RAY BOLGER: A COMEDIAN WHO DANCED
“I was hired as a comedian in my first show, and I’m still a comedian,” said Ray Bolger, forever to be remembered for his performance as the Scarecrow in the 1939 film classic The Wizard of Oz. “I became a dancer in self-defense. I was doing a comedy monologue and didn’t know how else to get off, so I danced off. I’ve been dancing ever since, but I’m still a comedian.”
Funny how some entertainers shrug off the thing by which most people identify them, or like Bolger, want it on record what they themselves consider their outstanding talent. Steve Martin, an accomplished actor, expert banjo player, renowned art collector and, of course, ground breaking standup comedian, has expressed in interviews that he thinks of himself a writer first. Perhaps it has to do with how that one thing challenges them on a personal level, or that it’s what gives them the most satisfaction. Ray Bolger might have taken his natural dancing abilities somewhat for granted, even though his artfulness was remarkable by anyone else’s standards. Funny how the exceptionalism escapes them. After all, it’s hard to watch Bolger and think of anybody else who’s able to DO that!
“Loose-limbed,” “rubber legs” and “an angular, disjointed hoofer,” are all phrases used to describe Bolger’s technique, often referred to as eccentric dancing: unconventional and individualistic movement born out of improvisation. He displayed it for the very first time on stage at an amateur show for the insurance company at which he worked. “I did just an eccentric dance with no routine — a combination of throwing my body around and what I considered a dance.” That first audience, like so many to follow, ate it up.
He was born Raymond Wallace Bolger January 10, 1904 in Dorchester, Massachusetts (not far from his Yellow Brick Road companion Jack Haley). Part of a struggling Irish Catholic family, Bolger’s early jobs included being a bank clerk, vacuum cleaner salesman and an accountant. He admitted to having been transfixed as a boy watching a silent film of Fred Stone, a famed vaudeville dancer and comedian who gained fame on Broadway playing the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz in 1903. Wondering if he could do the same, the 5' 10", 135-pound Bolger decided to study with some informal dance training given by a local night watchman who taught on the side. Eventually, beginning at age eighteen, he got more serious training at the Senia Russakoff School of the Dance.
Honing his talents first in vaudeville in a double-act, then later on the Broadway stage as a single, Bolger’s popularity grew from appearances in revues like George White’s Scandals and Life Begins at 8:40 (appearing with another Yellow Brick Road future partner, Bert Lahr). But it took until 1936, when he was thirty-two, for Bolger to finally get a leading role that showcased him properly. This was On Your Toes, the Richard Rodgers-Lorenz Hart-George Abbott musical, which catapulted him to stardom. Choreographed by ballet master George Balanchine, Bolger had to perform what he called the “hardest, most exhausting dance of his career.” At the end of the evening, in a departure from musicals of the day, a twenty-minute ballet, both startlingly originally and daringly conceived, sent audiences out on a cloud. Dancing opposite a world-class ballerina (and Balanchine’s muse and former wife, Tamara Geva), Bolger more than held his own. Comically, it featured him pursued by gangsters (watching from the theatre’s boxes), cleverly evading them through improvisation while dodging bullets.
The same month On Your Toes opened on Broadway, Bolger was on screen playing himself in The Great Ziegfeld (see film clip above). That double whammy was enough to convince MGM to sign him to a contract, eventually leading to his casting in The Wizard of Oz. Only it was the Tin Man that he was first offered, a head-scratcher considering his natural talents were singularly suited to the Scarecrow. Having idolized Fred Stone, Bolger knew in his bones he had to play it and as he said in an interview, “My wife and I went up to Mr. Mayer’s office [head of MGM] and Mr. LeRoy [Mervyn LeRoy, the film’s producer] and told them I thought of the Scarecrow as a man without a brain… and it so suited me!”
Though undoubtedly most who read this will have seen The Wizard of Oz once if not many times, but I urge you the next time you do to carefully watch Ray Bolger in his introduction as the Scarecrow. Once he is let off his perch and falls to the ground, his efforts to stand, walk and ultimately dance, are beyond what an ordinary dancer might do. It totters on that line between impossibility and, well, wizardry.
Returning to Broadway in 1940, 1942 and 1946, Bolger won praise for By Jupiter, another Rodgers and Hart vehicle, and led the companies of two revues, Keep Off the Grass and Three to Make Ready. In the latter, his dancing still managed to keep critics on their toes, with Lewis Nichols in the New York Times writing of him that “Anyone who suggests that he, per se and moving about a stage, is lower than genius deserves to be driven through the streets by a pack of snapping dogs… if Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne could make a pleasant evening in the theatre by reading the telephone book, Mr. Bolger could make another by dancing out the numbers.”
His greatest stage triumph, however, came with 1948’s Where’s Charley?Brooks Atkinson in the New York Times wrote similarly of Bolger, “Having come up through the rough-and-tumble of show business, he can command the whole stage… Mr. Bolger can express in dancing the emotions that most people use words for.” Winning the Tony Award, Bolger’s rendition of Frank Loesser’s “Once in Love with Amy” was filled with such an unbridled exuberance in song and dance, that it required multiple encores throughout the show’s run. It also prompted a story that is most probably more legend than truth. As Samuel L. Leiter writes in his volume Encyclopedia of the New York Stage, 1949–50: “At one performance, the star noticed a little girl in the audience singing along with him. Bolger then turned the song into a sing-along, feeding the lines to the audience one by one. As they happily followed him through the song, he devoted it into a comical tour de force.”
“Once in Love with Amy” became Bolger’s signature song, and I never tired of him performing it on the dozens of musical variety programs of my youth that I used to watch all the time, like The Hollywood Palace and so many others. It also may have cost him the chance to create a role in a musical that might have been a fine fit for him. Offered The Music Manwell before Robert Preston was even a name on a list, Bolger asked where there would be a spot for him to do a specialty number so that he could engage the audience as he did in Where’s Charley? When told it wasn’t that kind of musical, he declined.
Bolger never really stopped working. His returns to Broadway in 1962’s All American and 1969’s one-week flop Come Summer (alongside The Wizard of Oz’s WWW Margaret Hamilton) were not the triumphs he was hoping for (or audiences for that matter). But he managed to win a well-deserved Emmy for his performance in a 1976 television remake of John Osborne’s The Entertainer (Jack Lemmon playing Laurence Olivier’s title role). Sadly, it’s never been available in any format since it aired, most probably a music rights situation which always plagues such efforts. I recall it vividly, especially a glorious dance that Bolger did at the end that causes him to have a heart attack in the wings and die. It’s not the way Ray Bolger went (he passed from cancer at age eighty-three in 1987), but maybe it would have been the way he would have liked to. It should be noted that at the time of his death, he had become the last living lead cast member of The Wizard of Oz.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. And please feel free to follow me here on Medium and email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.