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Birth of the Follies
Before their marriage fell apart, Held suggested that Ziegfeld produce a
Broadway revue along the lines of the Parisian
Folies Bergere. Because the superstitious Ziegfeld considered thirteen
his lucky number, he chose the thirteen letter name
Follies of the Day, taken from the title of a popular newspaper column
penned by librettist Harry B. Smith -- who
Ziegfeld hired to write the libretto.
The Shubert Brothers were having such success staging lavish
"reviews" of current events-related songs and skits at the new (and
vast) Hippodrome Theatre that competing theatre owners
Klaw and Erlanger were looking for an promising alternative. They agreed to
finance Ziegfeld's Follies, which affirmed its European pretensions by
using the French spelling, "revue." Never one to turn down good money,
Ziegfeld settled for the title of producer and a salary. The show opened
on July 8, 1907 at the New York Theater's rundown roof garden, which Erlanger
re-christened "The Jardin de Paris" -- borrowing the name of a popular
Parisian night spot. Such rooftop theaters
were common at the time, providing summertime audiences some hope of a breeze in
an age when air conditioning was just a dream. The Jardin de Paris had a
corrugated steel roof and open sides -- awnings could be lowered in case of
rain, but it was not an elegant setting.
The first Follies profited from the presence of
Julian Mitchell, Broadway's first great
musical stage director. Although hard of hearing, this former dancer had an
extraordinary sense of rhythm. He would place his head against the piano to feel the
beat of a number, then create the staging for it. Despite a lack of memorable stars or
songs, the 40 minute long premiere edition of the Follies packed the Jardin for
70 profitable performances and became the first New York roof garden show to run a full
From the start, Ziegfeld offered an audience-pleasing combination of creative visual
spectacle, topical comedy and beautiful girls. After its success New York, the
first Follies went on a brief tour. Ziegfeld's $13,800 production netted over
$130,000 at the box office. Recognizing a golden opportunity, he soon got to work planning
a new edition for the following summer.
It must be noted that Ziegfeld knew none of the standard theatrical arts. He could not
write, compose, design or direct. But he knew how to showcase the
female form to its best advantage, and always insisted on the best talent and
materials regardless of cost. This combination empowered him to redefine
theatrical glamour and professionalism.
The 1908 Follies featured
the Ziegfeld girls as mosquitoes from the New Jersey marshes flying through the
Holland Tunnel (which was then under construction). Singing star
introducing the now-classic "Shine On Harvest Moon." Ziegfeld spread
the word that Bayes lived on nothing but lollipops -- pure nonsense that
guaranteed expanded press coverage. By outrunning the first edition,
this Follies established the series as an annual event.
Theater owners Klaw and Erlanger upgraded
the Jardin de Paris for the 1909 Follies. Once again, Ziegfeld supervised
all creative aspects of the production. Bayes returned to introduce "By the
Light of the Silvery Moon," and threw a series of tantrums when newcomer
Sophie Tucker won cheers during an Atlantic City tryout. Ziegfeld tried to
appease Bayes by cutting Tucker down to one song, but Bayes left in a huff a few weeks
after the New York opening. Ziegfeld brought in vaudeville star Eve Tanguay,
who took over Tucker's number. Tucker went on to lasting stardom,
refusing to ever work for Ziegfeld again. After a summer run in New York, this
edition enjoyed a profitable tour.
Making The Follies His Own
In this number from the 1911 Follies, an unidentified
man serenades a beast-faced showgirl decades before Joel Grey sang "If
You Could See Her" in Cabaret.
For the 1910 Follies, Ziegfeld brought in two comic stars who became key figures
in the series. Ziegfeld defied numerous protests against the presence of
Bert Williams, the first black man to co-star on Broadway with white performers.
Fanny Brice, who was equally effective in a comedy sketch or singing a torch song,
would star in more editions of the Follies than any other headliner. Ziegfeld
continued to present book musicals, co-producing The Pink Lady (1911),
but it was clear that the Follies had become the special focus of his efforts.
Ziegfeld continued to manipulate the press with all sorts of false claims.
Although Brice had earned a solid reputation as a comedienne in burlesque, he
claimed that he discovered her hawking newspapers beneath the Brooklyn Bridge.
Since Brice was often known to embellish a story for publicity's sake, it's safe
to assume she took little if any offence.
Flo tossed modesty aside and called his annual revues The Ziegfeld Follies as of
1911. This edition introduced comic Leon Errol and the invaluable production
assistant and house composer Gene Buck. Considered lackluster, this Follies
was spiced up one night when Lillian Lorraine accused Fanny Brice
of trying to steal one of her wealthy boyfriends. The resulting backstage catfight
became so violent it was heard in the audience. It ended with a triumphant Brice
dragging a tattered Lorraine by her hair across the stage to the shocked delight
of the audience. Ziegfeld did not side with his mistress. In fact,
Lorraine was fired soon afterward for missing a rehearsal.
