Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! In celebration of The Wizard Of Oz (1939), which premiered 75 years ago this month, today’s entry is the third in a trio of posts highlighting the careers of Dorothy Gale’s three skipping companions down the yellow brick road: Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, and Bert Lahr. (There’s been plenty of Judy on past Wildcard posts, and rest assured, she’ll be back again.) We started with Ray Bolger and then Jack Haley; today, Bert Lahr!
Bert Lahr was born Irving Lahrheim in New York City in 1895 to a pair of Jewish German immigrants. Irving dropped out of school at the age of 15 and joined a juvenile vaudeville act. He made his Broadway debut in 1927, and played in several musical comedies over the next decade, including: Hold Everything (1928), Hot-Cha! (1932), Life Begins At 8:40 (1934), and George White’s Scandals of 1936. He made his feature film debut in 1931, recreating his stage role in Flying High (1930). By 1937, Lahr was in Hollywood seeking silver screen stardom. He found it as the Cowardly Lion in MGM’s iconic The Wizard Of Oz (1939).
He returned to the stage to star alongside Ethel Merman in Cole Porter’s Du Barry Was A Lady (1939), and spent the next decade going back and forth between coasts. He was a regular television personality in the ’50s, starring in several live musicals, game shows, and even potato chip commercials. The stage was never too far away from Lahr, however, and in 1956, his career got the shock of its life with Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot (1955). In his last decade, Lahr continued to work on the stage with regularity. He passed away in 1967 during production on The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968), but his inimitable exuberance and clownish antics will live on forever through the Cowardly Lion.
Because Lahr’s early Broadway career was before the age of cast albums, little audio or visual elements exist of this wild comedian in his prime. Here’s a photograph of Lahr with Beatrice Lillie in The Show Is On (1936).
Lahr starred in this early 1929 short 15-minute film entitled Faint Heart. Check it out to see the young vaudevillian in action!
One of my favorite Lahr treats, and I’ve shared this twice before on this blog, is the live (IN THE THEATRE) recording of Ethel Merman and Bert Lahr performing “Friendship” in the original production of Du Barry Was A Lady (1939). If you haven’t, give this one a listen!
Here’s a 1954 Colgate Comedy Hour Production of Cole Porter’s Let’s Face It (1941), which bears little resemblance to the original stage play, but features Vivian Blaine and Gene Nelson (among others)!
This is the complete Original Broadway Cast Recording of Beckett’s Waiting For Godot (1955), which was released on LP.
On a 1965 episode of The Hollywood Palace, Lahr and Bette Davis performed a sketch from the latter’s 1952 Broadway revue, Two’s Company, entitled “Jealousy.” This one’s a hoot!
And of course, we must end with The Wizard Of Oz (1939). Here’s a 1939 radio performance that Lahr gave of “If I Were King Of The Forest” on a Maxwell House Good News episode entitled “Behind The Scenes at the Making of The Wizard Of Oz.”
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in tomorrow for more Xena!