Bert Lahr (1895-1967) was a popular burlesque and vaudeville performer and an actor and comedian in musical comedy, film, and television.
Bert Lahr (Irving Lahrheim), born on August 13, 1895, in Yorkville, New York, was the son of Jacob Lahrheim, a German immigrant and third generation upholsterer, and his wife Augusta. His childhood years were filled with tension, largely due to his parents' poverty. He fled to the streets for escape and dropped out of school. Lahr schooled himself by reading and going to the theater— in particular, to vaudeville and melodrama. He joined the other boys on the street singing with his booming baritone voice.
Lahr also tried his hand at various jobs but did not hold any of them long. In 1910 a friend asked him to be a part of a burlesque act, "The Seven Frolics." (Although burlesque eventually developed into striptease shows, in that era it was similar to a variety show with a series of robust comic skits, singing, and dancing.) In this particular show, and in many to come, Lahr drew on his German-Jewish background in creating his character, the Dutch comedian. Although the show was not successful, Lahr had determined his career. For the next five years he played in many different burlesque houses, with shows such as Little Red School-house and Nine Crazy Kids. It was not until 1922, however, that he gained entry into a successful burlesque circuit and began his ascent to stardom. His talent was recognized by Blutch Cooper, a prominent producer, who put him in the popular vehicle, The Best Show in Town. Lahr continued developing his comic Dutchman, wearing pouches under his eyes, a mustache, and a fake, bulbous nose. Loud, acrobatic, and frivolous, this character was the basis for all of his future work. He was the common man with foibles, someone the audience could relate to. Lahr rose above his unhappy background with his desire to make people laugh.
Bert Lahr's dedication and talent caught on fast—he became the lead comic in shows such as Folly Town (1919), Roseland Girls (1920-1921), and his greatest burlesque success, Keep Smiling (1921-1922). In that show he met Mercedes, a dancer who became his partner and wife. The two moved to the vaudeville circuit Orpheum Time, considered a step above burlesque. It was at this time that Lahr created his famous sketch "What's The Idea?," which he would use many times in his future work. It involved Mercedes, playing a beautiful Spanish dancer, meeting Lahr, the dumb cop. Although the interaction of these two characters was the essential ingredient of the skit, the plot could be changed to fit into different productions.
Lahr's true stardom came in 1927 when he began his highly successful Broadway career with Harry Delmar's Revels. For several years he played the leading comic role in musical comedies such as Hold Everything (1928), in which he played a boxer; Flying High (1930), in the role of an aviator; Florenz Ziegfeld's last spectacle, Hot-Cha (1932); and George White's Music Hall Varieties (1933), Life Begins At 8:40 (1934), and Scandals (1936). In all of these shows Lahr played to great critical and audience acclaim.
Lahr's ambition for growth and success led him to Hollywood in 1938. He made five films that year, including Just Around the Corner with Shirley Temple and Zaza in which Lahr played Cascart, a vaudeville performer. This was his first dramatic part (and the first of several films and plays in which he played a vaudevillian), and its success was due to his intimate and personal understanding of the role. Yet his comedy, in general, was not effective on the screen. He was a broad comedian, used to playing to large audiences, and the subtlety demanded by the camera seemed to diminish his talents. During his career he made several more films, but only one stands out and displays his true abilities—it is the part he will always be remembered for: the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz. It was different from his other films in that it relied on fantasy rather than romance and it gave Lahr a chance to shine. He used his popular boxing pose and his comic, inarticulate diction. He could finally be large and acrobatically comic on film. His performance in The Wizard of Oz was vibrant and sympathetic—the audiences related to him because they understood him as they had on stage. They saw the simple man whose fears and feelings they could share—and they laughed!
If Bert Lahr's popular success was The Wizard of Oz, the high point of his dramatic career was as Estragon in Samuel Beckett's existential classic, Waiting for Godot. Lahr played this part in the American premiére at the Cocoanut Grove Playhouse in Miami (1955). Billed as a comedy, the play was a failure. Yet when the play was later directed by Herbert Berghof, a famous acting teacher, it was a tremendous New York success and Lahr, in particular, was lauded for his poignant performance. Although he always claimed he did not understand the play, it was clearly his instinct for the part rather than his intellect that won over the audience. He was able to provide warmth and humor and ultimately bridge the gap between the play and the audience. He brought vulnerability and humor to Estragon—again the common man who sought the best in life and was disappointed. Theater critic Kenneth Tynan said that it was "one of the noblest performances I have ever seen."
Bert Lahr was one of the greatest comedians of modern times. He had the courage to challenge himself in many different areas of theater. Although self-educated, he was not afraid to take on the classics in television performances of Androcles and the Lion and The School for Wives (1956). At the American Shakespeare Festival he played Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1960), for which he received the Best Shakespearean Actor of the Year Award. In 1964 he won the Tony Award for Best Musical Actor in Foxy, a musical adaptation of Ben Jonson's classic, Volpone.
Lahr also made many appearances on television and in commercials. He fought hard to establish his career and he never quit. When he died on December 4, 1967, at the age of 75, he was in the midst of filming The Night They Raided Minsky's.
Bert Lahr had three children: Herbert, by his first wife; and John, a dramatic critic and author, and Jane, by his second wife, Mildred.
Further Reading on Bert Lahr
The most complete book on Bert Lahr is Notes on a Cowardly Lion, a biography of his work and personal life by his son, drama scholar John Lahr (1969, 2d ed. 1984). An insightful interview with Lahr is included in Actors Talk About Acting (1961), edited by Lewis Funke. Short biographies are also to be found in The Great Clowns of Broadway (1984) by Stanley Green; Famous Actors and Actresses on the American Stage, Vol. 2 (1975), by William C. Young (includes newspaper reviews); and Great Stars of the American Stage (1952) by Daniel Blum (includes photographs).