Here’s a little preview/ by-product of my upcoming Wizard of Oz talk on August 24. Arthur Hill (1875-1932) originated the role of the Cowardly Lion in the 1902 Broadway adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s book. Hill was an English performer who specialized in impersonating animals in pantomimes and music hall. His resume included the Wolf in Red Riding Hood and the Cat in Dick Whittington. This skill set was ideal for playing Baum’s Lion, who was conceived quite differently from the approach taken in the 1939 film. The costume for the 1902 show was more like what we think of as a mascot outfit, with a heavy headpiece covering his entire face. Hill played a naturalistic lion, in imitation of the actual savannah beast. The character was also mute. Unlike Dave Montgomery and Fred Stone, who were stars of the show as the Tin Man and Scarecrow, Hill’s Lion played a much smaller role in the story, which differed significantly from the book.
Small or not, Hill’s success as the Lion in The Wizard of Oz got him cast in nine additional Broadway shows: First he played The Friendly Bear in The Top o’ the World (1907-08) a musical about Santa Claus, starring Anna Laughlin, who’d played Dorothy in the earlier production of The Wizard of Oz. Next came the Ziegfeld Follies of 1909, The Echo (1910), A Good Little Devil (1913), The Passing Show of 1915, Cheer Up (1918), The Cohan Revue of 1918, Everything (1918-1919), and Happy Days (1919-20).
Hill also enjoyed a minor film career. In 1914 he appeared in the film version of A Good Little Devil, as well as a picture called The Yellow Traffic. In 1915 he directed four movies for the Pyramid Film Company: Accidents Will Happen, One Night, A Wonderful Lamp, and Such a War.
To learn more about vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent film, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.