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Notes on a Cowardly Lion: The Biography of Bert Lahr, With a New Preface by the Author

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With a New Preface by the Author First published in 1969, Notes on a Cowardly Lion has established itself as one of the best-ever show business biographies. Drawing on his father's recollections and on the memories of those who worked with him, John Lahr brilliantly examines the history of modern American show business through the long and glorious career of his father--the With a New Preface by the Author First published in 1969, Notes on a Cowardly Lion has established itself as one of the best-ever show business biographies. Drawing on his father's recollections and on the memories of those who worked with him, John Lahr brilliantly examines the history of modern American show business through the long and glorious career of his father--the raucous low-comic star of burlesque, vaudeville, the Broadway revue and musical, Hollywood movies, and the legitimate stage. Here in rich detail is Lahr evolving from low--dialect comic to Ziegfeld Follies sophisticate, hamming it up with the Scarecrow and Tin Woodsman on the set of The Wizard of Oz, and debuting Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot in America, which Kenneth Tynan called "one of the most noble performances I have ever seen." In the examination of Bert Lahr's chronic insecurity and self-absorption, the breakdown of his first marriage, and the affectionate arm's length he kept between himself and his adoring second family, John Lahr's book also brings the reader closer than any other theater biography to the private torment of a great funny man. This edition of the book includes the award-winning essay "The Lion and Me," John Lahr's intimate reflections on family life with his distant, brooding, but lovable father. A first-class stylist, John Lahr takes the reader beyond the magic of show business to a dazzling examination of how a performing self is constructed and staged before the paying customers. Both as theater history and biography, Lahr's book is superb.


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With a New Preface by the Author First published in 1969, Notes on a Cowardly Lion has established itself as one of the best-ever show business biographies. Drawing on his father's recollections and on the memories of those who worked with him, John Lahr brilliantly examines the history of modern American show business through the long and glorious career of his father--the With a New Preface by the Author First published in 1969, Notes on a Cowardly Lion has established itself as one of the best-ever show business biographies. Drawing on his father's recollections and on the memories of those who worked with him, John Lahr brilliantly examines the history of modern American show business through the long and glorious career of his father--the raucous low-comic star of burlesque, vaudeville, the Broadway revue and musical, Hollywood movies, and the legitimate stage. Here in rich detail is Lahr evolving from low--dialect comic to Ziegfeld Follies sophisticate, hamming it up with the Scarecrow and Tin Woodsman on the set of The Wizard of Oz, and debuting Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot in America, which Kenneth Tynan called "one of the most noble performances I have ever seen." In the examination of Bert Lahr's chronic insecurity and self-absorption, the breakdown of his first marriage, and the affectionate arm's length he kept between himself and his adoring second family, John Lahr's book also brings the reader closer than any other theater biography to the private torment of a great funny man. This edition of the book includes the award-winning essay "The Lion and Me," John Lahr's intimate reflections on family life with his distant, brooding, but lovable father. A first-class stylist, John Lahr takes the reader beyond the magic of show business to a dazzling examination of how a performing self is constructed and staged before the paying customers. Both as theater history and biography, Lahr's book is superb.

30 review for Notes on a Cowardly Lion: The Biography of Bert Lahr, With a New Preface by the Author

  1. 5 out of 5

    Mom

    I really enjoyed reading about Bert Lahr. His life was very interesting. I felt the book was a little uneven and I felt there were gaps in telling about his family life. The chapters that told about his career were well written and gave a clear picture of Bert Lahr's talent. It's unfortunate that he didn't get the accolades that he deserved. I would recommend this book to anyone who is a fan of his and wants to learn about his talents beyond the Wizard of Oz.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Theresa

