NOTES ON A COWARDLY LION by JOHN LAHR – Garry Armstrong

It’s been a while since I finished reading the Bert Lahr biography, “Notes on a Cowardly Lion“, written by his son, John. I am still emotionally involved.

Why does a book which was written more than 40 years ago about a show business figure who peaked more than 70 years ago sit front and center in my mind?

I’m a retired TV and radio news reporter with more than 40 years in “the business”. The “news biz” is journalism, but it’s also performance, even for those of us who strive for objectivity.

Part of the job is celebrity. When you appear on television five or six days a week for more than four decades, you become a household face. People ask for your autograph. You receive special treatment in stores and restaurants. Eighteen years into retirement, folks still recognize me, tell how they grew up watching me on TV and ask for autographs.

Mine is a regional celebrity although I’ve encountered fans almost everywhere I’ve traveled in the United States and overseas.

I’ve always enjoyed and appreciated my celebrity. I miss it a bit when I’m not recognized but I don’t get depressed if I go unnoticed. I needed to share a little of my life because it puts my feelings about the story of Bert Lahr’s life into perspective. I really understood in a very personal way where the man was coming from.

I enjoyed the biographical side of the book. It speaks to history, the history of vaudeville and burlesque, show business venues that are frequently misrepresented.

As a self-proclaimed trivia maven, I received a little education. Case in point: Clifton Webb, long perceived as a middle-aged effete, film actor actually was a well-received song and dance man in vaudeville.

I learned the difference between vaudeville and burlesque. I came to appreciate the art form of Bert Lahr’s overly broad slapstick comedy. I understood how Lahr’s art form suffered at the hands of Hollywood film directors who tried to minimize his well-honed craft and squeeze it into a musical comedy.

Lahr’s comic genius never had a chance to shine in Hollywood. “The Wizard of Oz” was the exception. But that success also spelled disaster in Tinseltown because Lahr never again received a film role like the Cowardly Lion.

Years later, he would find similar frustration with television which tried to restrict his comedic moves in variety shows. Lahr didn’t think much of TV comic legends like Milton Berle and Sid Caesar.

Ironically, both Berle and Caesar spoke highly of Lahr in lengthy interviews with me — even as they lamented the fading of their celebrity. But that’s another story.

Back to Bert Lahr. ย Born into poverty, Lahr was always worried about financial security.

BertLahrEven when he returned to Broadway where he found his greatest success over the years, Lahr never felt secure though he was earning top star salaries.

In later years, as a TV pitchman for Potato Chips, Lahr earned more money for a thirty-second commercial than he did for starring in a play, movie or TV special. He still didn’t feel secure.

Bert Lahr did find some unexpected late professional success with surprising turns in work like “Waiting For Godot” co-starring E.G. Marshall. Lahr savored critical acclaim but was never satisfied. It was never enough. For all of his professional and financial success, he was an unhappy man. He was insecure as an aspiring comedian/actor seeking stardom.

He was insecure as a star sure that others were trying to undermine him. He was insecure as he aged, a respected legend. He always believed people had forgotten him even though he was recognized everywhere he went. Lahr was miserable as a husband and father, demanding but not giving.

Lahr desperately needed the audience — the laughter, the applause — throughout his life. Sadly, ย he never appreciated the love and admiration he got from his family.

As the curtain closed on his life with his loved ones gathered around him, Lahr still longed for his audience, their laughter, and applause. He couldn’t let it go and move on, nor could he appreciate the good things life offered him. Lahr’s loneliness haunted me. The deeper I got into the book, the more painful I found reading his biography.

I know first-hand how intoxicating and addictive celebrity is, especially when you fail to appreciate real life. Bert Lahr was never able to see the joys and sorrows of family and friends as “the real thing” that makes the rest of it all worthwhile. It’s the celebrity that is unreal and ephemeral.

It’s the people who love you who will sustain you after the curtain closes and the audience departs the theatre. That Lahr was never able to recognize what he had and accept the love that was there for him was his personal tragedy.

It’s a fine biography, but not a joyful reading experience. It is in many ways a cautionary tale, a reminder of how important it is to keep one’s perspective and one’s feet on the ground.

