Best known as the Scarecrow from "The Wizard of Oz," Ray Bolger was an angular, disjointed hoofer whose crackling voice and lilting smile made him a favorite of film fans and theatergoers for nearly 60 years.
Bolger, the dancer who liked to think of himself as more of a comedian, had enjoyed a career that included vaudeville in the 1920s ("Sanford and Bolger, a Pair of Nifties"), the Broadway stage ("On Your Toes," in which he first performed the Richard Rodgers classic "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue") and 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.
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.
Bolger wanted to stand out from his other dance classmates. 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.
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.
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 important 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."
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."