Florenz hit his stride with the Follies of 1907. A combination of European refinement, the signing of high quality performers (chorus girls), choreographers and lyricists, a relatively short show of forty minutes presented with lightning speed and precision, created an unprecedented sense of theatrical excitement.
Ziegfeld brought the Follies to a higher level of sophistication after the show moved in 1913 from the Jardin de Paris, the roof garden of the New York Theatre, to the grand stage of the New Amsterdam on West 42nd Street. He hired the phenomenally successful Viennese émigré artist and architect Joseph Urban as his set designer. The latter turned the light-hearted Follies into a unified work of art. Renamed Ziegfeld’s Follies, the show became a spectacle that was widely imitated, but never equaled.
The triumph of the Follies and its impact on Broadway are well documented histories. But where did the impresario get his creative energy from; what made him tick; how can one explain his relentless drive for success?
The first Germans arrived in Chicago in the 1830s and their numbers increased rapidly after the failed 1848 revolutions in Europe. Most of the “Forty-Eighters” were literate and educated professionals. By the middle of the century, Germans made up over sixteen percent of the city’s total population.
Immigrants tended to settle in their ‘own’ neighborhoods, mainly across the North Side of the Chicago River; they published German language newspapers; organized Arbeiter-Vereine (Unions); and joined Chicago’s Turnverein of gymnasts. They ran an ever growing number of breweries that produced Dortmunder-style lager and consumed Frankfurter Würstchen.
In November 1863 a native of Jever in the Grand Duchy of Oldenburg and his wife set foot on American soil. Florenz Ziegfeld Sr. was a musician with a doctorate degree from Leipzig Conservatory. A Lutheran himself, he had married Rosalie de Hez, a Belgian-born French Catholic woman who was a descendant of one of Napoleon’s generals. Florenz felt that because of the overcrowded and competitive domain of musical activity in Germany, he would have better career opportunities in the United States.
The couple settled in Chicago where Florenz started work as a teacher. By 1867, he had founded the Chicago Musical Academy (renamed the Chicago Musical College in 1872). Originally located at the Crosby Opera House, it was an internationally acclaimed institute over which Ziegfeld presided until 1916. After Chicago’s Great Fire of 1871 had destroyed the establishment, it was reopened in the city’s Central Music Hall.
During his career, Ziegfeld brought many famous European musical masters to America (among them Johann Strauss). In 1872, one year after the conclusion of the Franco-German war, he assembled the world’s most famous military bands from France, Germany, and Britain at the World’s Peace Jubilee and International Musical Festival that took place in Boston’s Black Bay area. He played his part in the rapid development of America’s musical culture.
Florenz Jr. was born on 21 March 1867 and baptized in the local Catholic Church. Young Flo was educated with the compositions of Beethoven, Schumann, and Bach ringing in his ears, but he
developed no real passion for classical music. Whereas his father championed the Austro-German ideal of orchestral refinement, his son would use popular musical performance to challenge and, eventually, undermine Victorian taste. Variety shows such as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show captured the imagination of the young man. Father and son Ziegfeld: the educator versus the entertainer.
Ironically, Ziegfeld Sr. unwittingly offered his son the opportunity to follow a showbiz route. Named musical director of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, he put Flo in charge of finding European acts for the Trocadero Theatre he had established on the site of the Fair.
The venue originally featured ensembles such as the German-American Women’s Chorus or the German Liederkranz, but it struggled to attract an audience. Instead of signing up predictable classical performers, Flo focused on the popular appeal of entertainers of vaudeville and variety acts. Ziegfeld Jr. began as a scouting agent for his father’s entertainment house.
Flo’s first big hit was the introduction of strong man Eugen Sandow. Born Friedrich Wilhelm Müller in Königsberg, East Prussia, his father was a German national and his mother of Russian descent. Her maiden name of Sandov inspired his stage name. He would become the revered “blond god” of nineteenth century manhood. Sandow was a living piece of classical sculpture and helped to develop the “Grecian ideal” as a formula for the perfect male physique. His first appearances in Britain took place in 1889.
Ziegfeld convinced Sandow to change managers and join him in Chicago. Together they created an immensely popular show that attracted huge crowds awed by Eugen’s spectacular strength. The partnership enjoyed unrivaled success at the Chicago Fair. They then took the show on the road with Ziegfeld booking the strong man in major cities nationwide.
