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Ziegfeld: The Man Who Invented Show Business

Ziegfeld: The Man Who Invented Show Business

by Ethan Mordden

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Any girl who twists her hat will be fired! – Florenz Ziegfeld

And no Ziegfeld girl ever did as she made her way down the gala stairways of the Ziegfeld Follies in some of the most astonishing spectacles the American theatergoing public ever witnessed. When Florenz Ziegfeld started in theater, it was flea circus, operetta and sideshow all


Any girl who twists her hat will be fired! – Florenz Ziegfeld

And no Ziegfeld girl ever did as she made her way down the gala stairways of the Ziegfeld Follies in some of the most astonishing spectacles the American theatergoing public ever witnessed. When Florenz Ziegfeld started in theater, it was flea circus, operetta and sideshow all rolled into one. When he left it, the glamorous world of "show-biz" had been created. Though many know him as the man who "glorified the American girl," his first real star attraction was the bodybuilder Eugen Sandow, who flexed his muscles and thrilled the society matrons who came backstage to squeeze his biceps. His lesson learned with Sandow, Ziegfeld went on to present Anna Held, the naughty French sensation, who became the first Mrs. Ziegfeld. He was one of the first impresarios to mix headliners of different ethnic backgrounds, and literally the earliest proponent of mixed-race casting. The stars he showcased and, in some cases, created have become legends: Billie Burke (who also became his wife), elfin Marilyn Miller, cowboy Will Rogers, Bert Williams, W. C. Fields, Eddie Cantor and, last but not least, neighborhood diva Fanny Brice. A man of voracious sexual appetites when it came to beautiful women, Ziegfeld knew what he wanted and what others would want as well. From that passion, the Ziegfeld Girl was born. Elaborately bejeweled, they wore little more than a smile as they glided through eye-popping tableaux that were the highlight of the Follies, presented almost every year from 1907 to 1931. Ziegfeld's reputation and power, however, went beyond the stage of the Follies as he produced a number of other musicals, among them the ground-breaking Show Boat. In Ziegfeld: The Man Who Created Show Business, Ethan Mordden recreates the lost world of the Follies, a place of long-vanished beauty masterminded by one of the most inventive, ruthless, street-smart and exacting men ever to fill a theatre on the Great White Way : Florenz Ziegfeld.

Editorial Reviews

Carolyn See
…engaging, often gnomic, information-packed biography of Florenz Ziegfeld…His life is almost incomprehensible in its breadth and quality of experience, but Mordden's voice, so impenetrable at times, is perfectly suited to this vast, embossed, embellished material.
—The Washington Post
Library Journal

Mordden, author of dozens of books (including Broadway histories All That Glittered and The Happiest Corpse I've Ever Seen), presents a fascinating look at a pivotal period in American theater. With a flowing style that combines factoids of historical events with historical commentary, personal anecdotes of the players, and his own insight, he creates ostensibly an insider's view. Florenz Ziegfeld Jr., the son of an immigrant piano instructor, began in Chicago and went on to become one of the most powerful managers on the Broadway stage he was so instrumental in developing. Ziegfeld's life is traced from his little-known, middle-class childhood through his rise in the business and his interactions with the Shuberts, their competing theater managers, and the multitude of once-obscure comedians, singers, dancers, writers, and composers who became stars under his management. He "democratized the musical, the theatre, American life" in a way that is still influential today, most notably in his insistent mix of races and classes among his players, beginning with black comedian Bert Williams in the Follies of 1910 and culminating in the masterpiece Show Boat in 1927. Highly recommended for theater collections.
—Laura A. Ewald

Kirkus Reviews

A rich and entertaining biography of Broadway's first auteur.

Ever the witty and erudite raconteur, Mordden (All That Glittered: The Golden Age of Drama on Broadway, 1919–1959, 2007, etc.) transports readers to the time when Times Square was just an intersection of streets. Shortly after Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. arrived in the 1890s, the new subway system made 42nd Street and Broadway a hub, bringing riders to what was becoming Theaterland. Ziegfeld hit the right place at the right time, but as Mordden wisely points out, the man knew exactly what to do as the stars were aligning. Ziegfeld had already honed his taste and producing skills in Chicago; he knew what he liked and what the public wanted. Besides making deals and (sometimes) writing checks, he put his stamp on what he staged. Ziegfeld spotlighted charismatic stars, signing Anna Held, Marilyn Miller, Eddie Cantor, Fannie Brice, W.C. Fields, Will Rogers, etc., and put them to work in lavishly designed revues, eventually known as the Ziegfeld Follies. For material and style, Ziegfeld drew on classic and popular entertainment forms—Goethe and sex, Mordden says—creating a Broadway template that prevails today, as anyone who sees the current New York revivals of the brassy Gypsy and the lyrical South Pacific will observe. Near the end of the '20s, Ziegfeld set collaborators to work on an emerging form, the musical that wed songs to a strong, central narrative. The result was Show Boat, a cornerstone in American musical theater. Mordden gives ample attention to Ziegfeld's personal life—in particular, his marriage to actress Billie Burke and his liaisons with the "American girls" he glorified on stage—but the main focus is thetheater. The author's descriptions are enlivening, his profiles sharp, his tone casual and elegant. He may never have met a diversion he didn't like (the original route of the IRT; notes on kooch dancing) or a zinger he couldn't resist (a description of Anna Held's pelt-laden photo-op attire looked "like the interior of an Indian hunting lodge").