    I'm going to rhapsodize here for a bit, so just settle in. Everyone knows and loves Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion from 'The Wizard of Oz'. He speaks to all of us, touching our hearts, young and old. When the Cowardly Lion admits that he lacks courage, everybody’s heart is out to him. He must be somebody who embodies all his pathos, sweetness, and yet puts on the comic bravura. ... Bert had that quality to such a wonderful degree. It was in his face. It was in his walk. It was in himself. Bert La I'm going to rhapsodize here for a bit, so just settle in. Everyone knows and loves Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion from 'The Wizard of Oz'. He speaks to all of us, touching our hearts, young and old. When the Cowardly Lion admits that he lacks courage, everybody’s heart is out to him. He must be somebody who embodies all his pathos, sweetness, and yet puts on the comic bravura. ... Bert had that quality to such a wonderful degree. It was in his face. It was in his walk. It was in himself. Bert Lahr is often cited as the greatest American comedian ever. He was also the last of the generation whose comedy was developed in the worlds of burlesque and vaudeville - highly physical relying most on body and face to cause laughter, less on words and intellectual subtlety, although inventive word-play was critical and one of Bert's gifts. But underlying Bert's physical and verbal comedy was a great sadness and pathos, and that's what made it memorable. Born at the very end of the 20th Century, growing up in poverty in the German/Jewish Yorkville section of Manhattan (now an enclave of the Upper Middle Class and well-to-do), entering the performance world at the age of 15, Bert never lost that sense of imminent doom, of struggle to survive, experienced in his childhood. It was in the very core of his being, informing both personal and professional lives. Every single one of his performances reflects that -- from his early days in burlesque through his final acting days in films and commercials (he was the Lay's Potato Chip spokes person in the 60's - "can't eat just one"). You can see it even in his Cowardly Lion. Bert always had artistic hopes and feelings; but the life he was given squelched that. His comedy was always conscious of a lack of privilege. He wants to be the artist; he wants to have the vignette of the enlightened guy. He knows he can never attain it; and so he laughs it off. The audience laughs with him, while he’s slipping on an intellectual banana peel. Bert was a uniquely focused performer, working harder and longer and more intently than anyone on his routines. He was intent on being acclaimed but also on making money. He'd take roles just to make money, even if he knew the script was poor, because he saw something in it, believed he could overcome the weaknesses, and he was being paid well. He frequently described himself as 'being in it for the money'. In his personal life, he was aloof, remote, often depressed and unable to interact. He isolated himself from his family, intent on his crossword puzzles, scripts, own worries and anxieties. Bert was a difficult demanding performer -- the bane of many directors -- because he required a lot of attention -- to assuage his anxieties, his worry (he worried constantly about every little detail of the show, the performance), his demands to change scripts and staging, his insistance on working non-stop hour after hour. And yet, those same directors saluted him as the best and deserving of the attention. Lahr was incredibly self-absorbed, not 'seeing' his first wife's mental illness for too long yet feeling guilty throughout the remainder of his life for not seeing it and even contributing perhaps to it. Today he'd be described as suffering from OCD, maybe even bi-polar. During his lifetime, he was essentially considered a gifted artist, one allowed his eccentricities. His second family (this son John Lahr is the author of this biography) always knew he loved them even if he was not vocal or demonstrative. He was always worrying and fretting when he was not working or anticipating a project. He was only really happy working. Bert essentially left home and joined burlesque, performing in skits on the boards, gradually honing skills, routines, and even gimmicks that he carried over into vaudeville as burlesque died, then onto the Broadway stage in musical reviews put on by Ziegfeld and others. He became a headliner and in the late 1930s, was offered a role in a movie in 1938 and moved to Hollywood, convinced this was where his future success rested. After making 'Wizard of Oz' in 1939, he expected to be in high demand in the movies but it didn't happen -- because he'd been a lion, not himself. He moved the family back to NY and Broadway where he stayed, occasionally taking another movie role but mostly sticking to live theater and commercials/television work (he did many of his famous routines from burlesque and vaudeville on the Ed Sullivan Show for example, which was filmed in NYC.). One of his greatest performance opportunities, and perhaps the one I wish I'd been able to see (I was 2 years old when he gave it) was his originating Estragon in Samuel Beckett's 'Waiting for Godot' in the premier performance of the play in the US, playing opposite first Tom Ewell (Seven Year Itch) as Vladimir in the failed Miami production then opposite E.G. Marshall. I have seen many many productions of this play, have read it in both French and English, yet reading John Lahr's chapter on it was revelatory. It should be required reading for everyone who has studied or attended 'Waiting for Godot.' I cannot imagine anyone more perfect that Bert Lahr to perform Estragon. Bert described the play as follows: When I first read it, I realized that this was not stark tragedy. Beneath it was tremendous humor, two men trying to amuse themselves on earth by playing jokes and little games. And that was my conception. ... Lahr understood the play not from a literary point of view but strictly from a theatrical one. And here is where the genius of John Lahr's biography really shines; it's not just a biography of his father, it is also a biography of the comedian as artist and the comic threater from burlesque through Beckett and beyond. He details the shows, skits, actors, directors, studio heads, and even the critics. It should be required reading for anyone performing live comedy or in musical comedies. Interestingly, in spite of his self-absorption in performance, or maybe because of it, and his hunger, his desperate need to get the biggest - and last - laugh, Bert was a mentor. He taught me about the craft of comedy,” says Miss Lansbury. “He taught me about the signposts and props that hold up a funny situation and how you build it. The rules have to do with movement. (yes, that is Angela Lansbury, whose first stage appearance was in the Feydeau French Farce 'Hotel Paradiso' in which Bert starred). Bert Lahr died in December 1967, while filming 'The Night They Raided Minsky's'. He'd been suffering periodic mysterious fevers off and on for a couple of years, but even after consulting many doctors and having many tests performed no one could find what was wrong. He dies never knowing he had cancer, an illness he feared getting. He died without seeing published this marvelous biography written by his son, but not before it was finished. The copy I read was a re-issue with an updated forward by John Lahr, whose love for his father shines through. John Lahr himself is a famed theater critic and author of several award winning books, mostly biographies of either individuals (Tennessee Williams for example, and Dame Edna) or of the theater itself. I will read anything this man has written, he is so good, so engaging. Yes, there were moments where the reading felt as if here was just a little too much minutiae about the development of a show or Bert's thought process in developing a performance. But that's also where it is a valuable reference for anyone who performs in or loves theater comedy. Those moments of feeling bogged down in detail are quickly forgotten when you whiz through sections like the making of 'Wizard of Oz' and development of 'Waiting for Godot', or the difficulties Bert faced in the French farce technique of 'Hotel Paradiso' (French farce is scripted physical comedy whereas Bert's comedy was improvisational or developed out of the text not the stage directions in the play - a difference I never knew or understood before and which explains why so few French farces are performed today -it's a style of comedy that is obsolete). I found this ebook by accident and borrowed it from NYPL in early March, thinking, wrongly, that I would have time to read it while finishing Proust. Well between Proust and pandemic, I kept renewing it every 3 weeks until now. In that time, no one else put in a demand for it. I'm hoping at least a few people will now read this gem.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Helen Robare

