Gross Facts About The Cowardly Lion Costume From The Wizard Of Oz

Ah, show business. There's no business like it. That's what the song says and we all know that's right. Glamor, lights; the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd. What's not to love?

Quite a lot, actually. Lots of rejection, lots of heartache, and depending on what kind of show you're offering, terrible hours, deadly makeup, and uncomfortable costumes. Just ask anybody. Maybe ask Bert Lahr.

Lahr, born Irving Lahrheim in New York in 1895, caught the theater bug early. He dropped out of school after failing eighth grade, says Encyclopedia Britannica, and joined a friend's burlesque act. That led to vaudeville and, eventually, Broadway, in 1927. The next year a show was built around his own unique talents — he had musical and comedic chops both, and could play the broadest slapstick along with more subtle shadings in his performances. In time he decided to see if Hollywood had a place for him. He worked his way up from two-reel comedies like those of the Three Stooges to feature films, and finally to the movie for which he's remembered to this day: 1939's The Wizard of Oz, in which he played the farmhand Zeke and, later, the Cowardly Lion.

The costume was made from actual lion skins

That Lion? That was one of the many costuming challenges the studio faced in trying to translate a series of children's fantasy novels into live-action entertainment. Judy Garland, cast as Dorothy, was put on a strict diet regimen that included chicken soup, black coffee, diet pills, and four packs of cigarettes a day. The teenager was also strapped into a corset to make her look younger. Ray Bolger, the Scarecrow, ended up with permanent lines etched into his face from his makeup. The Tin Man makeup nearly killed one actor, dancer Buddy Ebsen — the aluminum powder used to cover his face led to an allergic reaction that nearly killed him. Margaret Hamilton, who played Alma Gulch and the Wicked Witch of the West, was severely burned during one of her scenes involving fire and smoke. (So was her stunt double, later.)

So maybe it's only fair, in a dark, demented way, that Bert Lahr, like the rest of the principal actors, had to suffer for his art. Lahr was cast as the Cowardly Lion. In those happy days of pre-CGI, that meant somehow making a human being appear at least lion-like. Perhaps some creative soul in the wardrobe department suggested, "Hey! Why don't we make a lion out of a lion?" And perhaps someone else said, "That's so crazy it just might work!" And it did — sort of.

Lahr had to eat through a straw when he was in costume

The studio did indeed craft Lahr's lion costume out of actual lion skins. While many film productions will have several backup costumes — the lighting for filming in those days was notoriously hot; things got dirty; they had to match from shot to shot — that wouldn't work for Lahr's lion ensemble, because lions have unique patterns in their fur. The costume was expensive, and while there was one backup, also made of actual lion skins, says The Vintage News, the whole getup was still problematic.

The thing weighed north of 90 pounds, reports Screen Rant. In addition, the facial part consisted of a sort of prosthetic mask. The whole thing took hours to assemble, and once in, Lahr was limited to only consuming whatever nutrition he could fit through a straw. Add the lights, the repeated physicality of the part, and it had to have been borderline unbearable by the end of the day — damp, as well as smelly. At least it had a zipper, so he could escape, as necessary, up to a point.

According to CNN, after restoration (which, presumably, included removing Lahr's sweat residue), the costume sold at auction for more than $3 million in 2014.