Ziegfeld: The Man Who Invented Show Business
By Ethan Mordden
St. Martin’s Press, 352 pages, $32.95
The names that first lit up Broadway—Klaw, Erlanger, Frohman, Belasco—have dimmed. They belonged to powerful men who, in the early 20th century, produced all the shows and owned all the theaters in New York and across the country. They’re remembered today mainly by showbiz buffs with large collections of Playbills and original cast recordings. The Shuberts do live on, though not as the brothers Sam, Lee, and J.J. who built the theatrical empire. “The Shuberts” today is shorthand for the Shubert Organization, an entity with 20 theaters under its control that functions primarily as Broadway’s largest landlord. It is powerful but colorless.
There is one name from Broadway’s early days, however, that still has currency, and that is Ziegfeld. “Ziegfeld” conjures up entertainment on a lavish scale—spectacular sets, hundreds of costumes, a 100-piece orchestra, and row after row of chorus girls, scantily but tastefully clad.
Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. was the most famous producer of his era, and if the word producer makes you think of a dapper man in a sharp suit working the phones, firing off telegrams, chomping a cigar, placing a bet, and seducing a starlet—usually at the same time—you’re thinking of him. Ziegfeld worked, in fact, three phones (gold-plated), sent telegrams to assistants sitting in the next room, puffed Havanas, and lost several fortunes in Monte Carlo. As for the starlets, his womanizing wrecked his first marriage, to the singer Anna Held, and put tremendous strain on his second, to Billie Burke (whose claim to fame would come after her husband’s death, as Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz).
Along the way, Ziegfeld also became, as Ethan Mordden argues in his lively new biography, “the man who invented show business.” Ziegfeld’s famous “Follies” refined, and in some cases introduced, what would become staples of popular entertainment. The antic, topical quality of a Saturday Night Live sketch has its roots in countless “Follies” bits featuring the supremely antic Eddie Cantor. Paris Hilton, pretty but with no discernible talent other than keeping herself in the spotlight, could, with a few more curves, have been a Ziegfeld girl. Jon Stewart riffing on today’s headlines is nothing more than an heir to Ziegfeld’s greatest find, Will Rogers.
As Mordden writes: “In speed of delivery, democratic ethnic diversity, unrivaled array of star talent, and its strange combination of the oldest show-biz tropes with the latest gizmos and shtick, the ‘Follies’ inspired so much imitation through our entertainment that it never really closed.”
Ziegfeld was also show business’s first public-relations maestro, inventing gimmick after gimmick to keep his Follies and stars in the headlines. As part of his plan to turn Held, a French singer with an hourglass figure and dainty feet, into a Broadway star, he put out the word that she bathed every morning in 40 gallons of milk. It wasn’t true; the idea was lifted from The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by a hack Broadway writer (with a decent library) who freelanced for Ziegfeld. But the newspapers ran the story for a week. And when it was revealed to be a hoax, the papers ran the story of the hoax for another week. But Ziegfeld’s legacy isn’t only glamour, gimmicks, and girls. Near the end of his life, in 1927, he produced Show Boat, perhaps the first great Broadway musical and one of the first to touch on serious themes.
This aggressive and inventive showman was born in 1867 in Chicago. Unlike most of the men who dominated Broadway, he was not Jewish. He was baptized a Catholic, although he must have been lapsed from the cradle. His father, a German immigrant and classical musician, was the president of the Chicago Musical College. Ziegfeld learned to play the piano, but Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms weren’t for him. His hero was Buffalo Bill, whose “Wild West Show” came through Chicago several times during the 1880s. The story goes that young Ziegfeld ran off with the show and became a sharpshooter. Mordden, a diligent researcher, finds no evidence for that. But it is certainly true that the showbiz bug bit Ziegfeld while he was in thrall to Annie Oakley and Sitting Bull.
The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 gave him his first shot at producing. His father ran a cabaret near the fair that offered light classical music. It was failing, and Ziegfeld thought the place needed a flamboyant attraction. So he went to New York and found Eugen Sandow, a strongman working in vaudeville. Ziegfeld took him to Chicago, and when Mrs. Potter Palmer and Mrs. George Pullman, the Queen Bees of the Windy City, came up on stage to squeeze his muscles, Sandow the Sex Symbol and Ziegfeld the Impresario were born.
Ziegfeld brought Sandow back to New York and quickly established himself as an up-and-coming manager. At the time, Broadway was controlled by the Syndicate, a group of producers led by Abe Erlanger. Performers or managers who defied the Syndicate couldn’t get a theater in New York or anywhere else (Sarah Bernhardt, deemed the greatest actress of the age, ran afoul of the Syndicate and wound up playing circus tents across the country).
When war broke out between the Syndicate and the Shuberts —a delicious battle that captivated the gossip columnists and is vividly recounted by Mordden—Ziegfeld was forced to choose sides. He picked the Syndicate, earning the wrath of the Shuberts for the rest of his life. Erlanger then asked him to come up with a little show to fill the roof garden of one of the Syndicate theaters during the summer. The show, a smart revue featuring sketches, songs, comics, and girls, was called The Follies of 1907.
The franchise was born, and each new edition became more and more popular and extravagant. Mordden, who has written several books on the history of Broadway, does an excellent job of conveying what it must have been like to experience a Follies. It was eye-popping, of course—in one edition, the entire U.S. Navy was portrayed by chorus girls with battle ships on their heads—and it moved at lightning pace. Ziegfeld valued speed above all else. “Let the acts and the stunts and the features follow one another as swiftly as the cars of a train,” he once said.
The Follies made Ziegfeld immensely rich, but he gambled much of the money away, and when the stock market crashed, he was wiped out. He died in 1932, at age 65, and the era of the star producer was over. Ziegfeld engineered that, too. He created so many star performers—Cantor, Rogers, Fanny Brice, and dozens more—that, in the end, they eclipsed him. At the same time, the Broadway theater was changing, with spectacle losing ground to more serious work. When Eugene O’Neill wrote a new play, nobody paid much attention to the name of his producer. Ziegfeld may have produced Show Boat, but when the score is that good, the name of its composer, Jerome Kern, came to mean more than the name of the man above the title.
Today, producers are not famous at all, just a bunch of rich people whose names come in a clump above the title, sometimes as many as 30 per show. The movie studios Disney and DreamWorks are brands that specialize in putting animated movies on stage, seldom with the flair Ziegfeld brought to his Follies. The last producer whose name meant anything to the public was David Merrick, whose string of hits included Hello, Dolly!, Promises, Promises, and 42nd Street. He died in 2000 and is rarely spoken of today.
Still, one has the sense that Ziegfeld’s name will endure. “The man got so big in a big culture that he was able to tell Americans what was entertaining and they agreed,” Mordden writes. “He democratized the musical, the theater, American life, and we enjoy that action today.” Mordden exaggerates—but when dealing with Ziegfeld, how could he not?