Researching the Ziegfeld Follies
by John Kenrick
Not a month goes by without my receiving e-mail from people trying to verify if a friend, neighbor or ancestor appeared in the Follies. At most, these folks have nothing more to go on than the person's birth name and a vague legend that the person in question "was once a Ziegfeld girl" or "did their act in the Follies when it toured."
There is no easy way to verify the full cast list for most editions of the Follies. In particular, most of the lovely ladies who worked as Ziegfeld girls did so without generating any written proof of their efforts -- at least none that survives. Ziegfeld's production records disappeared at the time of his death (no archive at that time would have been interested in any producer's files), and the programs for most of his Follies only give the names of featured players. If a girl had a few lines in a skit, her name made the program. Otherwise, the usual source of public record is mute. So there is no central resource that can verify whether the full roster of those who appeared in the Follies.
There are a few possible courses open to researchers. The most direct one is to contact The Ziegfeld Club, an organization founded by survivors of the Follies. Almost all are now gone, but the club lives on to help perpetuate the memory of anyone connected with the series. The club does not have regular office hours. However, correspondence is welcome and research sessions may be arranged by calling or faxing the office at (212) 751-6688. Calls and letters will be answered as soon as possible. The Ziegfeld Club's office is located at 593 Park Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10021.
Another promising source is local newspapers. For example, lets say you are trying to research someone who supposedly played in the Follies between 1914 and 1917. Select a city where the Follies played that has a good public library -- New York is the obvious example, but tour cities like Philadelphia and Atlantic City also count. See which local newspapers are archived in that town's library files, and then start digging. This will entail skimming through rolls of microfilm, and will give you a new appreciation for the old cliché about searching for a needle in a haystack. (Hey, no one said historical research was easy!)
Hint -- When a performer played her or his hometown, it was a frequent opportunity for press agents to line up interviews and other special coverage in local papers. If you can identify your subject's place of birth, make that locale a focus of your archival research.
This kind of research may not be easy or glamorous, but stick to it -- patience can really pay off . . . well, most of the time. The information you are looking for may still be out there somewhere. The trick is digging away deeply enough to uncover it.