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A Film by Michael Kantor



Ray Bolger

Ray Bolger knew he wanted to be a performer when, as a 16-year-old from a struggling Irish Catholic family in the Boston neighborhood of Dorchester, he attended a matinee of “Jack O’Lantern” at a Boston theater in 1920. There, bouncing around onstage, was the acrobatic comedian Fred Stone. “I’ve never forgotten it,” Bolger later said. “He bounded on a trampoline out of a haystack, looking just like a scarecrow.” In order to support himself, Bolger took a job as a bookkeeper for a dance academy and gradually started taking lessons with the other students. He took his dancing so seriously that it made the other kids crack up, and he discovered that dancing was a way out of the Dorchester slums. Soon, his rubbery, gravity-defying hoofing made him a success in a vaudeville double act, “Stanford and Bolger: A Pair of Nifties,” then as a single in “The Passing Show of 1926.” He was perfect revue material, and made a wonderful comic partner for another former vaudevillian, Bert Lahr, in the 1934 revue “Life Begins at 8:40.” Bolger, however, was evolving into something more than a specialty dancer. “What is dance?” he asked in a 1942 interview. “I am dancing all the time. Every gesture, the body line of every pose, the way I get from place to place, the movement in the acting — none of it would be the way it is if I weren’t a dancer.”

His rubbery, gravity-defying hoofing made him a success in a vaudeville double act.

In 1936, Rodgers and Hart gave him the lead in “On Your Toes,” where his sensational character-driven footwork in the Balanchine ballet “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” solidified his stardom. At the end of the show’s run, Bolger signed a film contract with MGM and fulfilled a long-held dream of playing the Scarecrow in THE WIZARD OF OZ — his idol, Fred Stone, had played the part in a 1902 stage version.

Ray Bolger

Born: January 10, 1904
Died: January 15, 1987
Key Shows
  • "By Jupiter"
  • "George White's Scandals"
  • "Life Begins at 8:40"
  • "On Your Toes"
  • "Where's Charley?"
Related Artists
  • George Abbott
  • Lorenz Hart
  • Bert Lahr
  • Richard Rodgers
  • George White
Bolger returned to Broadway in 1942, winning accolades as the lead in Rodgers and Hart’s last musical, “By Jupiter,” and in 1949 he became the second leading musical actor to win a Tony Award for his sprightly, infectious turn in Frank Loesser’s “Where’s Charley?,” a role which he repeated in the 1952 film. His star turn as the Scarecrow in THE WIZARD OF OZ perfectly exploited his loose-limbed stage persona and made him a legend, but Bolger always had the brains to know what made him click with audiences: “I just play the little guy, except I play him through dance.”

Source: Excerpted from CONTEMPORARY MUSICIANS, VOLUME 4, Gale Research, © 1990 Gale Research. Reprinted by permission of The Gale Group.

Photo credits: Photofest and the New York Public Library