The Follies rehearse with Florenz Ziegfeld (bottom left).
In the “Blushing Ballet” number of the Ziegfeld Follies of 1916, the curtain opens on a replica of the dance tableau in Michel Fokine’s Les Sylphides. Moments later, this high-art vision, saturated with old-world European sophistication, changes: Heavyset comedian Sam B. Hardy plods across the stage as the femme fatale Zoebeide from Schéhérazade—another Fokine creation. The Jewish songstress Fanny Brice belts, “I am gonski, when he [Nijinsky] does the Faunski.” Lavishly and seductively dressed chorus girls descend on diagonal staircases. The great Ballets Russes has been spoofed.
This fusion of high art, sex, fantasy, comedy, satire and showgirls was characteristic of the Ziegfeld Follies. And the visionary behind the shows, Florenz Ziegfeld (1876–1932), became the boldest producer during the Jazz Age. His revues and Broadway shows transformed American theater and shaped an industry devoted to the leggy and sultry showgirls we know today.
The Chicago-born Ziegfeld came of age at a time of strict division between classical and popular entertainment. He was the son of the Chicago Musical College founder, but he rebelled against his father’s elite world. Instead, he was captivated by Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show of the 1880s. Ziegfeld’s youth was marked by his love of dancing, and early on he won ballroom dancing contests and arranged cotillions.
At 17, Ziegfeld made his first mark as a producer while working as his father’s assistant, helping to organize classical music concerts for the then-failing Trocadero Theatre company. Ziegfeld signed strongman Eugen Sandow as the headlining act—a risky move since Sandow was hardly an artiste. But the show, Trocadero Vaudevilles, became wildly successful, touring 32 cities in under a year, and made Ziegfeld $250,000—the equivalent of more than $5 million today.
A subsequent trip to London changed Ziegfeld’s life, when he met and married the European singer-actress Anna Held in 1896. Held suggested that the Folies Bergère, a Parisian revue featuring scantily clad showgirls and ethnic specialty acts, might serve as a template for Ziegfeld’s own revue-style production. In 1907, the Ziegfeld Follies premiered, with director Julian Mitchell weaving theater skits with chorus girl choreography and musical numbers. A new Follies production was unveiled each year (with a few exceptions) until 1931, with Ziegfeld at the helm. He conceived the ideas (and integrated those of the choreographers and designers), cast the shows, ran rehearsals and often refined the material based on audiences’ reactions.
The acts within the Follies—a brew of ballet and soft-shoe tapping, sentimental ballads and comedy—became an expression of the American melting pot. Ahead of his time, Ziegfeld broke the color line, hiring black entertainer Bert Williams for the 1910 production. In 1928, Time magazine put Ziegfeld on its May 14 cover. He told Time there are “three themes for musical shows—sex, adventure, romance.” But this tidy summation of his productions was overly simplistic. He continuously sought story lines in which the lead tried to transcend his identity. The acts showcased a topsy-turvy world where the poor become rich, the amateur grew into a professional and the chorus girl metamorphosed into a goddess.
Ziegfeld is credited with branding the showgirl’s specific physical dimensions, making a then uncommon body type—the hourglass figure with long legs and little body fat—the sought-after ideal. He enshrined (and consequently objectified) women’s bodies, especially when his lighting simulated nudity. The costumes, however, were always couture. One of the most memorable was worn by showgirl Rose Dolores, who appeared in the 1920 Follies as a white peacock with iridescent plumage, fanning open to form a gigantic halo around her svelte, silk-wrapped body.
Today, the extravagance and wit of Ziegfeld’s Follies live on through the Radio City Rockettes and fashion shows, and it is commemorated as camp in the works of choreographers Larry Keigwin, Matthew Bourne and Richard Move. In the 2008 biography Ziegfeld: The Man Who Invented Show Business, Ethan Mordden wrote, “The Follies inspired so much imitation that it never really closed.” Its exaltation of the beautiful girl, the opulent image and the clown will always be in style. DT
- Fanny Brice: The Jewish comedienne performed in seven Follies, and the movies Funny Girl and Funny Lady, both starring Barbara Streisand, were based on Brice’s life.
- Louise Brooks: She appeared in the 1925 Follies. She trained with American modern dance pioneers Ted Shawn, Ruth St. Denis and Martha Graham. She also toured with the Denishawn Dancers.
- Ann Pennington: Only 4' 11", this tiny triple-threat trained with choreographer Ned Wayburn and became famous for her versions of the “Shake and Quiver” and the “Black Bottom” dances, both taken from black vernacular dance.
- Sophie Tucker: A chorus girl who was neither lithe nor graceful, Tucker was used in routines as a comic foil to the more feline-looking dancers. The anti-chorus girl had a big, brassy voice and became a hit with audiences.
- Bert Lahr: A comedian known for his role as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, Lahr first appeared in Ziegfeld’s 1932 musical Hot-Cha!
- Will Rogers: The Wrangler, who told political and topical jokes while also performing lasso tricks, became part of Ziegfeld’s artistic inner circle. Ziegfeld gave Rogers complete control over his act in the Follies and in Ziegfeld’s Broadway revue Midnight Frolic in 1921.
- Julian Mitchell: The nearly deaf choreographer was responsible for creating some of the first chorus girl numbers in the Follies. He helped establish the chorus line style, which demanded synchronization and precision. Mitchell worked on more than 75 Broadway productions, and he was the inspiration for the character Julian Marsh in the stage and film versions of 42nd Street.
Books and Articles:
Mordden, Ethan. Ziegfeld, The Man Who Invented Show Business. New York: St.
Martin’s Press, 2008.
Redness, Lauren. Century Girl: 100 Years in the Life of Doris Eaton. New York: Harper
Stratyner, Barbara. Ned Wayburn and the Dance Routine: From Vaudeville to the
Ziegfeld Follies. Madison, Wisconsin: The Society of Dance History Scholars, 1996.
Ziegfeld, Richard and Paulette. The Ziegfeld Touch, the Life and Times of Florenz
Ziegfeld, Jr. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1992.
Latham, Angela J. (December 1997) “The Right to Bare: Containing and Encoding
American Women in Popular Entertainments of the 1920s.” Theatre Journal, Vol. 49,
No. 4, pp. 455-473.
The Great Ziegfeld (1936), MGM
Rachel Straus holds degrees from Purchase College Conservatory of Dance and Columbia University’s School of Journalism.
Photo from the Photography Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations