American dancer, actor, singer, and vaudeville comic Ray Bolger (b. Dorchester, MA, 10 January 1904; d. Los Angeles, CA, 15 January 1987), remembered by millions for his brilliant portrayal of the rubber-legged, straw-stuffed Scarecrow in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, was equally brilliant on Broadway. He had a dozen shows to his credit, including the hilarious Where’s Charley?, for which he snagged the 1949 Tony Award® for Best Actor in a Musical.
Raymond Wallace Bolger was born to Anne and James Edward Bolger in an Irish Catholic section of Boston. He was an avid fan of vaudeville as a youth, and after being fired from a job at an insurance company for dancing in the hallways, knew that he had to be an entertainer himself. He began by busking on street corners and got his first paying theatrical job at age 19 in a repertory company. With his dance partner, billed as “Sanford & Bolger,” he appeared in a traveling vaudeville tab show, and by 1926, he was playing the Palace Theatre in New York City, the top vaudeville venue in the country, in Gus Edwards’s (“By the Light of the Silvery Moon,” “In My Merry Oldsmobile”) company. While in New York he roomed with songwriter and singer Harold Arlen, whom he had met and befriended on tour in Buffalo.
Bolger appeared in two Broadway revues in 1926, and a musical comedy in 1929, before making a big splash in George White’s Scandals of 1931. Sharing the stage with Bert Lahr in 1934, he had a starring role in Life Begins at 8:40, a successful (237 performances) revue with music by Arlen and lyrics by Ira Gershwin and E.Y. Harburg. He led the cast in Richard Rodgers, George Abbott, and Lorenz Hart’s deathless hit, On Your Toes, dancing George Balanchine’s choreography in “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.”
Bolger’s long, supple body, his knack for improvisation, and what came to be called his “eccentric” style kept him at the top of Broadway bills throughout the 1930s, and soon he was making Hollywood musicals as well: The Great Ziegfeld (appearing as himself, 1936), Rosalie (with Eleanor Powell, 1937), Sweethearts (with Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald, 1938), and The Wizard of Oz (1939). In 1940 he was back for a brief stint on Broadway in a revue, Keep Off the Grass (the young Jerome Robbins was dancing in the chorus), and in 1942 starred in another Rodgers and Hart hit, By Jupiter, which ran for a full year. But Bolger was now under contract to RKO, and turned out a number of films during the war years: Sunny (1941), Four Jacks and a Jill (1942), and Forever and a Day (1943). He also participated, with over 75 other stars ranging from Helen Hayes to Gypsy Rose Lee, Dame May Whitty to Count Basie, and Charlie McCarthy to Harpo Marx, in the wartime entertainment film from United Artists, Stage Door Canteen (1943), and did his part as a USO entertainer for the troops in the Pacific.
After one more film (The Harvey Girls with Judy Garland, 1946) and one more Broadway revue (Three to Make Ready 1946), Ray Bolger opened in what was to be his greatest stage role, Charley Wykeham in the Frank Loesser musical Where’s Charley? (1948). Bolger’s second-act song and soft-shoe routine, “Once in Love with Amy,” became so popular that in later years he was asked to perform it nearly every time he appeared as a guest on television. Where’s Charley? ran for nearly three years and brought Bolger the 1949 Tony Award® for Best Actor in a Musical. Due to an unfortunate labor dispute in the recording industry, an original cast album of the show was never made.
Bolger’s Tony® served to highlight something he had always insisted upon: that even though he had won his fame and fortune as a dancer, he was first and foremost a comedian. “I became a dancer in self-defense,” he once told an interviewer. “I was doing a comedy monologue and didn’t know how else to get off[stage], so I danced off. I’ve been dancing ever since, but I’m still a comedian.”
Bolger and co-star Allyn Ann McLerie led the cast of the Hollywood version of Where’s Charley? in 1952, but although many viewers were thrilled to see a genuine Broadway performance on film, it was not a hit and it has not yet been issued on DVD.
In the 1950s Ray Bolger turned to television, first as host on the Colgate Comedy Hour in 1952, then in his own series, Where’s Raymond? (1953–1955), as “Ray Wallace” for a total of 58 episodes. As himself, he put in appearances with Milton Berle, Perry Como, Dinah Shore, and George Gobel, on What’s My Line?, Sunday Showcase, G.E. True Theater, and Washington Square.
In 1962 he came back to Broadway in All American, a whimsical musical concoction with a book by Mel Brooks, music by Charles Strouse, and lyrics by Lee Adams, in which Bolger played a strait-laced middle-European engineering professor transplanted to an underachieving Southern Baptist college. He reverses the football team’s losing streak by applying the principles of physics. His co-stars were Eileen Herlie and Fritz Weaver, and although Bolger was nominated for a Tony® for Best Actor, the show ran for only 86 performances. The original cast album is available on CD.
Television remained Bolger’s main focus in the ’60s and ’70s, however: he hosted The Bell Telephone Hour, guested with Red Skelton, Judy Garland, Jean Arthur, Bob Hope, Dean Martin, and others, and later played characters in The Partridge Family, The Love Boat, Beretta, Little House on the Prairie, Fantasy Island, and Battlestar Galactica. His last television appearance was on Diff’rent Strokes in 1984.
At that point an accident abruptly cut short Bolger’s performing career: “I stepped down from the stage and there was nothing there,” he said. “I tried to do another show, but I was not up to par and I had to cancel.” After a hip replacement he was able to join the team of narrators in That’s Dancing, (1985) an historical anthology of dance on film that included his performance of a routine for the Scarecrow cut from the final version of The Wizard of Oz.
Other films that starred or featured Bolger during his television years were April in Paris (1952) with Doris Day, Walt Disney’s 1961 remake of Babes in Toyland, The Daydreamer (1966), Just You and Me, Kid, and The Runner Stumbles (both 1979).
Bolger died of bladder cancer in Los Angeles five days after his 83rd birthday. At the time he was the last surviving main cast member of The Wizard of Oz. Among the many awards he had accumulated over the years were two Donaldson Awards, his 1949 Tony®, and election in 1980 to the Theater Hall of Fame.
Through all of his long life Ray Bolger had been married to one woman, Gwendolyn Rickard, whom he met in 1924. She was a co-producer of Where’s Charley? on Broadway and remained a strong aide and supporter throughout his career. The couple had no children. She and her husband were often asked whether they received residuals (and in what amount) from the popular and frequent broadcasts of The Wizard of Oz on television. The answer was always the same: “Residuals? No, just immortality.”
– Lucy E. Cross