Fear is a basic human emotion. It can stand for either Forget Everything and Run or Face Everything and Rise. Otherwise known as fight or flight.
In a classic children’s story, this common state, this uneasiness of mind and icy, paralyzing feeling of panic, was cleverly embodied in a character written to break stereotypes about cowardice. In the process, it showed that fear is everyone’s inner struggle and, in the end, it can be the precursor to bravery, if we only face it and act on it.
L. Frank Baum wrote about a “King of Beasts,” a lion that, instead of being the bravest of them all, as lions are surely perceived, happened to see himself as a coward. The Cowardly Lion did not fully understand that courage means acting in the face of fear, which he does frequently, without even knowing it.
Baum penned the Cowardly Lion and his quest for courage in his book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published in 1900. In 1939, a popular vaudeville and Broadway star named Bert Lahr used some of his trademark mannerisms to portray the lion to the best of his abilities. All the while he wore on the set a tremendously heavy 60-pound real-life skin.
Tucked away and forgotten for decades after the filming of The Wizard of Oz, Lahr’s costume reappeared in 1970 just before the landmark Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer auction. It was bought by a California chiropractor for $2,400. Fifteen years later, the same costume was sold to Bill Mack, a sculptor, who after acquiring it, sent the lion skin to a taxidermist for restoration. He also arranged for the headpiece to be re-created with a lifelike sculpture of Lahr. In December 2006, he sold it for $826,000, which made the costume one of the most valuable props ever used in Hollywood.
When interviewed after the sale, Mack jokingly said that he got away cheaply when buying it, stating that he “got it for a couple of thousands of dollars instead of a couple of hundred thousand.” Mack, however, thought that the real-life lion-skin costume that he bought was the only one. It wasn’t, for Lahr’s son, the distinguished American theater critic John Lahr, stipulated in his biography about his late father, entitled Notes on a Cowardly Lion, that there was more than one such costume.
And indeed, another real-lion skin costume was acquired by James Comisar, curator of the Comisar Collection, the largest group of television artifacts in the world. After confirming its authenticity, Comisar approached Herbert Lahr, another of the actor’s sons and who shares an uncanny resemblance to his father, to model the re-creation of the costume.
Because the Cowardly Lion’s original facial appliances were glued straight to Bert Lahr’s face, a face cast of Herbert was made so Comisar could restore the costume to the fullest effect. About the costume, Herbert remarked, “The Lion’s suit was very interesting. It was a real lion skin, and it weighed 60 pounds. My dad had to be in it all day, he couldn’t eat because of the way the mask was, so he had to eat his lunch through a straw.”
The face was the easiest part of the reparation process, for the real problems were the worn-out mane and the state of the costume itself. It was ripped in numerous places at the back due to the immense weight of the tail and had to be patched.
Because of this, the costume was sent to Cara Varnell, a textile conservation expert at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, who restored it to perfect condition. As for the Cowardly Lion’s mane, it was re-created from human hair imported from Italy at a cost of $22,000. More than 21 artisans worked for two whole years to complete the conservation. During all this time, up until 1989, the auctioneering company Profiles in History, on behalf of Mack, insisted they had Lahr’s one and only original costume.
After everything was finished and ready, Comisar’s Cowardly Lion costume was featured in the national media, including on The Oprah Winfrey Show. It was valued at a staggering $1.5 million, spurring many collectors to express interest in the costume, but Comisar rejected them all.
Eventually, the Commissar costume was sold on November 24, 2014, offered by Bonhams in their TCM-themed auction in New York City. As suspected, it received great interest and was sold for an unbelievable sum of $3.1 million–the highest known price for a costume worn by a male performer in any Hollywood production, making it the most valuable Hollywood object in existence.
In 2004, on the 65th anniversary of the release of the film, William Stillman published the book The Wizardry of Oz: The Artistry and the Magic of the M.G.M. 1939 Classic, in which he featured a full-page photograph of the Comisar Cowardly Lion costume. The accompanying text states, “While Bert Lahr appears to wear the same costume throughout the picture, others were available for dress rehearsals or for the stunt double to bound onto the Yellow Brick Road, leap through a window in the Emerald City, or scale the cliffs outside the Witch’s castle.” So there might be more costumes forgotten in some Hollywood closets made from real lion skin.
“Most of us cannot relate to not having a brain or a heart; we can all relate to not having enough courage, and it is, for this reason, I believe the Cowardly Lion is the character we respond to the most,” says Comisar.