As diverse and diverting as a night at the Follies.

Agent: Joe Spieler/The Spieler Agency

From the Publisher
“[Ethan Mordden possesses] the kind of long view and deep investigation that almost no writer has previously brought to bear on the [history of the Broadway stage].”

—Jesse Greene, The New York Times

“…engaging…This book is as much history as biography. Ziegfeld's personal life is consistently blank, but Mordden fills his pages with cast lists of every single "Follies," with mini-biographies of every star and comic [and] an extensive history of "Show Boat," which Ziegfeld produced…”—Washington Post


"Ethan Mordden offers a wealth of detail to illustrate how Ziegfeld left his stamp on every aspect of his productions…this fabled history is made fresh again by Mr. Mordden…as a look back at the beginnings of today's show-business world, "Ziegfeld" is invaluable."—Wall Street Journal


"In his meticulously researched and detailed portrait of the ultimate Rialto manager-producer, Mordden recalls with equal parts snark and smarts Ziegfeld's life and shows…Mordden captures the glamour, the seduction of the stage and, of course, the women who seduced both audiences — and Ziegfeld himself — through their beauty and talent." —Variety

Praise for "All that Glittered: The Golden Age of Drama on Broadway, 1919-1959"

“Ethan Mordden, the almost absurdly prolific theatrical chronicler, has compiled a serious and engaging history.  Mordden’s evocation of the glory days of drama is a handsome reminder—the next best thing, as they say, to being there.”—The Washington Post Book World

“Erudite, but casual and conversational, and full of fresh perceptions, Mordden is a charmingly insightful raconteur who condenses 40 years' worth of opening nights into a single engrossing montage."—Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)

“[A] witty, compulsively readable style and knack for finding the right figures to focus on in each era. Mordden is a master at revealing the web of aesthetic and business connections just beneath the surface of developments.”Booklist

“More than enlivening description, Mordden offers social, political, aesthetic and cultural context as he discusses what led to Broadway's ascendancy and demise. Mordden's keen eye, broad vision, wealth of detail and sparkling style bring to life the American rialto at its peak."—Kirkus Reviews

“Exudes intelligence and wit. The author clearly possesses a passion for and an involvement with the theater, and he easily wins over the reader (who may strongly disagree with his views as the book progresses) in the first few pages with his conversational style and sly wisecracks. This is an enthralling exploration of a legendary and glamorous time in theater history.”— Library Journal

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The Man Who Invented Show Business

By Ethan Mordden

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2008 Ethan Mordden
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-5152-4


Ziegfeld's Chicago

We start with a photograph of Flo and his three siblings at a tender age. It is perhaps their only picture to survive, for it is the one we always see. Flo, the oldest at twelve or so, is standing, dressed in what appears to be a school uniform, complete with a military cap, and showing just the hint of a smirk. The others are seated in front of him: Carl, ten, dressed like Flo and looking up from writing something in a book; baby Louise, four, dolled up and leaning on Carl's shoulder; and William, six, the cutest of the group in his little boy's first suit, topped off with a pocket watch and chain. He looks a little uncertain.

They were middle-class kids, all born in Chicago, where their immigrant parents had settled. Flo's father, Florenz Ziegfeld Sr., had a vocation to educate the young in music, and with so many music schools already established in his native Germany, he decided to play the missionary in America. After earning his certificate at the Leipzig Conservatory of Music, in 1863, when he was twenty-two years old, Ziegfeld returned home to what was then the duchy of Oldenburg, on the North Sea between Hamburg and the Netherlands, made his farewells, and set off. By 1865, still a bachelor, he had put down professional roots in Chicago, and not by chance. New York, where he briefly dallied, enjoyed some musical infrastructure. But Chicago had next to none — and, to boot, counted a huge German population, the largest ethnic group in the city. Milwaukee, Wisconsin, only thirty miles straight up the shores of Lake Michigan, to the north of Chicago, was a German colony in all but name. However, Chicago was extremely fast-growing and had just reached the stage when the first families of business seek to become first families of culture. Chicago was thus an ideal starting place for a European musician with ambition.

