Saturday, August 13, 2011
IF I WERE KING OF THE FOREST...A BIRTHDAY TRIBUTE TO BERT LAHR!
Happy Birthday, Leos!
If you were born on this day, you are a Leo. Leo (♌) is the fifth astrological sign of the Zodiac, originating from the constellation of Leo.
In astrology, Leo is considered to be a "masculine", positive (extrovert) sign. It is also considered a fire sign and is one of four fixed signs ruled by the Sun.
Individuals born when the Sun is in this sign are considered Leo individuals. Under the tropical zodiac, Leo is occupied by the Sun from July 22 to August 22. Under the sidereal zodiac, it is currently there roughly from August 10 to September 15.
The natives of Leo are generally considered to be compatible with the natives of other fire signs, Aries and Sagittarius,and the natives of the air signs, Gemini, Libra and Aquarius. Taurus and Scorpio are signs of the other nature (feminine/introverted), but are considered semi-compatible with Leo due to them having the same fixed quality.
Over the past week, I've written about some very famous Leos, three of them fiery redheads. Lucille Ball, Arlene Dahl, Rhonda Fleming, Rose Marie, and Esther Williams.
But today, I am writing about a man who really earned the title of Leo! Burt Lahr!
Anyone who knew me as a kid knows very well my attachment to The Wizard of Oz. I've written about this in the past but I will reiterate for my newer readers. As a kid, I LIVED for this movie! I looked forward to this movie like most kids looked forward to Christmas. IT WAS AN EVENT!
The 1939 American musical fantasy film The Wizard of Oz, shot mostly in Technicolor, has become, since its first telecast in 1956, one of the two or three most popular American films ever made,although it has been a famous film ever since it played in movie theatres years before its TV debut.
Like Gone with the Wind, The Ten Commandments, and The Sound of Music, the film has never simply been sold to isolated local stations across the country for TV showings, although it was first telecast more than half a century ago.
Instead, it has been shown respectively on CBS, NBC, the now-defunct WB Network, and several of Ted Turner's national cable channels.
In April 2011, it achieved the rare distinction of being one of the few live-action films shown on the Cartoon Network.
ABC is the only one of the "big three" networks of the 1950s and 1960s (NBC, CBS and ABC) on which the film has never been shown, and neither has it ever been telecast on PBS.
I have so many memories of seeing this year after year at my grandmother's. Begging my dad to see it year after year (He always tortured me by telling me that I had already seen it and he was going to watch something else! He always gave in when it aired...probably due to my temper tantrums). I even staged a production of it when I was in Elementary school! I remember once being at my Uncle Gilbert and Aunt Christine's and getting furious with Aunt Christine when she tried to adjust the TV at the beginning of the film because she remembered this film was in color! Because the beginning of the film was in black and white, she thought her TV was going on the fritz! From 1964 through 1967, it was hosted by Danny Kaye. He appeared sitting on a prop toadstool against a painted backdrop of the Yellow Brick Road and the Emerald City
When I was 17, it was being preempted on Channel 13, our CBS affiliate, by a local basketball game!
I actually called the TV station to complain! Luckily, my friend Doug Bell was able to access another affiliate and I went to his house to see it. At that point in my life, I thought I could make it into the Guinness Book of World Records for seeing this film more times than anyone else! Remember this was in the days before videos and dvds. We had to wait each year until its annual showing. From the time I was three until I was 18, I never missed it! When I moved to New York in 1979, still pre VCRs!, there were Revival Houses all over New York...There was the Regency (my favorite!...I was even in a picket line when it was announced that, under new management, that they would be showing first run films), The Thalia...a little run down but still fun, The Carnegie Hall cinema (they even had a Wurlitzer between film showings!), and The Film Forum.
What a great time for a young 18 year old in New York who loved classic (and not so classic) older films. I know on one hand that it is great to have easy access to these films, but somehow, they've lost a little bit of their "specialness" when we can watch them anytime we wish to. Movies should be seen on the silver screen.
Well getting back to The Wizard of Oz, I saw it several times at The Regency.
Once I even saw it with Margaret Hamilton, that's another blog! One day it was at The Carnegie Hall Cinema, my friend, Ingrid Leacock, and I sat through three showings of it!
I'm not as obsessed with this film as I was once! I gave up on the notion of ending up in the Guinness Book of World records. But I still have a special place in my heart for this film...always will.
When I was 6 years old, I was working on a project for my first grade class. It was December 4th and we were at my Grandparents (Skipper). I was in the kitchen with magazines my grandmother gave me and construction paper, child's safety scissors and Elmer's Glue making a collage for Mrs. Meredith's class.
My parents and grandparents were watching the 7PM CBS NEWS with Walter Cronkite (there was no other news anchor man!).
I remember Walter Cronkite saying that The Cowardly Lion had died that day! What!?!?! I came running into the living room! What was I hearing? This wasn't possible! The Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz was dead. He had suffered a heart attacj while filming The Night They Raided Minsky's. You see, for me, he was ONLY the Cowardly Lion. Unfortunately, that was true for so many others as well.
He had a lot of trouble after that being considered by most as anything beyond The Wizard of Oz. The creative team of Oz tailor made The Cowardly Lion around the talents and schtick of Lahr. The stories are legendary about other casting choices across the boards for every character in the film. Kenny Baker was the original choice for The Cowardly Lion. Also, Tex Morrissey is listed on Freed's February 23, 1938 notes as a possibility to play the “Lion.” Modern sources state that it was Harburg who suggested Bert Lahr for the role. When The Wizard of Oz first premiered on August 15th, 1939, the initial reception by the public and the vast majority of the critics was rapturous.. On August 11, 1939, "The Wizard of Oz" opened in preview showings in Appleton, WI; Oshkosh, WI; and Cape Cod, MA.
