Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Ray Bolger: Why Everybody Loved Raymond

It’s remarkable how far a youthful enthusiasm can take you. Sometimes you can even become passionate about a performer long after his death. Holly Van Leuven, a child of the Nineties, discovered the nimble feet and tender heart of Ray Bolger via old TV re-runs and clips on YouTube. As a lover of early musical theatre and its precursor, vaudeville, she quickly became aware that Bolger was far more than the featured role he played in MGM’s The Wizard of Oz, that he was in fact an essential part of America’s theatrical heritage. Helped along by the Biographers International Organization, which awarded her its inaugural Hazel Rowley Prize for a first-time biographer, Holly has just published the fruits of her research through the prestigious Oxford University Press. Her book’s title: Ray Bolger: More Than a Scarecrow.  

To read about Ray Bolger is to learn about the days when vaudeville was America’s favorite form of entertainment. Though Bolger, having survived a tough childhood, originally studied to be an insurance salesman, it was his talent for dancing that paved the way for a bright future. His lanky limbs and improvisational talents helped him excel at what was then called “eccentric dance”: he could kick his leg over his head, or go down into the splits, inch halfway up, and then collapse downward again, with a surprised look on his face. In Holly’s words, audiences saw him as a “hapless sadsack without control of his motor skills.”

Bolger’s gifts helped him move onto the Broadway stage and eventually to Hollywood. Only trouble: he was a performer who thrived on spontaneity, and the restrictions implicit in the making of movies cramped his style. In one later interview he explained, “I have to be free. That’s the difficult thing in the motion picture business—I felt I was dancing in a telephone booth.”

Bolger performed a specialty number in a 1936 MGM faux-biopic, The Great Ziegfeld, but made no strong impression. He was much happier that same year starring in On Your Toes, a Broadway musical featuring “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” a jazz ballet choreographed by the dance world’s George Balanchine, with whom he got along famously. (Bolger had no part in the subsequent film version.) But of course his big screen moment came when he signed on to play the Scarecrow in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, enjoying a reunion with fellow vaudevillians Jack Haley and Bert Lahr who played the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion.  Bolger’s loose-limbed style was perfectly suited to the Scarecrow’s role, and he cherished a warm friendship with Judy Garland. As a man who adored children, he watched with dismay as the young star was compelled to grow up much too fast. (In later years, it was a re-run of his guest appearance on Garland short-lived TV variety show that first brought Bolger to Holly’s attention.) 

As a performer Bolger found his greatest hurrahs as the star of Broadway’s Where’s Charley? This 1948 musical, based on a fusty British farce called Charley’s Aunt, cast Bolger as a college man masquerading as his own Victorian aunt in order to court a young lady named Amy. The hit show soon had the whole nation singing the lilting Frank Loesser tune, “Once in Love with Amy.” This became Bolger’s signature number, performed countless times on television and in his nightclub act. Alas, the film version of Where’s Charley, which became a top-grossing 1952 release, can’t easily be enjoyed today. Thanks to complex disagreements between Warner Bros., the stage producers, and Loesser’s widow, it only survives in bootleg editions. 

Ray Bolger showing off his dancing feet in Judy Garland’s The Harvey Girls

No comments:

Post a Comment