    I was very glad to find this book and began reading it the day I received it. FOUR days later, I'm still trying to finish it. :( I expected a biography of the actor and a picture of the man himself but instead felt like I received a book about his films. It wasn't that it wasn't an informative or interesting book but if you were looking for a true biography, this was not the book to read for that purpose. Did I learn a few things I didn't know about the actor? Yes, I did. But the few gems reveal I was very glad to find this book and began reading it the day I received it. FOUR days later, I'm still trying to finish it. :( I expected a biography of the actor and a picture of the man himself but instead felt like I received a book about his films. It wasn't that it wasn't an informative or interesting book but if you were looking for a true biography, this was not the book to read for that purpose. Did I learn a few things I didn't know about the actor? Yes, I did. But the few gems revealed in the book did not make up for the drudgery of trying to mine for them. IF you are a true lover of classic films and biographies, then read buy and read this book but be warned it may be very slow and tedious going.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Ron Pederson

    This is an epic show biz tale about a singular performer who saw it all. Burlesque to Vaudeville, the advent of motion pictures, talkies to technicolour, the invention of the broadway musical and television; hustling all the way. A great cultural history lesson combined with an in-depth character study of a radically resilient and almost forgotten American comedy legend. An intimate portrait by a devoted son and I may add a beautiful writer. I came to have gargantuan respect not only for Bert La This is an epic show biz tale about a singular performer who saw it all. Burlesque to Vaudeville, the advent of motion pictures, talkies to technicolour, the invention of the broadway musical and television; hustling all the way. A great cultural history lesson combined with an in-depth character study of a radically resilient and almost forgotten American comedy legend. An intimate portrait by a devoted son and I may add a beautiful writer. I came to have gargantuan respect not only for Bert Lahr but also became a huge fan of John Lahr too.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Marilyn

