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Florenz Ziegfeld

Impresario Extraordinaire

Florenz (Flo) Ziegfeld, Jr. was a legend in his own time who has often been called Broadway’s greatest showman. He was a theater manager and producer who is best known for the musical Show Boat and the long running Ziegfeld Follies revue. Ziegfeld’s business card read "Impresario Extraordinaire" and that wasn’t an exaggeration. Every one of his shows were opulent events, featuring beautiful women, chic costumes and elaborate sets. 

Flo was born in Chicago in 1869, into a well-to-do family. His father was a German immigrant who owned the very successful College of Music in Chicago. Flo first displayed his talent for promotion as a child when he sold tickets to the neighborhood kids to see his school of "invisible fish" which turned out to be nothing more than a glass bowl filled with water. 

Florenz Ziegfeld -- Impresario Extraordinaire of the Ziegfeld Follies

Flo’s father opened a nightclub called The Trocadero in 1893. The club wasn’t doing very well till Flo offered to manage the talent. His first show biz success came when he booked 23 year old strongman Eugene "The Great" Sandow. Flo created quite a stir and a lot of favorable press coverage after he invited several ladies from the audience backstage to examine Sandow’s extraordinary physique. The Trocadero was soon the most popular club in town and Ziegfeld later took Sandow on tour throughout the United States. 

Ziegfeld went to Europe to scout for new talent and while in London he met a beautiful café singer named Anna Held. Anna had a sexy French accent and a fantastic figure, and Ziegfeld was so enchanted by her that he married her. He planned to bring her back to America and serve as her manager but Anna suggested to him that he should create a show like the famous Folies-Bergere of Paris; a variety show with lots of scantily clad women. Anna said, "Your American girls are so beautiful, the most beautiful girls in the world. If you dress them up chic, you’d have a better show than the Folies-Bergere."

Anna Held
Anna Held

Flo organized a publicity blitz for Anna, so that by the time they returned from Europe she was already a celebrity. In order to raise money for the show, Ziegfeld had to sell his ownership in it and settle for a salary as a producer. The Follies of 1907 opened at the New York Theatre and was an instant smash hit. Anna was backed with chorus line of 50 beauties in extravagant costumes, that were called "The Anna Held Girls." The Ziegfeld Follies, as the show became known, ran every day and was updated every year till it finally folded during the depression.

Ziegfeld’s shows emphasized glamour and beauty. Flo called himself the "glorifier of the American girl" and he had a great talent for finding beautiful and talented women. He auditioned girls for his shows by first watching them walk in high heels. "Before I see their faces, I want to see how they walk. There’s more sex in a walk than in a face or even in a figure."

His "Ziegfeld girls" were soon regarded as the standard of beauty. And no wonder, since they always appeared in scanty costumes and were sometimes partially or completely nude. His most famous nude performer was Josephine Baker and like Baker, many of his girls went on to become film stars.

Ziegfeld featured Anna in seven Broadway musicals over the next 12 years and she became one of the first big stars of the era thanks to Ziegfeld’s mastery of publicity. Anna once fell off her bike while riding through Brooklyn and Ziegfeld planted the story that she had leapt off of her bike to stop a runaway carriage that was headed straight for a retired judge. On another occasion, Ziegfeld told the press that Anna took a milk bath every day and claimed that once he had to send the milk back to the dairy because it was sour. The dairy sued him for libel and he lost, but the publicity that the incident generated was priceless.

Early poster for the Ziegfeld Follies
Early poster for the Ziegfeld Follies

As a producer he was very demanding, but he drove himself harder than anyone else and he was a perfectionist. He often revised his shows during their run to keep them fresh for returning audiences. "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."

In the Follies of 1910, Ziegfeld took a big chance in alienating his white audience by featuring Bert Williams; making him the first black man to co-star on Broadway with white performers. Other stars who got their start or were featured with the Ziegfeld follies included, Sophie Tucker, Fannie Brice, Eddie Cantor, Ruth Etting, Will Rogers, Marilyn Miller, W.C. Fields, Marion Davies, Enrico Caruso, and Ed Wynn.

Ziegfeld was flamboyant, a big spender and a womanizer. His constant dalliances with showgirls finally led to his divorce from Anna in 1912. He met actress Billie Burke (who later played the good witch "Glenda" in the 1939 film Wizard of Oz) and married her in 1914.

Ziegfeld also produced nightclub shows. One of his most famous shows included a glass walkway, so that chorus girls could dance right over the audience’s heads. He thoughtfully provided little wooden hammers so that the audience could bang out their approval and not hurt their hands from clapping so much.

In the 1920’s he began producing some very successful musical comedies such as; Sally, Rio Rita, The Three Musketeers, Rosalie, Whoopee, Kid Boots, and Show Boat.

Show Boat, which opened in 1927, was one of the most popular musicals ever. The story spans almost 50 years and was based on Edna Ferber’s sprawling novel of life on the Mississippi. The music was written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, and included many hits like Make Believe, You are Love, Bill and Old Man River. The story is about the inhabitants of a Mississippi showboat from the 1880’s to the 1920’s. It was an incredibly brave venture, because the show had a multiracial cast and dealt with subjects that had been taboo on Broadway, such as racism, miscegenation and broken marriages.

Show Boat on Stage
Show Boat on Stage

Ziegfeld made a lot of money, but he also lost a lot of it by gambling. Then he lost his entire fortune in the stock market crash of 1929. After that, his magic touch seemed to fail him as well. He produced a film tribute to the Follies called Glorifying the American Girl that was savaged by the critics and failed at the box office. The depression dried up his audiences because people could no longer afford to see Broadway shows and the high production costs required large audiences to make money.

Meanwhile he was also suffering from a recurring lung infection that had progressed from pneumonia to pleurisy. His health was failing, and he knew he didn’t have much time left. Flo spent the last few months of his life attempting to suppress his fear of death by hosting an endless stream of gin-soaked orgies.

The Great Ziegfeld Movie Poster
The Great Ziegfeld Movie Poster

Florenz Ziegfeld died on October 22, 1932. In 1936, a biographical film called The Great Ziegfeld, starring William Powell was released. The film was a hit at the box office and was nominated for seven Oscars. Many traditions of the Ziegfeld era are still alive in the theater today and he will always be remembered as Broadway’s greatest showman.
 

 

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