In John Lahr's incredible biography of his father, NOTES ON A COWARDLY LION, John writes that when the script for THE WIZARD OF OZ was sent to him by Louis Shurr from the Metro lot early in 1938, he had never heard of it.
Lahr and Shurr were a wedding the next day. When the bride came down the aisle, Shurr, a hard-boiled sentimentalist leaned forward and whispered, "Doesn't she look beautiful?"
Lahr replied immediately, "Yes, I read the Oz script. It's wonderful."
The Wizard of Oz was a unique property, ideally geared to the world of film and the panoply of talent on the Metro lot. Producer Mervyn LeRoy had dreamed of filming the L. Frank Baum classic for years.
Bert Lahr (born Irving Lahrheim; August 13, 1895 – December 4, 1967) was an American actor and comedian.In addition to being remembered today for his roles as the Cowardly Lion and Kansas farmworker Zeke in The Wizard of Oz, he is also well-known for work in burlesque, vaudeville, and on Broadway.
Lahr was born in New York City, of German-Jewish heritage. Lahr grew up in the Yorkville section of Manhattan.
Dropping out of school at the age of 15 to join a juvenile vaudeville act, Lahr worked his way up to top billing on the Columbia Burlesque Circuit. In 1927 he debuted on Broadway in Delmar's Revels. Lahr played to packed houses, performing classic routines such as "The Song of the Woodman" (which he later reprised in the film Merry-Go-Round of 1938). Lahr had his first major success in a stage musical playing the prize fighter hero of Hold Everything! (1928–29). Several other musicals followed, notably Flying High (1930), Florenz Ziegfeld's Hot-Cha! (1932) and The Show is On (1936) in which he co-starred with Beatrice Lillie. In 1939, he co-starred with Ethel Merman in DuBarry Was a Lady.
His later life was troubled. His first wife, Mercedes, developed a severe mental health problem that left her hospitalized. This complicated his relationship with his second wife, Mildred, as he had legal problems getting a divorce in New York State at the time. Mildred became tired of waiting and became involved with another man, marrying him. Bert was heartbroken but eventually won Mildred back. Through all of this time he had to continue to work and travel.
Lahr made his feature film debut in 1931's Flying High, playing the part of the oddball aviator he had previously played on stage. He signed with New York-based Educational Pictures for a series of two-reel comedies. When that series ended, he came back to Hollywood to work in feature films. Aside from The Wizard of Oz (1939), his movie career was limited. In the 1944 patriotic film Meet the People, Lahr uttered the phrase "Heavens to Murgatroyd!" which was later popularized by cartoon character Snagglepuss.
Of course, as stated throughout this blog, Lahr's most iconic role was that of "Zeke (farmhand)/The Cowardly Lion" in M-G-M's 1939 adaptation of The Wizard of Oz. Lahr was signed to play the role on July 25, 1938. He starred opposite Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Frank Morgan, and Margaret Hamilton. Lahr's lion costume was composed of real lion fur and, under the high-voltage lighting required for Oz's Technicolor scenes, was unbearably hot. Lahr also contributed ad-lib comedic lines for his character. The Cowardly Lion is also the only character in the movie who has two solo song numbers-"If I Only Had the Nerve," performed after his initial meeting with Dorothy, The Scarecrow, and The Tin Man in the forest, and "If I Were King of the Forest," performed while he and the others are awaiting their audience with the Wizard.
An original Cowardly Lion costume worn by Bert Lahr in The Wizard of Oz resides in The Comisar Collection, the largest collection of television artifacts in the world.
He made the transition to straight theatre. He got a script of Waiting for Godot, and after reading he was greatly impressed but unsure of how the revolutionary play would be received in the United States. It had been performed in Europe to great acclaim, but was somewhat obscure and intellectual. He co-starred in the premiere of Waiting for Godot in 1956 at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami, Florida, playing Estragon to Tom Ewell's Vladimir. The performance bombed, a large amount of the audience leaving before the show was over, and the critics did not treat it kindly. In his book Notes on a Cowardly Lion, John Lahr describes the problems as being caused partly by the choices of the director, including the decision to limit Bert's movement on stage, filling the stage with platforms, a misguided advertisement of the play as a light comedy, and other issues.
Lahr was filming The Night They Raided Minsky's when he died of cancer on December 4, 1967.
While the official cause of death was listed as pneumonia, it was later revealed that Lahr, unknown to all, had suffered from cancer for some time.
His untimely passing forced the film's producers to use a double in several scenes. Lahr is buried at Union Field Cemetery in Ridgewood, Queens.
Please read Notes on a Cowardly Lion-The Biography of Bert Lahr to get a fuller account of Lahr's life. His daughter Jane Lahr was in the documentary Memories of Oz on the television network Turner Classic Movies in 2001.
Thank you, Mr. Lahr! I love you and I know that somewhere tight now someone is watching you skip down a yellow brick road!
Here's to an INCREDIBLE day for ALL!
Now, who wants to come over and watch The Wizard of Oz with me tonight?!
Thank you David Vernon for your suggestion for this blog! Thank you Laurie Vega for the song suggestions!! And thank you,Barbara Gurskey and Paul Vincentt, for your contributions.
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Tomorrow's blog will be About Danny Kaye and Red Skelton; Celebrating Two MALE Redheads! Thank you, Bart Greenberg for this suggestion.
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Richard Skipper, Richard@RichardSkipper.com