    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 written more than 40 years ago about a show business figure who peaked more than 70 years ago still 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 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 written more than 40 years ago about a show business figure who peaked more than 70 years ago still 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 too. 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. Twelve 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. Yes, 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 what I used to perceive as 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 their movie concept of musical comedy. Lahr’s comic genius never really 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. Born into poverty, Lahr was always very conscious about being financially secure. BertLahrEven when he returned to Broadway where he found his greatest success over the years, Lahr never felt financially secure even 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 ever did for starring in a play, movie or TV special. He still didn’t feel financially secure. Bert Lahr did find some unexpected late professional success with surprising turns in work like “Waiting For Godot” co-starring with the likes of E.G. Marshall. Lahr savored critical acclaim, but was never satisfied even when he received it. 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 thinking others were always trying to undermine him. He was insecure as an aging, respected legend believing 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, 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 and their laughter and applause. He couldn’t let it go and move on, nor 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 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 theater. 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 ones perspective and ones feet on the ground.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Amara Tanith

    A copy of this book was provided free via Netgalley for the purpose of review. I was quite excited to read Notes on a Cowardly Lion, but unfortunately I found myself somewhat disappointed. Most people know Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion from the famous film adaptation of The Wizard of Oz. In that role, his character is--as the name implies--not the most ferocious or intimidating of beasts. He's hilarious, really, and so I think I must have been expecting to see that reflected in this retelling of A copy of this book was provided free via Netgalley for the purpose of review. I was quite excited to read Notes on a Cowardly Lion, but unfortunately I found myself somewhat disappointed. Most people know Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion from the famous film adaptation of The Wizard of Oz. In that role, his character is--as the name implies--not the most ferocious or intimidating of beasts. He's hilarious, really, and so I think I must have been expecting to see that reflected in this retelling of Lahr's life. But the vast majority of what I read was far from hilarious. When deciding whether or not to read this book, I advise caution. If you're a fan of early Hollywood and are willing to see its stars with all their human flaws, this is the perfect book to help you explore Bert Lahr's life. Written by his son, it recounts his entire showbusiness career and much of his family life. And it certainly isn't shy about the shortcomings of its subject; Bert Lahr is presented with surprisingly little bias, considering who the author is. That's certainly admirable. Unfortunately, it backfired on me. I, regrettably, am not one of those aforementioned Hollywood fans. I prefer to keep my creators--my actors and actresses, my musicians, my authors--a mystery; I've found that in my case, becoming aware of their flaws detracts from my enjoyment of their works. Notes on a Cowardly Lion reinforced this for me like nothing else has; by the time I was finished the book, I'd developed a strong dislike for Bert Lahr as a person... which is certainly hard to reconcile with my favorable opinion of Bert Lahr as the Coward Lion. That's not to say that I didn't enjoy Notes on a Cowardly Lion. It truly is a fascinating book, offering priceless glimpses into a world I knew nothing about--vaudeville, Broadway during the first half of the 20th century, early Hollywood. I adored the chapter about The Wizard of Oz. I delighted in the peripheral name-dropping of some of my favorite early celebrities. If you're the kind of person willing to embrace artists as people with all their flaws, I definitely recommend Notes on a Cowardly Lion to you. If you're not, you might be better served with a non-biographical look at Bert Lahr's world.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Debra Pawlak

    This book surprised me. As a boomer who grew up watching Bert Lahr play the Cowardly Lion in 'The Wizard of Oz' (1939), I had no idea that the actor was a huge star on Broadway. Chronicled by his son, John, Lahr's career began in vaudeville and burlesque where he honed his skills. The younger Lahr was a theater critic and sometimes delved a little too deeply into the plays in which his father appeared. He did cover Lahr's first wife who had a history of serious mental illness, but the son they h This book surprised me. As a boomer who grew up watching Bert Lahr play the Cowardly Lion in 'The Wizard of Oz' (1939), I had no idea that the actor was a huge star on Broadway. Chronicled by his son, John, Lahr's career began in vaudeville and burlesque where he honed his skills. The younger Lahr was a theater critic and sometimes delved a little too deeply into the plays in which his father appeared. He did cover Lahr's first wife who had a history of serious mental illness, but the son they had together was barely mentioned. Lahr tried his best to help his wife, but little could be done back then. He always felt responsible for her and took her eventual death very hard. Lahr was a brilliant performer and perfectionist who instinctively knew what would work in front of an audience and what wouldn't. Obsessive about his performances, he was rarely wrong. I was also reminded about the Lay's Potato Chip commercials he made back in the sixties. I had forgotten about them. I actually found myself pulling them up on YouTube. Lay's should dust them off and run them again. They are just as good now as they were 50 years ago. Bert Lahr still makes me laugh. He was one of a kind and there was much more to him than the man in the lion suit!

