Ray Bolger, the angular, disjointed hoofer whose crackling voice and lilting smile made him a favorite of film fans and theatergoers for nearly 60 years, died Thursday.
The last survivor of that dedicated and desperate band of travelers who made filmdom's legendary journey down the Yellow Brick Road to see "The Wizard of Oz" was 83 and died at a Los Angeles nursing home of cancer, family spokesman Barry Greenberg said.
At his death, the dancer who liked to think of himself as more of a comedian had enjoyed a career that ranged from vaudeville in the 1920s ("Sanford and Bolger, a Pair of Nifties") to the Broadway stage ("On Your Toes," in which he first performed the Richard Rodgers classic, "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue") to Hollywood where, despite his acclaimed performance as the Scarecrow in "Wizard," his talents generally were undermined by routine story lines.
But all of this was years after a somewhat shy Raymond Wallace Bolger had been a bank clerk, vacuum cleaner salesman and accountant taking dancing lessons on the side in his native Dorchester, Mass.
Biographers and press agents have related that he took those lessons after his mother had told him that a few waltz steps she had showed him were all he needed to know for his high school prom. His date for the evening was not impressed.
Bolger said he took lessons from "an old night watchman," who once had been a professional tapper but had been reduced to augmenting his income with students.
Although many in Bolger's class showed promise, the man who would one day croon a popular paean to "Amy" was not among them.
"I was the slowest (pupil)" Bolger liked to recount in later years. "My ears could hear the rhythms . . . but I just didn't want to do what the others did."
Thus he began to evolve the leggy, stumbling, off-cadence routines that became his signature.
His first public performance was in an amateur show staged by the insurance company for which he was then working.
"I did just an eccentric dance with no routine--a combination of throwing my body around and what I considered a dance."
The style pleased the audience of that long ago day, he was fond of remembering years later. It became a style of rubbery legged rhythms that his latter-day fans also applauded.
In 1922, he got his first paying theatrical job as second comic with a repertory company where he acquired some acting skills to augment the ballet dancing that he was also studying through the Senia Roussakoff School of the Dance.
By 1924, he had moved into vaudeville with Ralph Sanford, but the "Pair of Nifties" often weren't. They flopped for a final time at the Rialto Theater in New York, where Sanford moved on to another job, although Bolger managed to hang on for five more weeks.
For the next few years, Bolger worked a comedy and dance act up and down the East Coast, winning a small part in the "Passing Show of 1926 on Broadway."
Three years later, his personal fortunes changed, although his professional triumphs were still a bit away.
He had been married to fellow vaudevillian Gwendolyn Rickard for two years when he landed a featured part in "George White's Sandals of 1931," which ran for two years. Next followed "Life Begins at 8:40" in 1934 and the New York critics finally were paying attention, calling him "an engaging comedian whose dancing never fails to steam up the audiences."
In 1936, the stardom that had eluded him finally arrived in the form of "On Your Toes," a musical dance drama with words by Lorenz Hart and music by Rodgers. More importantly to Bolger, it was choreographed by ballet master George Balanchine and in it, Bolger performed what he called the "hardest, most exhausting dance of his career."
It was a lengthy tour de force that began slowly and moved into triple taps, balletic flights of feigned horror and soaring leaps across the stage.
After the premiere he was to say, "Your legs you don't feel until afterward. They give way last. But I fainted half a dozen times backstage."
The legs managed somehow, however, to carry him to Hollywood, where he was given parts in "The Great Ziegfeld," "Rosalie," "Sweethearts," "The Wizard of Oz" and "Sunny."
But although Bolger said he "liked the movies," he also noted "there aren't so many with good spots in them for a fellow like me."
He returned to Broadway where he starred in "Keep Off the Grass," then another Rodgers and Hart musical, "By Jupiter," "Three to Make Ready" and "Where's Charley," in which he took the show's top production number "Once in Love With Amy" and stretched it into a 20-minute personal triumph that ran for more than 1,000 performances.
By then, his double-jointed antics--in which he would cavalierly extend a leg into what seemed the stratosphere--were seen as more than just mere dancing. A New York Times critic said Bolger "strives to convince his audience that he is feeling something, doing something, not just hoofing."