“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.” –Ray Bolger
For nearly a century, audiences all over the world have fallen in love with Ray Bolger’s portrayal of the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz (1939). Beyond this iconic role, Bolger had a strong career in films and onstage, excelling as a dancer. With the ability to effortlessly glide about the room, it’s no wonder he perfectly captured the spirit of an amusing Scarecrow.
Raymond Wallace Bolger was born on January 10, 1904, in Dorchester, Massachusetts, to James and Anne Bolger. His father and grandfather were painters. Bolger also had a sister named Regina.
As a child, Bolger would frequent vaudeville shows, quickly developing an interest in live performance. He began his entertainment career as part of a vaudeville tap show, acting as one-half of the “Sanford and Bolger” dance team. By 1926, he performed at New York City’s Palace Theater, which was the top vaudeville theater in the U.S. His ability to improvise dances allowed him to execute many lead roles on Broadway throughout the 1930s, such as roles in Life Begins at 8:40 (1934) and On Your Toes (1936). As his popularity grew, he married Gwendolyn Rickard and the couple spent their honeymoon in Europe. Following the trip, he expanded his career to film, television, and nightclub work.
In 1932, Bolger was among the group of entertainers who opened Manhattan’s Radio City Music Hall. In the same year, he was elected to The Lambs theater club.
When Bolger signed his first film contract with MGM, it was to appear as himself in The Great Ziegfeld (1936). He also appeared in Rosalie (1937), an Eleanor Powell vehicle, and Sweethearts (1938), the first MGM film in Technicolor, alongside Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald.
Bolger’s contract stipulated that he would play any part assigned to him by the studio. Originally, he was cast as the Tin Woodman in The Wizard of Oz, while Buddy Ebsen was given the part of the Scarecrow. As production continued, the roles were shuffled around, leading Bolger to fulfill the role of the Scarecrow. Due to the heavy Scarecrow makeup and glued rubber mask, Bolger’s face became lined. In addition, the heat of the lights that made filming uncomfortably hot, requiring Bolger to take frequent breaks.
After his work in The Wizard of Oz, his contract with MGM ended, prompting him to move to RKO Pictures. In 1941, he was a featured act at the Paramount Theatre in New York, executing tap dance routine as part of a mock-challenge against the Harry James Band’s pianist, Al Lerner. When the Japanese attached Pearl Harbor, Bolger’s performance was interrupted by President Roosevelt’s announcement regarding the attack. In response, Bolger toured with many USO shows alongside Joe E. Lewis throughout the Pacific Theater during World War II, and was also featured in the wartime film, Stage Door Canteen (1943).
In 1943, Bolger returned to MGM to fulfill a featured role in The Harvey Girls (1946), which had him reunited with Oz co-star Judy Garland. In the same year, he recorded a children’s album called The Churkendoose, which told the story of a misfit fowl that was part chicken, turkey, duck, and goose. He continued his stage career with All American (1962) and Where’s Charley? (1948), the latter of which won him the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical. He also introduced the song “Once in Love with Amy” in the musical, reprising his stage role in the 1952 film version.
Bolger’s television career included a television sitcom called Where’s Raymond?, which was later renamed The Ray Bolger Show. In addition to working on his own show, he would make many guest appearances on other television shows, including The Jean Arthur Show, Fantasy Island, Little House on the Prairie, and with a recurring role as Shirley Partridge’s father on The Partridge Family, among additional appearances. He also acted in several television commercials.
In 1985, he and Garland’s daughter, Liza Minnelli, both appeared in That’s Dancing! (1985), written by Jack Haley, Jr., son of Jack Haley, who ultimately portrayed the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz.
Bolger died from bladder cancer on January 15, 1987, and is interred at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City. He was the last surviving main credited cast member of The Wizard of Oz. When co-star Garland passed away, he was the only one of her Oz co-stars to be present. Bolger joined Harold Arlen, composed of “Over the Rainbow”, for the service and they were one of the last remaining guests at its conclusion. Whenever asked whether he received any residuals from telecasts of the 1939 classic, Bolger would reply, “No, just immortality. I’ll settle for that.”
On the East coast, there are quite a few locations in existence that would have been of relevance to Bolger.
In 1910, the Bolger family resided at 8 Willowwood Street in Boston. This is the property today.
By 1920, the family moved East to 46 Wethington Street in Boston. This is the home at present.
On his return trip from his honeymoon in Europe, Bolger listed his address as 1560 Broadway in New York. This is what the location looks like today.
In 1930, Bolger and his wife were living in Manhattan at 41-47 W. 72 Street. This is the property today.
In 1940, Bolger resided at the Hampshire House, which opened in 1937 as a rental building, located at 150 Central Park South. It currently stands today as a residential co-op.
Bolger and his wife also resided in Los Angeles at 513 N Martel Avenue. This is the location today.
In addition, Bolger donated his papers to UCLA’s archive. The collection is comprised of script material, contracts, clippings, correspondence, photographs, music, and other ephemera relating to his career.
Moreover, the Oz fans will be glad to know that Bolger’s Scarecrow costume lives on at the Smithsonial National Museum of American History, along with one pair of Dorothy’s ruby slippers.
Despite Bolger’s passing, his legacy lives on in so many ways as he continues to delight audiences through his most memorable portrayal.