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A Film by Michael Kantor

THE STARS

Performers

Bert Lahr

An actor, comedian, and singer, with his rubber-faced expression and noisy antics — which included his trademark expression “gnong-gnong” — Lahr was one of the all-time great clowns of the American musical theater. After working for a good many years in vaudeville and burlesque — some of the time with his first wife in an act called “Lahr and Mercedes” — he appeared on Broadway in the revue “Harry Delmar’s Revels” (1927), before making an immediate impact as an erratic prize fighter in the musical comedy “Hold Everything!” in 1928. He repeated his success, this time as airport mechanic who accidentally sets an endurance flying record because he cannot land the plane, in “Flying High” (1930). During the remainder of the ’30s, Lahr spent most of his time in revues, such as “Hot-Cha!” (1932), George White’s “Music Hall Varieties” (1932), “Life Begins at 8:40” (1934), George White’s “Scandals” (1935), and “The Show Is On” (1936), in which he introduced the hilarious “Song of the Woodman” (E. Y. “Yip” Harburg-Harold Arlen). In 1939, he played a nightclub washroom attendant who dreams that he is Louis XV, in the Cole Porter book musical, “Du Barry Was a Lady,” and duetted with costar Ethel Merman on “But in the Morning, No!” and the lively “Friendship.” By this time Lahr had modified his raucous image somewhat, and he brought his new, softer — but often satirical — personality to the character of the Cowardly Lion in the classic 1939 movie, THE WIZARD OF OZ. He was featured in the numbers, “Lions and Tigers and Bears” and the splendid “King of the Forest,” as well as ensemble pieces with Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, and Jack Haley.

Lahr was one of the all-time great clowns of the American musical theater.

Bert Lahr

Born: August 13, 1895
Died: December 4, 1967
Key Shows
  • "Du Barry Was a Lady"
  • "Flying High"
  • "Hold Everything!"
  • "Life Begins at 8:40"
  • "The Show Is On"
Related Artists
  • Ray Bolger
  • Ira Gershwin
  • E.Y. "Yip" Harburg
  • Ethel Merman
  • George White
Throughout the ’40s and ’50s he continued to appear in revues, including “Seven Lively Arts” (1944), “Meet the People” (1944), “Make Mine Manhattan” (1948), “Two on the Aisle” (1950), and “The Boys Against the Girls” (1959), as well as starring on radio, television, and in films. Toward the end of his career, he also worked extensively in the straight theater in highly regarded productions such as “Waiting for Godot,” “Hotel Paradiso,” and “The Beauty Part.” Lahr made his final Broadway appearance in “Foxy” (1964), a musical comedy adaptation of Ben Jonson’s “Volpone,” in which the action was switched from Venice to the Klondike gold rush. His film career, which had begun with the screen version of one his first stage hits, FLYING HIGH, and peaked with THE WIZARD OF OZ, ended, appropriately enough, with a movie in which he played a burlesque comic, THE NIGHT THEY RAIDED MINSKY’S. Lahr died during the filming. Two years after his death, he was the subject of a biography written by his son.

FURTHER READING:
NOTES ON A COWARDLY LION, John Lahr.

Source: Biographical information provided by MUZE. Excerpted from the ENCYCLOPEDIA OF POPULAR MUSIC, edited by Colin Larkin. © 2004 MUZE UK Ltd.

Photo credits: Photofest