Ray Bolger, Elastic Man
The Man Who Brought L. Frank Baum’s Scarecrow To Life Through Dance Talks About His Memorable Role And What It Took To Be Star In The Musical Age Of Hollywood
By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine
July 8, 2016 — A few months ago, there was word in the news that the last Munchkin from The Wizard of Oz had gone over the rainbow.
It was reported that Jerry Maren, who gifted a lollipop to Dorothy Gale before she began her skip down the yellow brick road in that iconic film, had died in Sherman Oaks, Calif. Possibly apart from some children who appeared in the film as baby Munchkins, Maren, it was said, was the last surviving cast member from Oz.
To paraphrase Mark Twain: the reports of Maren’s death were greatly exaggerated. But at age 96, Maren can’t hang on forever – not in Oz or Sherman Oaks.
When he passes away, the last link will have been severed from a film that over the decades has become a rite of passage for generations of kids. That eventuality put us in mind of an encounter we had almost 40 years ago with another Oz actor, the loose-limbed Scarecrow, Ray Bolger.
We met Bolger in 1979 when the angular song-and-dance man was 76 and still had the bounce of a rubber ball. “That's because I practice my hoofing every day,” he told us during filming of a made-for-television movie called Heaven Only Knows, that starred Kent McCord (Officer Jim Reed from TV’s Adam-12) in the Anaheim Convention Center.
Bolger was wearing a blue cardigan, gray slacks and Pro-Ked sneakers. His thick gray hair was styled and blow-combed and his face (to say nothing of the rest of his body) still had the supple elasticity that had been his comedic trademark for over 50 years.
We watched as he ad-libbed some comedy shtick that involved mopping the basketball floor while absent-mindedly getting his foot caught in a plastic water bucket. We laughed as he clomped around the hardwood floor like a one-man version of STOMP.
After extricating himself from the bucket, Bolger quickstepped over to us.
“Let me tell you a few things about The Wizard of Oz, he said as if anticipating our (or perhaps anyone’s) first question.
"Buddy Ebsen (TV's Jed Clampett and Barnaby Jones) was originally cast as the Tin Woodsman, but he became allergic to the silver metallic paint they were covering his body with. He was hospitalized, nearly died and had to be replaced by Jack Haley,” Bolger said.
Just three years before Oz, Bolger, playing himself in The Great Ziegfeld, performed a specialty number that showcased his rubber-legs when he did an agonizingly slow split that bobbed up and down and never seemed to completely reach the stage floor. It was an intimation of what was to come. Soon after, Bolger would become an icon as he sang and danced down the yellow brick road as the quick-thinking — and therefore oxymoronic — Scarecrow without a brain in the 1939 MGM classic.
Bolger, keeping one eye peeled for a cue to get back to the set from Jerry Thorpe (son of MGM veteran director Richard Thorpe), told us he still had his Oz costume: hat, tunic, pants, leggings and bits of telltale straw (it resided in an upstairs closet alongside the rest of his cardigans) and that he enjoyed watching the film when it was annually rebroadcast on television. Of course, his fondest memories of the film were working with Judy Garland.
“Judy made the whole experience memorable. She was a good friend of mine, so sweet, and a remarkable performer,” said Bolger.
Bolger’s charity did not extend to the reimagined stage musical and film version of Oz – The Wiz.
“I'm sorry to say, I don’t think much of it,” he said. “The Wiz is overblown and will never have the universal appeal The Wizard of Oz has obtained.” Time has proved Bolger correct with The Wiz being a scarcely seen curio chiefly for people interested in the fleeting film careers of Diana Ross and Michael Jackson.
All of a sudden Bolger excused himself and ran onto the set to help the director prompt the extras. Ray explained that Heaven Only Knows was an attempt by the network to cash-in on the recent success of the hit film, Heaven Can Wait that had starred Warren Beatty. But with Bolger playing a pratfall-prone, earthbound angel named “Simon,” the plot seemed closer to It’s a Wonderful Life.
The crew was filming a basketball sequence but only shooting the crowd reaction to the game. Bolger decided to act the role of the entire team and began running up and down court. The camera recorded the faces of the fans ping ponging their heads back and forth while they watched Bolger jogging and dribbling with an imaginary basketball in his crazy-legged style like a paler shade of Harlem Globetrotter run amok.
Surveying the scene was a little like watching a septuagenarian scarecrow that had just been loosed from atop his pole in an Ozian cornfield and had gone all herky-jerky after landing on the ground.
When the director yelled: “cut,” Bolger literally bounced back into his chair. “What were we talking about?” he asked as if his absence had been momentary. We cracked up.
We asked Bolger what it was like working with famed choreographer George Balanchine in the “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” ballet from the 1936 Rodgers and Hart Broadway show, On your Toes.
“Taking dance direction from Balanchine was one of the highlights of my career. It was hard work, but the results were rewarding. The ballet was considered a breakthrough in stage dancing,” he said.
Bolger said he didn't think much of Gene Kelly's reinterpretation of the ballet in the 1948 film, Words and Music.
“It was initially a comedic dance. Kelly took it out of context and made it into a serious ballet,” he said.
Bolger made some fine musicals during his tenure at MGM, including The Great Ziegfeld, Rosalie with Eleanor Powell and The Harvey Girls again with Garland.
“I had a great time making The Harvey Girls. It gave me a chance to work with Judy again and do some fine solo hoofing.” Filming his solo tap dance during a frontier party scene to an instrumental reprise of the Oscar-winning song “Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe,” was an arduous experience, according to Bolger.
“I would have to film the number first without using tap shoes. Then I would go into a music stage and re-create the tap rhythms perfectly so they could be dubbed onto the film later.”
It was a painstaking job because Bolger's style had always been loose-limbed and improvisational. “It was murderous, just murderous to dub in the taps so they would synchronize with the routine that was already shot,” he said.
Almost 80 years after those opening sepia-toned shots of rural Kansas first flickered onto movie screens, the rich legacy of Oz continues.
In 1987, David W. Packard, the son of the co-founder of Hewlett-Packard, seeded an organization called the Packard Humanities Institute that has become one of the leading philanthropic organizations funding film preservation. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, a screening of The Wizard of Oz in the mid-1970s at a Judy Garland film festival at the University of North Carolina, changed Packard’s life and led him into the important work of classic film preservation.
We told Bolger that one of the most endearing moments for us happened near the end of Oz. As Dorothy says tearful goodbyes to her companions, she whispers into the Scarecrow’s ear, “I think I’ll miss you most of all.”
“And she did, at least until we filmed The Harvey Girls,” Bolger quipped.
After our meeting there was really only one destination that seemed fitting for us that day, and it was right down the asphalt road from the Convention Center; SoCal’s own Emerald City, Disneyland. Best yet, we didn’t have to penetrate a haunted forest or dodge winged monkeys to get there.
We told Bolger that’s where we were headed. “Ah,” he laughed, “the next best thing to Oz.”
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