LOS ANGELES — For sale: one used lion costume.
But we’re not talking just any lion costume.
Archivist James Comisar owns one of the largest archives of television artifacts, with about 10,000 individual objects. Now he’s looking for a new home for the iconic Cowardly Lion costume designed by Gilbert Adrian and worn by Bert Lahr during all the “mane” sequences in the beloved 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz.”
This may be the perfect time to pique collectors’ interest because of the opening of Sam Raimi’s big-budget “Oz the Great and Powerful,” which tells the story of how the wizard came to Emerald City.
Comisar, 48, is selling the costume, which he acquired about 20 years ago, to bolster his $35-million capital campaign to fund a Museum of Television in Phoenix, which would house his collection. “We are just starting to engage the entertainment community in building awareness for the museum goal,” said Comisar.
The Comisar Collection, stored in two massive climate-controlled facilities in Los Angeles, features such historical TV items as Ralph Kramden’s bus driver jacket from “The Honeymooners,” Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone from “Get Smart,” Johnny Carson’s desk and couch set from “The Tonight Show,” George Reeves’ “Superman” costume and even a section of the downed plane from “Lost.” The Cowardly Lion costume is housed in one of the warehouses.
Items from his collection are on view at the Paley Center in Beverly Hills and are featured in the upcoming film “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.”
Comisar is planning to open a preview gallery of the museum by year’s end and hopes to open the doors of a 50,000- square-foot museum built out from an existing building in downtown Phoenix in 2016.
So he’s looking for someone with the courage to buy the Cowardly Lion costume, made with real lion hair.
“I feel like I am placing a child in a good home,” said Comisar, who began collecting TV memorabilia in the late 1980s while working as a TV writer. He doesn’t want to sell the costume through an auction house because he wouldn’t be able to control who will get it. Comisar said that when actress Debbie Reynolds auctioned her massive film memorabilia collection two years ago, a lot of the one-of-a-kind costumes and props were sold to buyers in “China, Macao and Dubai.”
“It’s unlikely these great Hollywood materials will ever return to the United States,” he said. “We need to find a buyer for the Cowardly Lion outside of public auction.”
Last year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences acquired a pair of Dorothy’s iconic ruby slippers from “The Wizard of Oz” for the academy museum it is planning at the historic former May Co. building on Wilshire Boulevard. The Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, Steven Spielberg and Terry Semel were among the donors whose gifts to the Academy Foundation enabled it to make the purchase, and Comisar is hoping something similar might happen for him. He’s taking offers via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Comisar said he believes that if the Cowardly Lion costume was put up for formal auction, the pre-sale estimate would be in the $2 million to $3 million range.
The Cowardly Lion was far from a dandy lion when Comisar bought it from an individual who kept it in a Hefty bag. The “unveiling” was accompanied by “a plume of dust and dirt,” he recalled.
Comisar made a call to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and talked to textile conservator Cara Varnell to see if she would authenticate and conserve the costume.
In an email, Varnell confirmed that Comisar’s costume “is the one worn in all the major scenes through the film.” She said conservators compared hair patterns of the costume with those in photos of Lahr wearing it. “The variation in color and tone, all of the hair whorls, bumps, nick, hair length were exact,” she said.