  8. 4 out of 5

    Nancy barrett

    Really wanted to like this book as I loved the movie and Bert Lahr but... I couldn't finish it. His son really tried to chronicle the life of his Father, a larger than life figure who struggled off stage. The jumping around in the writing made it impossible for me, seem like he was trying to make a novel in the midst of a biography.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Chris Pomeroy

    Going full five on this deeply felt, erudite volume that is a paean to Lahr’s father Bert, but also a wide ranging history of comedy. Bert Lahr came up as an actor in burlesque (a very different form of entertainment than what we think of as burlesque today), and then evolved with comedy through vaudeville, into early musicals (like Ziegfeld’s follies), early sound films, and beyond. John Lahr never sentimentalizes his dad. Bert was ambitious to the point of absolute distraction; he could barely Going full five on this deeply felt, erudite volume that is a paean to Lahr’s father Bert, but also a wide ranging history of comedy. Bert Lahr came up as an actor in burlesque (a very different form of entertainment than what we think of as burlesque today), and then evolved with comedy through vaudeville, into early musicals (like Ziegfeld’s follies), early sound films, and beyond. John Lahr never sentimentalizes his dad. Bert was ambitious to the point of absolute distraction; he could barely be bothered with basic family matters. And yet his comic gift captured the imagination of so many, even today. One of the reasons I picked this book up was because of Bert Lahr’s performance in The Wizard of Oz, which I was watching with my kids recently. I hadn’t seen the movie in awhile, and Lahr’s performance was a revelation to me. There’s a wonderful chapter in the book about the making of Oz. Another huge highlight comes late in the book, when the author tells us about his father’s involvement in the first major American production of Waiting for Godot (Bert played Estragon). Ultimately, what we have here is a deeply involving (and very intelligent) hybrid of memoir and cultural history. Can’t recommend this enough to anyone interested in show business, comedy, and, perhaps especially, the cost (and toll) of personal ambition / obsession.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Peggy A. Miller

    It was a heartfelt tribute from a son to his father. This book takes us behind the scenes of a troubled but strong willed Genius. Both Funny, sad, it runs the course of an interesting man's life. It started a little slow but turned into a page turner. Lahr's comic genius never really 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. Successful to a gre It was a heartfelt tribute from a son to his father. This book takes us behind the scenes of a troubled but strong willed Genius. Both Funny, sad, it runs the course of an interesting man's life. It started a little slow but turned into a page turner. Lahr's comic genius never really 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. Successful to a great degree, he was nearly immobilized by insecurity, never really believing that he deserved to be successful and never trusting his own talent.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Jan

    Interesting observations by the son of Bert Lahr. Enjoyed reading about the early days of his career, his first marriage, early years in Hollywood... It so often appears that comedians are not very "funny" in their lives off stage and/or out of the limelight - Bert Lahr was no exception. It was a good read but, not a "page turner"....would only recommend this to someone who is a huge fan of Bert Lahr.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Edward Kaplan

    Masterful son's ode to his father Took a very long time to finish this extraordinarily detailed view into a truly great actor. The author, Bert Lahr's son, has provided an intimate opening into a complex personality whose insistence on professionalism oftimes necessitated neglect of wife, children, friends. Despite his numerous successes, we see Bert as a truly vulnerable and sympathetic person. A book well worth the time no effort to finish!

