By Fred Muenz
Was there ever a movie more beloved than THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)? We smile at the thought of Ray Bolger as the Scarecrow and Jack Haley as the Tin Woodman, singing and dancing with Dorothy as they skip down The Yellow Brick Road. But what if Ray Bolger wasn’t the Scarecrow and Jack Haley wasn’t even in the movie? What if Bolger was the Tin Woodman, and Buddy Ebsen was the Scarecrow? That was the original cast of the film. Bolger and Ebsen swapped roles before filming began.
Christian Ludolf “Buddy” Ebsen Jr. was born in April, 1908, in Belleville, Illinois. His father was a choreographer and dance studio owner, while his mother was an artist. In 1918, the family moved to unincorporated Palm Beach County, Florida, and two years later they moved again, this time to Orlando. Buddy graduated from Orlando High School in 1926 and began attending the University of Florida, with the intention of becoming a doctor. The collapse of the Florida land boom in 1928 created a financial problem for the family and Buddy was forced to drop out of college. He and his sister, Velma, both of whom had been taught to dance by their father, left for New York to try their luck as dancers in Supper Clubs and vaudeville. Within a few years they were appearing in the Ziegfeld Follies and were booked at The Palace, the pinnacle of the vaudeville world. In 1935, Buddy and Velma were offered contracts by MGM, and left for Hollywood. After appearing in their first film together, BROADWAY MELODY OF 1936, Velma retired, despite Louis B. Mayer’s offer to make her “the next Myrna Loy”. Buddy went on to roles in numerous films, even dancing with both Shirley Temple and Judy Garland. By the time THE WIZARD OF OZ began filming, Ebsen had already recorded all of his songs and had gone through rehearsals. As filming began, however, he started having breathing issues and was hospitalized with severe lung problems caused by the aluminum dust used in the Tin Woodman makeup. He nearly died and would suffer from breathing issues for the rest of his life. The studio never acknowledged that the makeup was the cause of his problem but changed the makeup when they hired Jack Haley to replace Ebsen. Buddy Ebsen died in July, 2003, at age 95. Ironically, he outlived all the other major cast members of THE WIZARD OF OZ, by over 16 years.
Raymond Wallace “Ray” Bolger was born in Dorchester, Massachusetts in January, 1904. After attending vaudeville shows as a young boy, he decided that singing and dancing on stage was going to be his career. He began his vaudeville career in a tap-dancing act with a partner and by 1926, was appearing at The Palace in New York and in leading roles on Broadway. In 1936, he signed a contract with MGM and appeared in several musicals over the next few years. He was disappointed when cast for role of the Tin Woodman in THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939), as he had desperately wanted the Scarecrow role. His MGM contract, however, stipulated that he would play any part the studio assigned to him. When Buddy Ebsen agreed to switch parts, and the Producer and Director had no objections, he was overjoyed and threw himself into the Scarecrow role. While he continued to appear in films after THE WIZARD OF OZ, the stage was his first love and he appeared more often on Broadway. During World War II, he travelled with USO shows and appeared as himself in the film STAGE DOOR CANTEEN (1943). Hisfilm appearancesafter the warwere usually limited to small cameo roles. In 1953, he ventured into television with his own show, and continued to make guest appearances on TV for the rest of his career. Before his death in January, 1987, at age 83, he was asked if he received any residual payments when THE WIZARD OF OZ is shown on TV. He replied “No, just immortality, I’ll settle for that”.
John Joseph “Jack” Haley Jr. was born in Boston in August, 1897. His father was a waiter and ship’s steward who died in a shipwreck when Jack was only six months old. Haley began his show business career as a vaudeville song and dance man. One of his closest friends in vaudeville was comedian Fred Allen, who would later make frequent references to “Mr. Jacob Haley” during his radio shows. In 1927, Haley’s film career began by appearing in comedy shorts for Vitaphone in Brooklyn. Moving to Hollywood, he began appearing in a succession of comedies and musicals, including appearances with Shirley Temple, Judy Garland and Frank Morgan. Hired by MGM to replace Buddy Ebsen in THE WIZARD OF OZ, he re-recorded most of the songs, but his thick Boston accent forced the studio to leave Ebsen’s voice in several of the songs. Although the studio had changed the makeup after Ebsen’s illness, Haley still suffered multiple eye infections as a result of the aluminum paste now used in the makeup, which eventually necessitated surgery to save his eyesight. He said that the voice of Hickory, the farm worker, was his regular voice, while the Tin Man’s voice was the one he used when reading to his children. When asked if he enjoyed making THE WIZARD OF OZ, he remarked that it was “hell” and he hated going to the studio every morning. Despite his success in show business, his wife, Florence, continued to operate a beauty shop, referred to as “Flo Haley’s House of Correction”. Interestingly, his son, Jack Jr., married Judy Garland’s daughter, Liza Minnelli. Jack Haley died at age 81 in June, 1979, weeks after making a presentation at that year’s Academy Award Show together with his friend, Ray Bolger.
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