Thursday, June 4, 2020

The Cowardly Lion

Irving Lahrheim, aka Bert Lahr, was born in New York City on August 13, 1895. He was the son of German immigrants and was raised in Manhattan.  He knew from a young age that he wanted to entertain others, dropping out of high school to go professional.  He never looked back.

He began in vaudeville at age 15 and found great success as a singer, dancer and comedian.  It would eventually carry him to the Broadway stage, where he made his debut in the 1927 show Delmar's Revels. He played to sold-out houses on a daily basis, and other shows would follow.  In 1932, he headlined Hot-Cha, produced by Florenz Ziegfeld, of Zigfield Follies. 

The role that made him king.
One of Lahr's shows would eventually take him to Hollywood, when MGM decided to adapt Flying High for the silver screen.  Other films would follow, including that for which he is most famously known, The Wizard of Oz, released in 1939.  A natural comedian, Lahr was perfect as the story's Cowardly Lion, while pulling double duty as farmhand Zeke.  Much of the Lion's dialogue in the film was ad-libbed by Lahr.

Following the film's success, Lahr returned to the Broadway stage.  In 1946 he began a two-year run as Skid in a revival of Burlesque

Skid, Burlesque (1946)
In 1951, he joined the production of Two on the Aisle playing multiple roles, including that of Queen Victoria.

His greatest success on the stage wouldn't come until 1964, when he won the Tony Award for Best Leading Male Actor in a Musical for his role in Foxy.

Lahr made many memorable appearances on TV as well, including several on the game show What's My LineHere he is in an episode with The Harlem Globetrotters.

In late 1967, Lahr, who was 72 at the time, was working on the film The Night They Raided Minsky's.  According to his son John, Lahr faced a number of obstacles in the role, including extremely late hours and damp working conditions.  In late November, he developed pneumonia, which would ultimately take his life on December 4th.  Fortunately for producer Norman Lear, most of Lahr's scenes had already been filmed, but some creative editing was required in order to complete the film.  While the official cause of death is listed as pneumonia, John contends that his father actually died of cancer, a condition he never knew he had. 

Lahr was interred in the family plot at Union Cemetery in Ridgewood, New York.

The Lahr family plot.

Bert's headstone.  Note the lion peeking out up top.

Rest in peace, Mr. Lahr.

  • Lahr appeared in the 1944 film Meet the People, wherein his character uttered the phrase "Heavens to Murgatroyd!"  This would later become the catchphrase of the Hanna-Barbera cartoon character Snagglepuss.

  • As mentioned above, Lahr headlined for Florenz Ziegfeld on Broadway.  Ziegfeld was the husband of actress Billie Burke, who played the part of Glinda, the Good Witch.

  • Lahr's great-grandson appeared on a 2013 episode of the series Antiques Roadshow.  He brought Lahr's original Oz shooting script.  How much was it worth?  Watch the clip here.

  • The Cowardly Lion is the only character in the film to be given two solo performances, with "If I Only Had the Nerve" and "If I Were King of the Forest."  Eat your heart out, Judy Garland.

  • In 1966, Lahr appeared in an ad for Lay's Potato Chips that would be deemed politically incorrect by today's standards.  Check it out here.

  • John Lahr's book Notes on a Cowardly Lion: The Biography of Bert Lahr, is available from Amazon.

  • In 2019, this blog paid it's final respects to Lahr's co-star Judy Garland.  Re-visit both of her graves here.

  • Union Cemetery doesn't have a lot of famous names beneath its soil and Lahr's is certainly the most prominent.  One of his neighbors however is character actor Robert Lansing, whom Star Trek fans will remember as the enigmatic Gary Seven.

No comments:

Post a Comment