  13. 5 out of 5

    Tammie Gunter

    Super awesome book, I learned so much about Bert Lahr. Love the Woz Stories.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Marilyn

    By Garry Armstrong It’s been more than a week since I finished reading the Bert Lahr biography, “Notes on a Cowardly Lion“, written by his son, John. I am still emotionally involved. Why? Why does a book written more than 40 years ago about a show business figure who peaked more than 70 years ago still 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 By Garry Armstrong It’s been more than a week since I finished reading the Bert Lahr biography, “Notes on a Cowardly Lion“, written by his son, John. I am still emotionally involved. Why? Why does a book written more than 40 years ago about a show business figure who peaked more than 70 years ago still 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 too. 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. Twelve 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 travelled in the United States and overseas. I’ve always enjoyed and appreciated my celebrity. Yes, 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 what I used to perceive as 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 their movie concept of musical comedy. Lahr’s comic genius never really 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. Born into poverty, Lahr was always very conscious about being financially secure. Even when he returned to Broadway where he found his greatest success over the years, Lahr never felt financially secure even 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 ever did for starring in a play, movie or TV special. He still didn’t feel financially secure. Bert Lahr did find some unexpected late professional success with surprising turns in work like “Waiting For Godot” co-starring with the likes of E.G. Marshall. Lahr savored critical acclaim, but was never satisfied even when he received it. 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 thinking others were always trying to undermine him. He was insecure as an aging, respected legend believing 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, 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 and their laughter and applause. He couldn’t let it go and move on, nor 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 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 ones perspective and ones feet on the ground.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Lori

    I would give this book a 3.5. It was written by John Lahr, Bert Lahr's son. It took him six years to write the book about his dad. He interviewed many people who worked with and knew the actor. including Bert Lahr himself. This book originally came out in the late 1960s. I was glad to see the author reissued the book. As in any biography, it starts at Bert Lahr's birth in 1895 in New York, New York. It spans his whole life. Bert dropped out of school at 15 and started in show business, at first I would give this book a 3.5. It was written by John Lahr, Bert Lahr's son. It took him six years to write the book about his dad. He interviewed many people who worked with and knew the actor. including Bert Lahr himself. This book originally came out in the late 1960s. I was glad to see the author reissued the book. As in any biography, it starts at Bert Lahr's birth in 1895 in New York, New York. It spans his whole life. Bert dropped out of school at 15 and started in show business, at first with a youth group, that specialized in comedy. soon he came home and started on the stage. by then it was in the burlesque theater. over the years he was on stage as a comedic actor. He was soon in many plays on Broadway working with many famous actors and actresses. He also appeared on Radio in the 30s. Most know Bert Lahr as his role in The Wizard of Oz as the Cowardly Lion. I was a bit disappointed that there was less than a chapter writing about mr.Lahr's working on this movie. it was still interesting to read that part of his filming the movie Wizard of Oz { the costume was very heavy, he had to go through a couple hours of makeup on his face} He had to drink his meal from a straw. so not a fun experience. the author writes about the first marriage, of mr Lahr, he had to eventually put his first wife in a mental institution for severe mental illness. he married a second time to the author's mother Mildred. Although a funny talented actor, Bert Lahr had his insecurities on the plays and movies he was in. He had his difficulties during different plays such as "Waiting for Godot",a dramatic play. I found this book interesting. sometimes the chapters tended to drag on in parts. but for the most part it was nice to learn more about the actor, Bert Lahr.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Allen

    I was eager to read this since I saw it in a comic store in their book bin section. I got the first edition of the paperback that came out in 1970. There are lots of laborious parts where the writer, son of Bert Lahr, goes into way too much detail about some of the broadway shows reviews and such, but if you stay with it it is really worth it. The writing gets better as it goes on. I particually liked the end where we sort of go on an outing with Bert to some of his old haunts around NY in 1967. I was eager to read this since I saw it in a comic store in their book bin section. I got the first edition of the paperback that came out in 1970. There are lots of laborious parts where the writer, son of Bert Lahr, goes into way too much detail about some of the broadway shows reviews and such, but if you stay with it it is really worth it. The writing gets better as it goes on. I particually liked the end where we sort of go on an outing with Bert to some of his old haunts around NY in 1967. This must of been his last time out as he passed away a couple of months later. A very sad story, that has lots of ups and downs. Would have loved to read more about when he played the Cowardly Lion but I figure I'll have to get some of the other books that focus on that movie. And I will. Everyone should read this. Especially people that remember some of those old actors and comedians. I remembered most of them. I even went to On Demand on my TV Cable provider and on the TMC channel was one of Bert's old movies! Always Leave Them Laughing (1949) It starred Milton Berle. This was as I was reading the book! Wow, I got to see the famous policman's sketch! Burt says in the book it was his worst time ever making a movie, shooting that one with Milton. Yikes. Read this book.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Pamela Simone

