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'Wizard of Oz' Cowardly Lion costume could be yours (for a price)

James Comisar is taking offers for the suit Bert Lahr wore in main scenes of the 1939 film. The sale is to help fund the archivist's planned museum in Phoenix.

March 08, 2013|By Susan King, Los Angeles Times
  • Bert Lahr wore this Cowardly Lion costume in "The Wizard of Oz."
Bert Lahr wore this Cowardly Lion costume in "The Wizard of Oz." (The Comisar Collection )

For sale: one used lion costume.

But we're not talking just any lion costume.

Archivist James Comisar owns one of the largest archives of television artifacts, with about 10,000 individual objects. Now he's looking for a new home for the iconic Cowardly Lion costume designed by Gilbert Adrian and worn by Bert Lahr during all the "mane" sequences in the beloved 1939 film "The Wizard of Oz."

This may be the perfect time to pique collectors' interest in the costume because of the opening Friday of Sam Raimi's big-budget "Oz the Great and Powerful," which tells the story of how the wizard came to take up residence in the Emerald City.

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Comisar, 48, is selling the costume, which he acquired about 20 years ago, to bolster his $35-million capital campaign to fund a Museum of Television in Phoenix, which would house his collection. "We are just starting to engage the entertainment community in building awareness for the museum goal," said Comisar, who lives in Los Angeles.

The Comisar Collection Inc., currently stored in two massive climate-controlled facilities in Los Angeles, features such historical TV items as Ralph Kramden's bus driver jacket from "The Honeymooners," Maxwell Smart's shoe phone from "Get Smart," Johnny Carson's desk and couch set from "The Tonight Show," George Reeves' "Superman" costume and even a section of the downed plane from "Lost." The Cowardly Lion costume also is housed in one of the warehouses.

Items from his collection are currently on display at the Paley Center in Beverly Hills and are featured in the upcoming comedy "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone."

Comisar is planning to open a preview gallery of the museum by year's end and then hopes to open the doors of the 50,000-square-foot museum built out from an existing building in downtown Phoenix in 2016.

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So he's looking for someone with the courage to step up and buy the Cowardly Lion costume, which was made with real lion hair.

"I feel like I am placing a child in a good home," said Comisar, who began collecting TV memorabilia in the late 1980s while he was working as a TV writer.

He doesn't want to sell the costume through an auction house such as Bonhams or Profiles in History because he wouldn't be able to control who will get it. Comisar said that when Debbie Reynolds auctioned off her massive film memorabilia collection two years ago, a lot of the one-of-a-kind costumes and props were sold to buyers in "China, Macao and Dubai."

"It's unlikely these great Hollywood materials will ever return to the United States," he said. "As a curator of Hollywood history, this really chills me to the bone. We need to find a buyer for the Cowardly Lion outside of public auction. We need to engage the Hollywood community."

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Last year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences acquired a pair of Dorothy's iconic ruby slippers from "The Wizard of Oz" for the academy museum it is planning at the historic former May Co. building on Wilshire Boulevard. The Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, Steven Spielberg and Terry Semel were among the donors whose gifts to the Academy Foundation enabled it to make the purchase, and Comisar is hoping something similar might happen for him. He's entertaining offers via email, at jcomisar@museumoftv.org.

Comisar said he believes that if the Cowardly Lion costume was put up for formal auction, the pre-sale estimate would be in the $2 million to $3 million range.

The Cowardly Lion was far from a dandy lion when Comisar bought it from an individual who kept it in a Hefty bag. The unceremonious unveiling was accompanied by "a plume of dust and dirt," he recalled.

Comisar made a call to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and talked to textile conservator Cara Varnell to see if she would authenticate and conserve the costume.

In an email interview, Varnell confirmed that Comisar's Cowardly Lion costume "is the one worn in all the major scenes through the film." She said she and fellow conservator Irena Calinescu were able to make the determination by comparing the hair patterns of the costume with those in photos of Lahr wearing it. "All hair patterns are unique," she explained.

"The variation in color and tone, all of the hair whorls, bumps, nick, hair length were exact," she added.

As it happens, the Cowardly Lion is her favorite character in "The Wizard of Oz."

Even 20 years after she first helped conserve the Cowardly Lion, Varnell said that "when I do my occasional checkup," to examine the condition of the costume at Comisar's warehouse, "I am moved."

susan.king@latimes.com

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