Sandow’s act combined physical prowess with the refinement of classical art. It was Flo who coached Eugen to strike classical Greek and Roman poses, recalling famous statues. Near nudity was an important part of the strong man’s appeal. Ziegfeld turned this sparsely dressed Apollo into a sex symbol (ladies were encouraged to touch his biceps). Such was his fame that Sandow featured in a short film series produced by Edison Studios in 1894.
After the national tour the two men parted. Sandow returned to London where he re-started his spectacular career. In September 1901, he organized the first bodybuilding contest at the Royal Albert Hall where his friend Arthur Conan Doyle acted as one of the judges. In 1911, Sandow was appointed Professor of Scientific and Physical Culture to King George V. Ziegfeld in the meantime gambled away much of the fortune he had amassed whilst looking for another entertainment venture.
The Sandow-episode taught Flo how to push the boundaries of propriety and sell “erotic thrills” to a Victorian audience. Transgressions were legitimized by referring to European classical style and artistic finesse.
Once in New York that insight soon gained another dimension. Increasingly, the magic of the stage for him was represented by the presence of female beauty. In search of a new show, he met Charles E. Evans and convinced him to revive his risqué musical play A Parlor Match (which included the popular tune “Won’t You Come and Play with Me?”).
Aside from the Bowery, no neighborhood at the time packed in as many saloons, music halls, gambling dens, and brothels as the Tenderloin district did. Although illegal, “whoreocracy” prevailed after New York experienced a population boom in the 1820s, becoming the “Gomorrah of the New World.”
In 1883 the Metropolitan Opera House opened at 1411 Broadway, on the block between West 39th Street and West 40th Street, close to Tenderloin. In a context of theatre, a soubrette is a flirtatious comic character who first appeared in seventeenth century French comedy (Molière), usually in the role of a chambermaid. She developed greater popularity in comic opera and operetta. By the eighteenth century she had become fixed as a type.
Close to the Opera House were two streets that were nicknamed Soubrette Row. On the east side of Broadway, between 27th and 28th streets, lived a number of actresses who were employed by the Opera House to perform these stock characters. A second Soubrette Row existed on West 39th Street. It was known as Tenderloin’s most notorious sex street.
By the early twentieth century, Times Square was becoming the city’s erotic hot spot as the brothels of Tenderloin moved north along with restaurants and theatres. In many of the hotels around 42nd and Broadway prostitutes and pimps controlled dozens of rooms. At first glance this situation seemed to reflect the “traditional” mix of theatre and prostitution, but that was not the case.
Sex was the domain of low-end concert saloons (an American adaptation of the English music hall) where alcohol was served by ‘waiter girls’ and prostitutes were looking for clients. Niblo’s Garden attracted mass audiences with risqué plays such as the Black Crook based on crude double entendre and voluptuous women dancing the cancan.
Within the “high” culture of theatre, however, sex was frowned upon. Dramatic performances remained largely pompous and histrionic. What show business lacked was an impresario who was able to capture audiences by fusing theatrical refinement with sex-wise saloon dialogue. Broadway was crying out for someone who, without loss of decency or decorum, could make sexual content entertaining.
A Polish-Born Star
Searching for a female lead to star in A Parlor Match, Ziegfeld sailed to Europe to find a “Parisian” performer. Anna Held was born in Warsaw in (probably) March 1873 into a family of Jewish migrants. Her father was a German glove maker; her mother was a French national. The pogroms of 1881 forced the family to flee to Paris where her father continued his trade, but his health was fading.
Anna began work as a seamstress and was also employed as a part-time singer in Jewish theatres. When her father died in 1884, she and her mother went to live with relatives in London. There she made her professional stage debut in the legendary Yiddish theatre companies of Avram Goldfadn and actor-manager Jacob Adler.
Back in Paris, her vivacious personality proved attractive and her popularity as a stage performer gained momentum as she became known for her risqué songs, dark eyes, and flirtatious nature. She was celebrated for her tiny waist (eighteen inches) and willingness to show her legs on stage. European theatres started to take notice.