    Insightful It was a heartfelt tribute from a son to his father. John Lahr's biography is not only a revelation to the reader but based on the narrative, it was the way John finally gained access to his father. With actors, there are the roles they play for the audience and the roles they play in their real lives. Lahr is revealed to be a sad, complex man behind the public personae. While his father was distant in many ways, John's love and respect shine through this "warts and all" biography of man Insightful It was a heartfelt tribute from a son to his father. John Lahr's biography is not only a revelation to the reader but based on the narrative, it was the way John finally gained access to his father. With actors, there are the roles they play for the audience and the roles they play in their real lives. Lahr is revealed to be a sad, complex man behind the public personae. While his father was distant in many ways, John's love and respect shine through this "warts and all" biography of man who played one of the most beloved characters of the silver screen. For anyone with a love of theater history, this provides good background of the development of musical theater. For actors, there is the struggle of character development and behind the scenes give and take between performers. The person side shows a man born into poverty and his struggle to break free from his past. Yet he found once he got there, the struggle to maintain that position. All through his triumphs, he always feared losing it all. His insecurity of not being good enough. The reality of climbing to success and the evolution and decline of his career. Maybe that is why the Cowardly Lion is his most iconic role because they had so much in common.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Ron

    This is Bert Lahr's biography by his son, John. Because Bert Lahr was so private, except on stage where he revealed so much of himself, we don't really get to know the man. We do learn about the changes in comedy through his lifetime as Lahr responded to changing tastes in comedy and theater. Lahr, worked from his gut. His son makes clear that Lahr did not overthink his craft or even the parts he played. He simply knew at a gut level what to do and then refined his performance based on audience This is Bert Lahr's biography by his son, John. Because Bert Lahr was so private, except on stage where he revealed so much of himself, we don't really get to know the man. We do learn about the changes in comedy through his lifetime as Lahr responded to changing tastes in comedy and theater. Lahr, worked from his gut. His son makes clear that Lahr did not overthink his craft or even the parts he played. He simply knew at a gut level what to do and then refined his performance based on audience reaction. Lahr's son does not indulge in any pity either for himself or for Bert Lahr as he shares who his father was and how little depth Lahr gave to their relationship. Son, John, though, comes from an era when the unspoken love was still known and appreciated. John Lahr is a pretty good writer and a heck of a theater critic. It's worth a read.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Anna

    This was a DNF (did not finish) for me. I respect the effort of the son to chronicle the life of his Father, who to the public was a larger than life figure, at least for a little while. But the way the beginning of this book is written, with a scene between the aforesaid Father and son (Bert and John Lahr) was boring to me. I'm not really interested in John's insights, experiences or feelings. I just want facts that are well-written, interesting anecdotes and maybe something a little deeper. In This was a DNF (did not finish) for me. I respect the effort of the son to chronicle the life of his Father, who to the public was a larger than life figure, at least for a little while. But the way the beginning of this book is written, with a scene between the aforesaid Father and son (Bert and John Lahr) was boring to me. I'm not really interested in John's insights, experiences or feelings. I just want facts that are well-written, interesting anecdotes and maybe something a little deeper. In other words, I like straight biography. I don't enjoy ones that try to be a novel. So I quit because it was just not my thing. Tell it straight, and maybe I'll listen. *I received an Advanced Reading E-book Copy from the publisher, via NetGalley. No money or favors were exchanged for this review. This book was published on January 22nd, 2013.*

  20. 4 out of 5

    ED Martin

    A nice theater history book, with a back drop of the life of Burt Lahr. A respectful, objective, loving memoir of a son. I was disappoint that the objectivity did not extent to completing the story of Lahr's 1st wife Mercedes and oldest son Herbert. I found on You Yube a 1956 "What's Mine Line" episode featuring Lahr. At the end of the show, the host asks him about his 3 children, and he claims only to have two. There is an obvious uncomfortable moment for him. In the book, it is mentioned that A nice theater history book, with a back drop of the life of Burt Lahr. A respectful, objective, loving memoir of a son. I was disappoint that the objectivity did not extent to completing the story of Lahr's 1st wife Mercedes and oldest son Herbert. I found on You Yube a 1956 "What's Mine Line" episode featuring Lahr. At the end of the show, the host asks him about his 3 children, and he claims only to have two. There is an obvious uncomfortable moment for him. In the book, it is mentioned that he often forgets his children's name or forgets to mention his current wife during an interview. But in this case the hosts feeds Lahr. John gives a glimpses of his and his sister's Jane relationship with their father, but not Herbert's. But all in all an important book for lovers of theater history.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Andrew

