Monday, April 11, 2022

The Scarecrow


"I knew that I was taking part in a strange kind of adventure."

Raymond Wallace Bolger was born in Dorchester, Massachusetts, on January 10, 1904.  His family was of Irish descent, and he was the second generation born in America.

As a young man, Bolger often attended vaudeville performances, which nurtured his own desire for a career in show business.  After high school, he held a series of "regular" jobs, including one at the New England Mutual Life Insurance Company, but he never gave up on his career aspirations.

He began in 1926 with a two-man tap show called "Sanford & Bolger," which took him and his partner to many popular vaudeville venues as well as New York City's legendary Palace Theatre.  His improvisational dance routines struck a chord with audiences, later landing him many leading roles on the Broadway stage.  

After a decade on the New York theatre scene, Bolger headed for Hollywood.  He signed his first contract (with MGM Studios) in 1936.  His first film of note, The Great Ziegfeld (right), was released that year.  It tells the true-life story of theatrical impresario Florenz Ziegfeld and his Ziegfeld Follies stage show.  The film also depicts Ziegfeld's relationship with his wife and co-star Billie Burke, who would later achieve fame as Glinda, the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz.  

This of course, brings us to the role that Bolger is most famously known for, that of the Scarecrow.  His contract with MGM stipulated that he would play any part assigned to him, but he had serious reservations about the role given to him in the film, that of the Tin Woodsman.  He felt that the costume would limit his dancing ability, and asked the studio to reconsider him for the Scarecrow, a role already assigned to a young Buddy Ebsen. 

Surprisingly, the studio acquiesced, and the two roles were reversed.  This decision nearly cost Ebsen his life, as he was later poisoned by the toxic make-up used for the character.  He was forced to withdrawal from the film and was later replaced by Jack Haley in the role. 

The film was a huge success, bolstering Bolger's career and his leading-man status.  He moved to RKO Pictures in 1941 and returned to the New York stage, but the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that year would send his career in a new direction.  He created a USO show for the troops and toured throughout the Pacific theatre.  He also appeared in a United Artists wartime film entitled Stage Door Canteen (1943).

After the war, Bolger resumed his career in Hollywood, eventually earning his own television variety series.  Proudly produced by the American Tobacco Company, Where's Raymond? (later renamed The Ray Bolger Show), lasted for two seasons and featured a variety of musical performances.  

After its cancelation, Bolger continued to appear on television, and was a regular on game shows throughout the 1960s (see Trivia below).  He also had memorable performances on such classic series as The Partridge Family, The Love Boat, and my personal favorite, Battlestar Galactica.  He also became a popular pitchman, appearing in several commercial spots.

In 1986, Bolger was diagnosed with bladder cancer.  His health quickly deteriorated, and by 1987, he was living in a nursing home in Los Angeles.  He ultimately died on January 15th of that year.

Ray Bolger was interred in the mausoleum at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California.

Location: Block #35, Crypt #F2

Rest in peace, Scarecrow.


  • Bolger's Wizard of Oz castmates Judy Garland, Bert Lahr, and Toto have all been featured in this blog.

  • Bolger was the last surviving principal cast member from the film and was the only one to attend Judy Garland's funeral in 1969.

  • The scarecrow mask left lines on Bolger's face that would remain for the rest of his life.

  • Bolger did a lot of commercial work in the 1970s and 80s, including these spots for Safeway and Dr. Pepper

  • Whatchoo talkin' 'bout Willis?  Bolger's final acting role was a 1984 episode of Diff'rent Strokes.

  • Bolger was awarded two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  His star for motion pictures is located at 6788 Hollywood Boulevard. Just one block over, you'll find his star for television at 6834 Hollywood Boulevard.

  • How closely was Bolger associated with his Oz counterpart?  During an appearance on the game show Password in the 1960s, he was given the word "Ray." He motioned to himself and said "me," to which his partner responded "scarecrow."

  • In 2016, the city of Boston commissioned a mural of Bolger in his former Dorchester neighborhood.

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