So Long, Scarecrow

updated 02/02/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/02/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

And so we've lost the last of those four fabled travelers down the yellow brick road to Oz. First, Bert Lahr (Cowardly Lion), then, Judy Garland (Dorothy) and Jack Haley (Tin Man). Now Ray Bolger, the Scarecrow, is dead of cancer at 83.

In mid-November Bolger left the Beverly Hills home he had shared with Gwen, his wife of 57 years, and moved to an L.A. nursing home. It was tough going for a man who until 1984, when he was given an artificial hip, had danced for an hour a day.

Critics called him a natural dancer, but that was hardly the case. The gangly kid from Boston always considered himself more of a comic. He learned dancing late, to compensate for being a high school wallflower. But what critics called art, Bolger termed "throwing my body around." His dancing, he said, was the kind that made people say, "He's crazy, like Uncle Frank, but we love him."

Soon the would-be bank clerk was rubberlegging in vaudeville and later on Broadway, where in 1936 he became a star executing George Balanchine's exacting choreography in On Your Toes. (Bolger fainted backstage after opening night.) Another Broadway triumph was 1948's Where's Charley?, soft-shoeing through what became his signature song, Once in Love With Amy.

His career, spanning six decades, also included films, TV and clubs. But when The Wizard of Oz became a TV perennial in 1956 (amazingly the film wasn't a hit in 1939), Bolger expressed delight that "kids punch me to see if I'm made of straw." To those who asked Bolger if he got residual payments for every showing, his wife (the couple had no children) had the best answer. "Ray didn't get money," said Gwen, "just immortality."

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