    Great Biography Bert Lahr was a great entertainer , starring in burlesque, vaudeville and Broadway, not to mention his classic cowardly lion role in the Wizard of Oz. This book written by his son ,noted theater critic John Lahr, is a tribute by son to father and a history of show business during the first sixty years of the twentieth century. Having recently lost my father, I found this book particularly moving as the love John shows for his dad, who was a difficult dad to be sure, is evident th Great Biography Bert Lahr was a great entertainer , starring in burlesque, vaudeville and Broadway, not to mention his classic cowardly lion role in the Wizard of Oz. This book written by his son ,noted theater critic John Lahr, is a tribute by son to father and a history of show business during the first sixty years of the twentieth century. Having recently lost my father, I found this book particularly moving as the love John shows for his dad, who was a difficult dad to be sure, is evident throughout. Again, this book a recommended highly especially for show business fans.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Ellen

    I've long been a fan of show business biographies -- more so the performers from the first half of last century. "Notes on a Cowardly Lion" did not disappoint. Bert Lahr's accomplished career was an education to me. John Lahr's account through his father's eyes was entertaining if not a bit skewed (I'm sure) and at times overly informative. I continue with my amazement by the dichotomy of many great performer's personalities: star quality performances mixed with a lot of low self esteem and self I've long been a fan of show business biographies -- more so the performers from the first half of last century. "Notes on a Cowardly Lion" did not disappoint. Bert Lahr's accomplished career was an education to me. John Lahr's account through his father's eyes was entertaining if not a bit skewed (I'm sure) and at times overly informative. I continue with my amazement by the dichotomy of many great performer's personalities: star quality performances mixed with a lot of low self esteem and self doubt. How do they manage to get on stage?!? All in all, a good read.

  23. 5 out of 5

    James Roman

    This has gotta be the best book ever written about the history of show business in America! From Second Avenue vaudeville, to "The Wizard of Oz" in Hollywood, to the groundbreaking theatrics of "Waiting For Godot," to the final money-maker: selling potato chips on TV commercials, Bert Lahr did it all! Well-written by his son John, with fascinating anecdotes about some of America's most important entertainment milestones. Funny, sad, and absolutely haunting.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Christopher

    John Lahr is one of the best theatre critics writing today. This biography on his father is an excellent and frank account of a complicated man and a particularly interesting time in American theatre/film history. A must grease paint and lime light crowd. Should be on your shelf right next to Moss Hart's Act One.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Michelle's Book

    While I would not have generally chosen this book, I did find it a good read. I do reccommend this book as I learned a lot about the person who played the cowardly lion. I was given an ARC in exchange for my honest opinion. This book cover is on my Pinterest board and my blog, Michelle Dragalin’s Journey.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Corey

    This was just a great book. Don't get distracted by the great coverage of the Wizard of Oz, it is really tempting to put the book down and find a great book on Oz. Also, make sure you have YouTube all fired up. There are great clips of Bert Lahr to accompany your reading and make this an interactive experience.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Tracy

    3.5 Bert Lahr is one of my favorite personalities, so i was very excited to read this bio written by his son. John Lahr is able to recreate the "good old days" of entertainment for those of us who weren't even born during most of his father's career.

  28. 5 out of 5

    John Brown

    A Son Writes About His Father Bert Lahr gained immortality with one role: The Cowardly Lion in The Wizard Of Oz. His son fills us in on the rest of career in film and, more importantly, on the stage.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Thomas Emerson

    Best show-biz bio I've read, as well as a moving essay about a distant parent. Who's Bert Lahr? The Cowardly Lion in Oz, of course.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Steve Shilstone

    The fine writer, John Lahr, tells his dad's story beautifully. Fine look at hard scrabble vaudeville days, Wizard of Oz, Waiting For Godot.

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