It seemed that Christian Ludolf was destined for musical greatness. His father was a choreographer, and Christian was dancing as soon as he was able to walk. When he was ten years old, his father opened a dance studio in Orlando, Florida. Christian and his sisters benefitted from their father’s focused training.
It would seem that he was destined to achieve immortality as a song-and-dance man. Perhaps he would have, had it not been for The Wizard of Oz.
In 1928, Christian was 20 years old. He went to New York City to see if he could make his name as a dancer. Arriving with $26.75 to his name, he had to work at a soda fountain shop to make ends meet. Gradually, the public began to take notice of his magic feet. He teamed up with his sister Vilma and performed in supper clubs and vaudeville as “The Baby Astaires.” After several years on the circuit, he earned opportunities to appear in several Broadway productions. It was a glowing review by influential columnist Walter Winchell that earned Christian the chance to perform at the top vaudeville venue, New York’s Palace Theater.
While the rest of the world was in hard times because of the Great Depression, things couldn’t have been better for Christian. In 1935, he and Vilma were asked to do a screen test for MGM. This resulted in a 2-year contract, earning each of them $1,500 per week (the equivalent of $31,209 in 2022). They made their film debut with Broadway Melody of 1936. It would be Vilma’s only film appearance, however. When she retired, that left Christian to make his mark on his own. He went on to appear in several more films, sharing the screen with such big names as Shirley Temple, Eleanor Powell, and Frances Langford.
It was Christian’s unusual dancing and singing style that stood out. When Walt Disney was looking for a way to animate Mickey Mouse for dancing, he hired Christian to dance in front of a grid while being filmed so animators could make the iconic mouse emulate his distinct moves. When you see Mickey Mouse dancing in the Silly Symphonies short films of the 1930s, you can thank Christian for providing the choreographic inspiration.
The head of MGM, Louis B. Mayer, offered Christian an exclusive contract. For reasons that have yet to be fully answered, Christian turned the offer down. Not used to being spurned, Mayer vowed that Christian would never work in movies again. He had second thoughts, however, when it came time to find the cast for MGM’s ambitious musical, The Wizard of Oz. They needed someone with distinctive dancing abilities to play the Scarecrow, and Christian seemed perfect for it.
After reviewing the script, Christian signed up. Joining him in the cast was Ray Bolger, who would be playing the part of the Tin Man. Bolger was also known for his distinctive dancing style. The more he thought about it, the more he was convinced that his style was a better fit for the Scarecrow than the stiff and awkward Tin Man. He talked it over with Christian, who agreed. After getting approval from the film’s executives, the two song-and-dance men switched roles.
Ray Bolger would go on to be forever loved and remembered for his portrayal of the Scarecrow. Christian, on the other hand, did not fare quite so well. He threw himself wholeheartedly into the production and recorded the Tin Man’s parts in all of the movie’s songs. It was as they began filming that problems began.
Christian was 31 years old and in peak physical fitness. Even so, he quickly became fatigued during every scene. He complained of muscle aches, shortness of breath, and cramps. He tried to work through the pain, but his condition deteriorated to the point where he had to be hospitalized. Doctors quickly figured out the problem. The makeup Christian used to transform himself into the Tin Man consisted of aluminum dust. It had invaded his lungs, been absorbed into his bloodstream, and was poisoning him.
Christian was forced, under medical orders, to withdraw from the production of The Wizard of Oz. Jack Haley replaced him, and a safer aluminum paste replaced the hazardous substance that nearly killed Christian. That is why you won’t see Christian’s distinctive dancing when you watch the classic film. You can, however, hear his voice in some of the songs. In some of the renditions of “We’re Off to See the Wizard,” you can hear Christian’s voice, clearly pronouncing the “R” in “wizard” — something Haley did not do because of his Boston accent. When MGM released the deluxe edition of the soundtrack, it included Christian’s recording, “If I Only Had a Heart.” Some of the special VHS and DVD releases of the movie have also included some photos of Christian in his Tin Man costume.
Christian complained of breathing problems for the rest of his life, and he always attributed them to “that [darned] movie.” Despite nearly being killed by the makeup, he managed to outlive his replacement, as well as all of the major cast members.
As for his days as a song-and-dance man, however, it was over.
It would be easy to feel bad for Christian. After all, he came so close to achieving immortality in one of the most popular films ever made, only to have it bring his promising musical career to an untimely end. He didn’t give up, however. After World War II, he tried to find his place in the new medium of television.
It was there that he defied the industry custom and made a name for himself outside of the song-and-dance realm. He appeared in several roles, demonstrating his dramatic and comedic acting abilities. In 1962, he landed the part that would guarantee that he would never be forgotten. The man with the distinctive dance that caught Walt Disney’s attention and who was so graceful on the stage that he was compared to the elegant Fred Astaire was cast as a kind-hearted, unsophisticated country bumpkin who became an overnight millionaire. His portrayal of Jed Clampett was one of the main reasons The Beverly Hillbillies became one of the highest-rated television shows during its 1962-1971 run.
Some toxic makeup is the reason Christian didn’t achieve fame in The Wizard of Oz. The reason you don’t recognize his name is that he used a different one when he started his entertainment career. His given name, Christian Ludolf Ebsen, Jr. didn’t suit him nearly as well as the one by which we all know him: Buddy Ebsen.