Hand color tinted photo of Ray Bolger as the Scarecrow from the 1939 movie, The Wizard of Oz
Raymond Wallace “Ray” Bolger (January 10, 1904 – January 15, 1987) was an American entertainer of stage and screen, best known for his portrayal of the Scarecrow and Kansas farmworker Hunk in The Wizard of Oz.
Bolger was born into an Irish Catholic family in Dorchester, a section of Boston, Massachusetts, the son of Anne (née Wallace) and James Edward Bolger. He was inspired by the vaudeville shows he attended when he was young to become an entertainer himself. He began his career in a vaudeville tab show, creating the act “Sanford & Bolger” with his dance partner. In 1926, he danced at New York City’s legendary Palace Theatre, the top vaudeville theatre in the country. His limber body and ability to ad lib movement won him many starring roles on Broadway in the 1930s. Eventually, his career would also encompass film, television and nightclub work.
Bolger’s film career began when he signed a contract with MGM in 1936. His best-known film appearance prior to The Wizard of Oz was The Great Ziegfeld (1936), in which he portrayed himself. He also appeared in Sweethearts, (1938) the first MGM film in Technicolor, starring Nelson Eddy, Jeanette MacDonald, and Bolger’s future Oz co-star, Frank Morgan, as well as the 1937 Eleanor Powell vehicle Rosalie, which also starred Eddy and Morgan. Following Oz, Bolger moved to RKO.
In 1941, he was a featured act at the Paramount Theatre in New York, working with the Harry James Band. He would do tap dance routines, sometimes in a mock challenge dance with the band’s pianist, Al Lerner. It was during that time period, that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and Bolger’s performance was interrupted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt announcing the news of the attack. Bolger toured in USO shows with Joe E. Lewis in the Pacific Theater during World War II, and was featured in the United Artists war-time film Stage Door Canteen.
In 1946 he returned to MGM for a featured role in The Harvey Girls. Also that year he recorded a children’s album, The Churkendoose, featuring the story of a misfit fowl (“part chicken, turkey, duck, and goose”) who teaches children that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and it all “depends on how you look at things”.
Bolger’s Broadway credits included Life Begins at 8:40 (1934), On Your Toes (1936), By Jupiter (1942), All American (1962), and Where’s Charley? (1948), for which he won the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical and in which he introduced “Once in Love with Amy”, the song often connected with him. He repeated his stage role in the 1952 film version of the musical.
Bolger appeared in his own ABC television sitcom with a variety show theme, Where’s Raymond? (1953–1954), renamed the second year as The Ray Bolger Show (1954–1955). His co-stars on the series included Richard Erdman, Allyn Joslyn, Betty Lynn, Sylvia Lewis, Marjie Millar, Christine Nelson, Verna Felton, Gloria Winters, and Ray Teal. He continued to star in several films, including Walt Disney’s 1961 remake of Babes in Toyland.
Bolger made frequent guest appearances on television, including the episode “Rich Man, Poor Man” of the short-lived The Jean Arthur Show in 1966. In the 1970s he had a recurring role as the father of Shirley Partridge (Shirley Jones) on The Partridge Family, and appeared in Little House On The Prairie as Toby Noe. Bolger’s last television appearance was on Diff’rent Strokes in 1984.
In his later years, he danced in a Dr Pepper television commercial, and in 1985, he and Liza Minnelli, the daughter of his Oz co-star Judy Garland, starred in That’s Dancing, a film also written by Jack Haley, Jr., the son of Jack Haley, who portrayed the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz.
In 1998, a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs, California, Walk of Stars was dedicated to him.
He was a Roman Catholic, and a member of the Good Shepherd Parish and the Catholic Motion Picture Guild in Beverly Hills, California.
The Wizard of Oz
Bolger’s MGM contract stipulated that he would play any part the studio chose; however, he was unhappy when he was originally cast as the Tin Woodman in the studio’s 1939 feature film adaptation of The Wizard of Oz. The role of the Scarecrow had already been assigned to another lean and limber dancing studio contract player, Buddy Ebsen. In time, the roles were switched. While Bolger was pleased with his role as the Scarecrow, Ebsen was struck ill by the powdered aluminum make-up used to complete the Tin Woodman costume. The powdered aluminum badly coated Ebsen’s lungs, leaving him near death. While Ebsen recuperated from his illness, Jack Haley was instead cast in the role of the Tin Woodman.
Whenever asked as to whether he received any residuals from telecasts of the 1939 classic, Bolger would reply: “No, just immortality. I’ll settle for that.” He was good friends with actress Margaret Hamilton, who played the Wicked Witch of the West, until her death, and gave a eulogy at her memorial service in 1985. Judy Garland often referred to Bolger as “My Scarecrow”. Upon the death of Haley in 1979, Bolger said, “It’s going to be very lonely on that Yellow Brick Road now.”
Bolger died of bladder cancer on January 15, 1987 in Los Angeles, five days after his 83rd birthday. He was interred at Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City in the Mausoleum, Crypt F2, Block 35. He was survived by his wife of over 57 years, Gwendolyn Rickard. They had no children. At the time of his death, he was the last surviving main cast member of The Wizard of Oz, as Jack Haley, who played the Tin Man, had died in 1979 and Margaret Hamilton, who had played Almira Gulch and the Wicked Witch of West, had died in 1985.
An editorial cartoon on January 17, 1987, two days after his death, by Chicago Tribune artist Dick Locher, depicted the Oz cast dancing off into the setting sun and toward the Emerald City, with the Scarecrow running to catch up.