Ziegfeld 101

Florenz Ziegfeld: Bio - Part II

by John Kenrick

Copyright 2002-2004

(All the photos on this page are thumbnail images – click on them to see larger versions.)

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 summer.

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 Nora Bayes 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

A Follies skit, 1911In 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.

Billie Burke

Billie Burke (41653 bytes)Soon 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 Show Boat.

"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 seem."
(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 audience.

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