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Crazy Legs Ray Bolger

People | November 23, 2018

Dancer Ray Bolger doing the splits while performing a soft shoe dance on stage during Edgar Bergen's Gay '90s party. (Photo by Peter Stackpole/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Ray Bolger is perhaps best known for playing the Scarecrow in the classic, The Wizard of Oz, in which he showed off his comic dancing style. Although he sang and acted in the film, dancing was really Bolger’s forte. Bolger’s elastic dance moves and unique choreography was ahead of its time and he could rival some of the best pop dancers of recent years, including Michael Jackson and Justin Timberlake. Here is a look at the dancing life of crazy legs Ray Bolger. 

Vaudeville Called. Bolger Answered.

In the early decades of the 1900s, Vaudeville was the chief form of entertainment. Life vaudeville shows were held across the country but the best acts made their way to New York City. In the mid-1920s, Bolger and a partner formed a dance duo known as Sanford and Bolger. The two performed at the top Vaudeville show in the country, to Vaudeville shows at the Palace Theatre in New York City. 

Bolger’s Dance Moves Boggled the Mind

Bolger perfected dance moves that created the illusion that his body was made of rubber. He combined these techniques with his impeccable comedic timing and ability to improvise. In fact, many of his dance routines were improvised, or partially improvised. He was particularly flexible and could do the splits, as well as other gymnastics moves. 

Bolger Caught the Eye of Broadway Producers

Bolger regularly performed at the Palace Theatre and over venues in New York City. He caught the attention of Broadway producers who cast him in starring roles in Broadway musicals during the 1930s. For one of these performances, Bolger, a self-taught dancer, was required to learn how to tap dance. Herbie Harper taught Bolger the techniques of rhythmic tap dancing. For another gig, Bolger was given instruction by the famous choreographer, George Balanchine on ballet moves for the ‘Slaughter on Tenth Avenue’ for the 1936 Broadway show, On Your Toes. Bolger later said, “Taking dance direction from Balanchine was one of the highlights of my career. It was hard work, but the results were rewarding. The ballet was considered a breakthrough in stage dancing.” 

Bolger Performed a Crazy Leg Routine in The Great Ziegfeld

The Great Ziegfeld, a fictionalized tribute to Florenz Ziegfeld and a film version of his famous Broadway stage Ziegfeld Follies, was released in 1936 from MGM Studios. In the film, Bolger played himself…and treated viewers to one of his most unique dance performances. The act emphasized his rubber legs and flexibility and showcased Bolger as a truly innovative performer. He could certainly dance…but could he sing and act?

For The Wizard of Oz, Bolger was Originally Cast as the Tin Man

According to Bolger’s contract with MGM, Bolger would have to take any part that the studio executives assigned to him. When the first cast list came out of The Wizard of Oz, Bolger was disappointed to be given the role of the Tin Man. Another actor, Buddy Ebsen, was cast as the Scarecrow. Ebsen and Bolger were then asked to switch roles, to Bolger’s delight. Ebsen, however, didn’t remain in the Tin Man role very long…he had an allergic reaction to the metallic makeup. 

The Wizard of Oz Made Bolger A Legend

The huge popularity of The Wizard of Oz and the continued airtime it receives means that new generations of fans are introduced to the dancing genius of Ray Bolger. His dancing in the movie, however, only allowed him to show-off a small snippet of his dancing ability. The role of the clumsy, brainless scarecrow allowed him to incorporate bumbling, falling down steps into his noodle-y, rubbery dance style. 

Ray Bolger with David Cassidy in "The Partridge Family"

Bolger Continued to Dance After The Wizard of Oz

Although the harsh make-up he wore as the Scarecrow permanently scarred his face, Bolger continued to dance and perform in the decades after The Wizard of Oz. He appeared in on Broadway, in movies, on television shows, and even toured with the USO. He even had his own variety show in the mid-1950s, The Ray Bolger Show. Bolger even had a recurring role in TV’s The Partridge Family, playing the father of Shirley Jones’ character. 

Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow in The Wiz.

Michael Jackson was Compared to Bolger

The smooth, flexible dance moves of Michael Jackson drew comparisons to Ray Bolger. This was especially noticeable when a young Michael Jackson was cast as the Scarecrow in The Wiz, a disco-era remake of The Wizard of Oz. Jackson was called the Ray Bolger of his generation.

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.