion of today’s movies?

I got a movie offer recently. But am I going to ruin my image by passing dope on the screen? We have fallen into the trap of trying to outdo each other with graphic sex and violence. It’s gotten to the point where they’ll dissect a child in front of your eyes just so they can say, “See, we’re not afraid to show everything.” Personally, I don’t like to see the seamy side—unless in the end there is some redemption.

How do you view today’s Hollywood?

It’s Sodom and Gomorrah. The drugs, the corruption drag down an industry—and a nation. The sad thing is that most of the people involved don’t see their own dirty linen. They’re not going to get my money to see the junk that’s being made today. No way.

What do you think of Jane Fonda?

She’s a good actress, but mixed up. If a performer wants to get politically involved to that extent, he or she should do what Ronnie Reagan did: get out of show business and run for office.

How would you describe the health of the musical theater?

Miserable. I don’t like these shows where everybody gets undressed and does a war dance. The performers are there, but where are the Gershwins, the Berlins, the Richard Rodgerses—the creative geniuses? I don’t see any.

Are you a fan of disco?

Some of it I like, but who wants to dance with your partner somewhere across the room staring at the ceiling? One thing I turn my back on totally is the unsavory atmosphere at most discos. But if it’s done nothing else, disco has got people dancing again—sort of.

Do you still believe in marriage?

The only civilized way is marriage; the rest is chaos. No one believes in it more than I do. Haven’t I proved that over and over again? Trouble is, in my profession you must have a very secure male or the relationship is doomed. That was my problem.

Would you consider marrying again?

Certainly. It’s my nature.

Were you surprised at the way your onetime fiancé Howard Hughes wound up?

Yes. He was a magnificent thinker. Yet with all his courage, there was a deep-seated fear of living. Even then he was a hypochondriac—afraid a little germ might jump up and bite him on the hand. It’s insanity, and I was very sad at the way Howard died.

Do you ever regret not having children?

Nope. There’s a verse in the Bible: “Those who are barren have more children than those who give birth.” There are young people all over the world who come to me for advice and love. I have all the children I can handle.

What makes you angry?

I cannot abide stupidity, in myself or in others. Decadence is another, and I’m afraid that’s where this society is going—right down the well.

What do you think of recent revelations about contemporaries of yours like Joan Crawford and Errol Flynn?

My life has been so peppered with stories about things I have not done that I think a lot of this stuff is just the figment of someone’s colorful imagination. Anyway, you can find these same sort of things happening in any community. Movie stars are people too.

Does aging bother you?

Age can’t take your individuality away from you, and that’s what counts. There isn’t enough time in the world left for me to do all the things I want to—Shakespeare, for instance. But no one’s going to say the girl didn’t try.

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