Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Glorifying the American Girl (7/8/08)

Opening a Broadway show on July 8 in the pre-air-conditioned year of 1907 was an unorthodox move, but no one ever accused Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. of being conventional.

Ziegfeld (pronounced "ZEEG-feld," if you please, not "Zig-field") began his career as a small-time showman, presenting
Eugen Sandow, "The World's Strongest Man," at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. Sandow scandalously performed nearly nude or in flesh-colored tights and soon became a leading attraction. Ziegfeld parlayed that success by importing French singer Anna Held to star in a smash-hit show -- and then marrying her.

In 1906, Ziegfeld, who always had an eye for feminine beauty, decided he would emulate Paris' famous
Folies Bergère and present his own Follies in New York, dedicated to "Glorifying the American Girl." He surrounded top comedians with lavish sets and costumes, songs by such writers as George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, and Jerome Kern -- and the tallest, most beautiful women Ziegfeld could find. The Follies became another smash and continued annually until 1927, when even Ziegfeld couldn't outrun the Great Depression. But in those years, such entertainment legends as Nora Bayes, Sophie Tucker, Fanny Brice, Ed Wynn, W.C. Fields, Will Rogers, and Eddie Cantor appeared in the Follies -- and Ziegfeld even managed to break Broadway's color barrier by starring Bert Williams, the first black performer to appear on an American stage with an otherwise white cast.

If Ziegfeld had done nothing but produce his Follies, his place as an impresario would be assured, but his greatest moment came in 1927 when he presented "
Show Boat," the greatest of all American musicals. Ziegfeld died in 1932, deep in debt, but an epic film based on his life won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1936. In the decades since, many have tried to emulate him, but no one has duplicated Ziegfeld's taste and success.

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