When appearing in London’s Palace Music Hall in 1896, Ziegfeld was in the audience. In Flo’s estimation, Anna represented the type of European star that the New York stage needed in order to rid itself of Victorian taboos and restrictions. Having bribed his way into her dressing room, Anna seduced him with her Polish-Parisian charm. Utterly smitten by her presence, professionally and personally, he begged her to return with him to Broadway by offering her a lucrative contract.
Ziegfeld arranged a “majestic” reception on her arrival in New York. Anna was welcomed by railway tycoon James Buchanan [Diamond Jim] Brady and his partner, the actress and singer Lillian Russell, a thirty-piece band, and a large contingent of reporters. Once he had established her in a suite at the Savoy Hotel, Flo set about promoting public interest in his protégé by feeding stories to the press, such as her having had ribs surgically removed to improve her body-line, or her daily habit of taking restorative milk baths. The public was intrigued. When she finally performed in 1896 most critics were dismissive, but the audience approved enthusiastically.
Ziegfeld touted the star’s sex appeal by highlighting her allure as an extravagant French performer – but Anna was more than an impresario’s puppet. She shaped her persona as an independent woman who challenged traditional gender roles, riding a horse astride, peddling a bicycle, and drive her own automobile. Until the partners split up in 1912, Anna would be central to Ziegfeld’s rise as a stage producer and showman. She helped refine his mastery of stage presentation. He even borrowed the idea for his Follies from her.
Ziegfeld and Held had lived together ever since her arrival in America, sharing a thirteen room suite in the exclusive Ansonia Hotel on Manhattan’s upper West side. Over time, Flo’s gambling and affairs ended their relationship. It did not finish her career. She was one of the first celebrities to win transatlantic fame and remained a leading musical stage star for more than two decades.
A Polish-born Parisian woman of Jewish background became an idealized figure to appeal to the taste of an emerging urban middle-class that showed an ever increasing appetite for the theatre.
The Follies shows ran from 1907 until 1932. It was the first Broadway production to present nudity. The image of artistic naughtiness as glamorous and “respectable” gave Ziegfeld’s shows an almost universal appeal. Nudity shaped as art supplied a legal loophole that kept the censor at bay. Flo’s chorus girl became a symbol of the new independent woman who represented the aspirations of her generation. She helped bring about the New Woman of the Roaring Twenties.
Flo introduced Europe’s musical culture to the United States by seeking inspiration from libertine aspects of French entertainment. He was a man with taste, populist instincts, and an aptitude for shenanigans. His strategy was to package European artistry into innovative stage productions and give those a uniquely Manhattan context. This second-generation immigrant entrepreneur turned Broadway into an all-American brand.
The principle of jus soli (“right of the soil”) dictates that a child of migrants automatically acquires the citizenship of his/her nation of birth. The notion of ‘second generation’ however suggests that members of this group are frequently seen as not ‘belonging’ and perceived as foreigners. The category is both a description and a marker of exclusion. It also challenges a second generation to set in motion integrative forces in society.
As an American immigrant, Ziegfeld Sr. strove to re-create a Germanic culture away from home. His outlook remained fundamentally European. His son by contrast was intrigued by the diversity of the cityscape. Keen to transcend the heritage in which he was raised, he surrounded himself with other immigrants in order to reshape styles of entertainment, extend the repertoire beyond the boundaries of individual cultural backgrounds, and cast a sense of identity that would include native-born and newcomer alike.
The velocity that Ziegfeld had infused into his shows inspired his rivals to try and achieve the same. It raised the temperature on Times Square. Spectators became participants. Cafés and cabaret clubs changed the pace of leisure and turned the district into an action environment where the “Whirl of Life” was palpable. Those who gathered there were lifted by a sense of cosmopolitan “joie de vivre” – Flo’s Broadway had liberated the crowd.
Illustrations, from above: The Follies in 1907; Advertising Ziegfeld’s Chicago Musical College Music (CMC), 1902; Poster for the Sandow Trocadero Vaudevilles, produced by Ziegfeld (1894); Eugen Sandow in a “classical” Greco-Roman pose, ca. 1897; The Art Nouveau style of the New Amsterdam Theatre (opened in 1903); Anna Held on a theatrical poster, ca. 1899 (Library of Congress); and Joseph Urban’s Ziegfeld Theatre at 54th Street and Sixth Avenue, 1926/7 (Columbia University).