A wise old man once said, “The third time’s the charm!” While not superstitious, I have sometimes found this to be a truism. It certainly turned out to be in regard to my stage experiences in Oz.
The Stagecoach Players of DeKalb, Illinois, have a long and distinguished history. Formed in 1947, they originally performed in the barn of the John Ellwood Ilehamwood Farm in DeKalb. Their box office was a stagecoach, thus inspiring the troupe’s name.
They have a home theater where they put on most of their shows, but for Wizard they rented the historic Egyptian Theater in downtown DeKalb. Built in 1929, the theater, once a movie house as well as a performance area, seats 1400 people and is grandly decorated with Egyptian images, owing to the fact that in the 1920’s, when the tomb of Tutankhamen was uncovered, all things pharaonic were considered the bee’s knees.
Fastforward to 2004. Having twice failed at securing the role of my dreams, I was understandably bowled over when I heard from the director that I would, in fact, be playing the Cowardly Lion (and his Kansas counterpart Zeke)! I don’t know what it was that convinced co-directors Kathie Hart and Kathy Cain that I would suit the role, especially at my height (five feet, four inches), but I am forever grateful to them for choosing me.
(As a matter of fact, my being so much shorter than our Scarecrow and Tin Woodman helped to make the Lion a bit more sympathetic. After giving them the whole “Put ’em up! Put ’em up!” routine and then getting slapped by Dorothy, the Lion stands there crying as the other two stand up, making it clear how small the Lion is.)
I was able to take some pressure off of the wardrobe department because I already had a costume of my own. I’d bought it in the fiftieth anniversary year of the MGM film; the Warner Brothers Store sold very good replica costumes of Dorothy and her three companions. A friend of mine altered it to fit me better and constructed a pair of feet for it, as the “boot top” feet of the costume were at least twice the size of my own.
As for how to play the part, I had, you may well imagine, been considering that for years. I can do a passable imitation of Bert Lahr, but didn’t want to just do a pale copy of what had already been done so brilliantly. At the same time, I didn’t want to do something so different that the audience would wonder what the heck I was doing. I believe I struck a comfortable medium; I tried to present a Lion who was a bit younger and not quite as world-weary as Lahr’s, a Lion who still had a spark of optimism left in his heart.
Even so, I was greatly pleased when after one performance a man in the audience told me, “Bert Lahr would have been proud!”