Author: Garry Armstrong

As a reporter for Channel 7 in Boston for 31 years, I was witness to most of the major events affecting the region. I met a lot of people ... politicians, actors, moguls, criminals and many regular folks caught up in extraordinary situations. Sometimes, I write about the people I've met and places I've been. Sometimes, I write about life, my family, my dogs and me. Or what might otherwise be called Life.

20 thoughts on “NOTES ON A COWARDLY LION by JOHN LAHR – Garry Armstrong”

    1. I got the book to review, but it seemed more “up Garry’s alley.” It was, but he found it a pretty grim experience. Bert Lahr made his own life a misery and did his best to take everyone with him. That is truly sad. But at least Garry finally learned the difference between burlesque and vaudeville. Learning is good, so that’s something.

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    2. Patricia, thank you. I know YOU have seen this close up given your connecion to old Hollywood. I’ve seen it in people who have had diverse careers in the public spotlight. Actors, athletes, athletes, politicians, etc. There also are many who move on from their salad days.

      Remember “Ditto” ( actor Edward Brophy), the funny character in “The Last Hurrah”? The real life Ditto was an elevator operator at he Massachusetts State House in the 70’s when I met him. Our State House reporter had told me about him, “warning” me not to ask Ditto about his storied past because he’d launch into a long-winded conversation about his storied days with the legendary James Michael Curley. Okay, I was warned.
      One day, I was the only person on the elevator with Ditto. It was an OLD elevator that groaned as it slowly went up floor to floor. Ditto said nothing til letting me off on my floor. He smiled and said, “Hi, Mr. Armstrong. I know you’re new to Boston. If ever I can give you help, just let me know”. That was it. No James Michael Curley stories. Ditto DID help me, the reporter new to Boston, pointing out key political players in stories I was assigned to cover. if you didn’t know who was who, you would be lost trying to cover political stories correctly. I was always nervous covering the State House because I didn’t know the back stories and felt inadequate to do justice to my assignments. Ditto and a couple of other old timers rescued me many times over the years.
      A couple or three years after our first meeting, I ran into Ditto at “The Capital Dome”, a popular bar on Beacon Hill, frequented by politicians, lobbyists, political reporters and hanger on’s. I was sitting in a corner – alone – because I really didn’t know that crowd. Ditto approached, asked if he could join me and I nodded. I found his politeness charming because polite didn’t usually work around he State House. We sat, nursing our drinks for long minutes. Finally, Ditto told me he liked me because I was “friendly and polite”. I nodded. Then he said, “And, you never asked me about James Michael Curley”. I laughed, long and harder than intended. Ditto just sat there, beaming broadly.

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  1. I recall hearing that Elvis used to look at his buddies as they were riding a limo as ask “is this real?” I believe that was a very sincere question.
    Nope. It wasn’t real. He had lost his roots. And eventually killed himself.
    But he’s not the only one. Somewhere in that vacuum there’s a fairly long list.

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    1. Yes, it is. It really helps to have a family to keep you grounded … or be really dedicated to your work rather than your audience. If you are not looking for the loudest applause, but working the hardest you can to be the best you can, you will survive and be able to extract some pride from your work, whatever it is.

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      1. Very astutely put, Marilyn. Couldn’t agree more. It’s all about integrity and believing in your cause, and that’s something I identify with completely. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  2. Your statement “It’s the people who love you who will sustain you after the curtain closes” is so true Garry. What a shame that such a talented man didn’t realize that in his life time.
    Leslie

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    1. Many entertainers don’t. You can almost tell which ones are which. The ones who marry and stay with a mate and build a family are a million percent ahead of the serial marriers and those who have no roots and thing somehow drugs will do the job!

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            1. I’d rather have a husband I love than the money. Okay, there are times when I wonder why I can’t have both, but that’s quibbling. Money can buy you the perks, but they won’t buy you someone to love and who loves you back.

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      1. It’s an old but wise saying that Money does not buy Happiness. It can certainly buy you out of your curent problems but it simply then provides a whole new and ‘taxing’ set of bigger problems you need to deal with in order to be happy.

        Start by being happy and then if there is a need (or if the Universe decides to impose it) gain all the wealth you seek and i think that wil give you the best chance of being both rich and happy.

        But i was on about Celebrity – which is a whole other kettle of fried fish! ๐Ÿ˜‰

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