Sunday, March 9, 2008

"The Immortal Scarecrow - Ray Bolger" - By Tom Shales

Washington Post - January 16, 1987
Author: Tom Shales, Washington Post Staff Writer

"I think I'll miss you most of all," Dorothy whispered in theScarecrow 's ear. We shared her sentiment. The Cowardly Lion was funny, the Tin Woodman was dear, but theScarecrow had soul. Oz wouldn't have been the same without him.

The rest of the world won't be the same without RayBolger, the lanky and vivacious vaudevillian who played theScarecrow, his role of roles, in " The Wizard of Oz.

Yesterday in Hollywood, at the age of 83, RayBolger died. He was the last surviving star of " The Wizard of Oz" -- made in 1939 but never far from the public eye -- and even if his appearances grew rare in recent years, you knew he was around, and you felt that, just like you and the kids, he might have been watching the movie during its annual telecasts.

Bolger never expressed anything but gratitude about being known best for this one part, despite the many others he played on stage and screen in his long and rambunctious career. In 1976, he looked back on the film and said, "It's a great American classic, and after I'm gone, it will be -- and I will be -- remembered. And very few people can say they were remembered for anything in life."

RayBolger can be remembered for even more than this well-loved triumph. He electrified Broadway, dancing George Balanchine's "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" in the finale of Rodgers and Hart's "On Your Toes" in 1936. The dance was constructed to become more and more frenetic, and Bolger said later that he fainted "many times" after his nightly performances. It, too, is an American classic, and so, really, was he.

When he appeared in Frank Loesser's "Where's Charley?," a Broadway musicalization of "Charley's Aunt," Bolger had, and made the most of, another fabled show-stopper, the song "Once in Love With Amy," so infectious and lilting that audiences began singing along with him. Sometimes, he later recalled, they demanded so many encores that he would finally bring the singing to a halt and announce, "This is a play. We have to finish it "

"Amy" is a moonstruck anthem to a first love. "Once you're kissed by Amy, tear up your list; it's Amy," Bolger sang. In real life he was once in love with Gwendolyn, always in love with Gwendolyn -- Gwendolyn Rickard. They were wed in 1929 and the marriage lasted until Bolger 's death.

In person as on stage, Bolger was the picture of ebullience. Even in his seventies, his eyes shined a buoyant, youthful, crystalline blue. He was not easily lured into racy gossip about the early days of Hollywood, and he denied stories that the older stars on the set of "Wizard" became irritated when they thought that young Judy Garland was upstaging them. He was, it appears, that seeming contradiction, a Hollywood gentleman.

He started dancing at the age of 16, saved from a life in the insurance business by the urge to perform. He learned some of his first steps, he said, from a night watchman who had once been a hoofer. For a time, he toured the vaudeville circuits as half of an act called "Sanford & Bolger , a Pair of Nifties." Roaming New England as a vaudeville performer was, he said later, "my education."

His comic dancing style was his alone, facilitated by a pair of legs that, he was once told, "seem to start under my arms." In films like " The Harvey Girls," in which he starred with Garland again, he performed singular specialty numbers full of impish brio and gravity-defying displays worthy of the great silent-moviecomics. He knew how to make people smile and how to leave them happy.

His efforts in television, in addition to 30 years of annual telecasts of " The Wizard of Oz," included an early ABC sitcom called "Where's Raymond?" in which he played a Broadway hoofer much like himself. More recently, he popped up on the occasional "Love Boat" or even on sitcoms like " The Partridge Family." He had tremendous energy, loved to work, and once wrote, "You can never stop learning in television; the medium is limitless."

Only last Sunday night, the Arts & Entertainment Channel, a cable network, reran a mid-'60s "Bell Telephone Hour" that Bolger hosted. Though in his sixties, Bolger reprised a taxing adaptation of "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue." When he danced lyrical passages, his arms floated in air, and they seemed just as much a part of the dance as his lengthy legs were. It was the juxtaposing of balletic slapstick and moments of elegant grace that made his dancing style his own.

One other Bolger television show was short-lived but memorable, a Sunday afternoon variety hour in the '50s called "Washington Square." Bolger danced on a studio set made to resemble a Greenwich Village neighborhood. An Italian woman would sing operatic arias from her tenement window. And Bolger introduced a novelty tune, " The Song of the Cricket," that became a national hit.

In 1976, he returned to TV for a straight dramatic role in a remake of John Osborne's bitter play " The Entertainer," cast as aged ex-vaudevillian Billy Rice. The production was poor, but Bolger was golden. He had a climactic dramatic dance routine that made it all worthwhile.

"People just don't know what entertainment is any more," Billy Rice grumbled. Bolger said he didn't agree with that remark, but with his death, the era of vaudeville and all its dauntless, resourceful troupers fades still further into history. When " The Wizard of Oz" is shown each year, it really is a one-night stand of old pros, a two-hour vaudeville revival, a chance to see and share a form of magic rarely practiced today.

It is a cliche' to say we shall never see its like again. But does anybody honestly think we will?

Every child knows that theScarecrow played by Bolger asks the Wizard of Oz for a brain, not knowing he has had one all along, and is given an honorary degree at the end of his journey: "Th.D, Doctor of Thinkology." Delighted almost beyond words, theScarecrow puts his finger to his head and declares, " The sum of the square roots of any two sides of an isosceles triangle is equal to the square root of the remaining side."

Then he exclaims, "Oh joy, oh rapture I've got a brain " He asks the Wizard, "How can I ever thank you?" and the Wizard replies hurriedly, "Well, you can't." No matter how many viewings are under one's belt, it's joy, and rapture, every time. How can we ever thank RayBolger ? Well, we can't. But immortality, he felt, was thanks enough. It is his.

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