Ziegfeld rehired Lorraine for the 1912 edition, where she sang the hit song "Row,
Row, Row." Their messy affair continued, with all sorts of scandalous twists and
turns. At one point Lorraine married a temperamental millionaire, who whipped Ziegfeld
with a cane in a restaurant one night. Soon afterward, Lorraine divorced the man for
"extreme cruelty," and her affair with Ziegfeld staggered on.
The Follies of 1913 was the first one presented in The New Amsterdam Theater,
the spectacular 42nd Street house (owned by Abe Erlanger) that would provide the series
with a home for most future editions. The song was "If a Table at Rector's Could
Talk," a spoof of a popular theater district restaurant sung by popular vaudeville
tramp comic Nat Wills.
after his marriage to Billie Burke, Ziegfeld made sure her photo appeared in the
programs for most of his productions. This portrait appeared in the playbill for
"I have always been called Billie Burke, except
for those eighteen improbable, glittering years when I was called Mrs. Florenz
Ziegfeld, Jr. I find it a perfectly adequate name. It's an especially nice name
for the skitter-witted ladies I play on the screen today, and it suits me too
because I might as well confess here and now that I am not always saner than I
(Billie Burke, With a Feather on My Nose (New York:
Appleton-Century Crofts, 1949) , p. 1.
On New Year's Eve 1913, Ziegfeld escorted Lillian Lorraine to a costume ball at
the Astor Hotel. She stormed out after one of her inevitable tantrums, and soon
after Ziegfeld was entranced when actress
Billie Burke descended the
stairs with playwright Somerset Maugham. Burke did not realize the identity of the
elegant man who asked her to dance, so she did not understand why a
woman dressed as Empress Josephine glared at them with obvious hatred. It was Anna Held,
who realized her final hopes for reconciliation with Ziegfeld were dashed. When a friend
finally explained to Burke who she was flirting with, she left the party. But it was
hopeless although he was 17 years her senior, both were infatuated.
A native of Washington D.C., Burke appeared in a number of British musical
comedies and attained stardom in Charles Frohman's London production
The School Girl. Frohman introduced her to Broadway in the hit
My Wife (1907) and was managing her career with great success. Afraid Ziegfeld
would steal her away, Frohman tried his damnedest to quash the budding romance.
But Ziegfeld's charm and determination won out, and he married Burke in the Spring
of 1914. Frohman never forgave them, taking his resentment to the bottom of the
Atlantic when he went down with the Lusitania in 1915.
The Follies Thrive
The Follies continued to thrive, with dancer Ann Pennington, singer
Eddie Cantor, comics W.C Fields and Ed Wynn, and rope twirling
humorist Will Rogers joining Ziegfeld's stable of stars. In a move that
reshaped the series forever, Gene Buck
persuaded Ziegfeld to hire Joseph Urban as the primary set designer
for the Follies a position he retained for the remainder of Ziegfeld's
life. Urban gave the Follies a distinctive art deco look, using a ravishing
use blend of color and line to showcase everything from antic comedy to endless lines
of beautiful girls.
The key to the Follies ongoing success in these years was Ziegfeld himself.
His sometimes maddening attention to detail gave every edition his personal stamp. In
an interview, he explained his approach this way
"Details are what makes a show's 'personality.' . . .
I hunt for chances of putting in a laugh or taking out a slow bit. I . . . keep
[my shows] combed, polished and groomed."
Ziegfeld's business card read "Impresario Extraordinaire,"
and with good reason. We know that he conceived the structure and theme for each
Follies, hiring his production team in the months before production
began. He had an infuriating tendency to give his writers, designers and
composers contradictory instructions, bringing things together in the final
weeks by ordering exhausting revisions. A demanding boss, he drove himself harder
than anyone else in his drive to make each of his revues an audience pleaser.
Principal cast members were not
announced until just before the first rehearsal. Rehearsals started at 10:30
A.M. and would often run ten or twelve hours, minus meal breaks. Ziegfeld presided
over the final dress rehearsal, and was involved in every aspect
of rewrites during the pre-Broadway tryout tour. He often made revisions
during a Broadway run, keeping the Follies fresh for the many returnees in the
Journalist Marjorie Farnsworth explained "the Ziegfeld
touch" this way --
"What was his touch? . .
. First, Ziegfeld knew the subtle line between desire and lust, between good
taste and vulgarity, and never crossed it. He came close a few times but he
never quite crossed it. Second, the exhibitionism which was part of his
private life was not contrived. It was an integral part of him, part of the
personality mechanism that made him what he was: a gambler who had an almost
childish irresponsibility toward the value of money and an equally childish
conviction that he could always get some more when he wanted it. Most of the
time he was astonishingly right. And finally, he had a sense of showmanship
and of female beauty that was the despair of his competitors."
- The Ziegfeld Follies (New York, Bonanza
Books, 1961), p. 11.
On to: Ziegfeld Bio - Part III