And Florenz Ziegfeld was ambitious, organizing his tutorials around a partnership with piano manufacturer W. W. Kimball and music publisher George Root. It was a natural alliance for anyone with expansive plans, for in a time when one had to go somewhere to hear music or make it oneself, every middle-class home had a piano and a pile of song sheets and light-classical piano solos or violin-piano duets. "My Old Kentucky Home." "Favorite Airs From the Operas." "The Banjo, Grotesque Fantasie, American Sketch." Mastering the piano, buying one, and updating the repertory of the home musicale created one of America's biggest businesses. Entering into an alliance with all three branches addressed a wide public.

In the event, Ziegfeld's first enterprise failed. Meanwhile, he had met and married a fellow immigrant, the Belgian Rosalie de Hez, in 1865. Back home in Germany, the Ziegfelds were burghers of some repute, but Rosalie claimed a most distinguished grand-uncle, the count étienne-Maurice Gérard, one of Napoleon's generals at Austerlitz, Jena, Wagram, and in the Russian campaign; war minister under Louis-Philippe, the citizen-king; and a marshal of France. Because Rosalie was Roman Catholic and Ziegfeld Lutheran, they hit upon an odd religious arrangement for their progeny. Florenz Edward Ziegfeld Jr., born March 21, 1867, was baptized a Catholic, but Carl and William were entered into the Lutheran confession and Louise was christened a Methodist.

With a spread of eight years framing the four births, one might expect some close bonding among the children, but what little we can glean from the archives suggests that young Flo was intimate only in a generalized way. Certainly, he didn't see anything the way his family did. For all the Beethoven and Schubert that filled his ears in youth, he developed no interest in classical music. He could play the piano, of course; piano lessons were automatic in the household of Herr Doktor Florenz Ziegfeld Sr. Then, too, Flo Jr. attended student recitals and joined the Herr Doktor's staff as soon as age allowed. But none of this resonated in the older, independent Flo. Beethoven and Schubert were, to his taste, noble, transcendent, and idealistic. In short: hard work. If Flo is not actually smirking in that photograph of the Ziegfeld little ones, he is at least at some remove from whatever lies in store for the rest of his generation, and he seems to know it.

So never did Flo embrace the family business the way his two brothers eventually did. He remained on conventionally loving terms with his people, even joining his touring shows when they reached Chicago for Ziegfeld family reunions. Nevertheless, Papa, Mama, Carl, William, and Louise were what Flo was bound to leave behind him when he reached young manhood and pursued his destiny. What he took with him was Chicago.

Surely the most mythologized of American cities — more so even than New York or Los Angeles — Chicago grew like a mushroom, from trading post to metropolis in a single generation. It was tycoon heaven, where the business of the place is business, almost passionately founded on its main industries of stock butchery, grain, and lumber. All the nation's railroad lines led to Chicago, and as countless trains steamed into the center of town, two human beings a day were killed or maimed where tracks crossed streets. In Japan, they would say, "That's karma." In Chicago, they said, "That's business."

Built on prairie that turned to mud half the year, Chicago had a sanitation problem, a weather problem, a potable water problem. One bathed with minnows. The very concept of Chicago was the reordering of nature, yet civic pride plumed itself as much on the hazards of growing too fast as on the profits. Congested, plundering, insatiable — Chicago wasn't a model town: it was an American town, the American town, the city as capitalist text. Did any other major municipality so wed its government to its industries? "City of the big shoulders," Carl Sandburg called it, because it was tough and violent and filled with hustlers and stank to high heaven, and no one wanted to leave it.

There was excitement in Chicago life, born of the unmonitored swelling of an urban giant on a site both inviting and treacherous. Lake Michigan offered connection to the lumber fields of the north and the other Great Lakes, and, once the Illinois and Michigan Canal was dug, young Chicago enjoyed nearly limitless commercial expansion. The place really was young. Little more than cabins and a fort on Indian lands when Chicago incorporated, in 1833, it opened the canal only fifteen years later, simultaneously taking on telegraph communication and the construction of its first railroad.

That was in 1848, nineteen years before Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. was born. So the Chicago he grew up in was a frontier town and a cultural capital at once. It was a setting, a layout for startling events unlikely in other towns. It was where a woman star of early musical comedy, the English Lydia Thompson, could respond to vituperative newspaper editorials by horsewhipping the responsible editor in public, suffering arrest, paying a fine, and continuing her run at Crosby's Opera House after losing only a single performance to legal technicalities. Chicago sided with Thompson, not with the editor; this city liked its personalities on the rich side.

Who was the Chicagoan of Flo's day? Perhaps Philip Armour, the farmboy from New York who became the nation's leading meatpacker, up at work before the sun was, to hold a day-long levee at his rolltop desk with messengers, employees, colleagues in trade, and callers of various kinds: the dedicated industrialist.

Or Gurdon Saltonstall Hubbard, an Old Settler (as they were called) who took part in every Chicago adventure from fur trading through the ethnic antagonisms of the 1860s to the Great Fire: the local Character.

Or Jane Addams, the social reformer and Quaker saint. Or Theodore Thomas, the first conductor of the Chicago Orchestra (the forerunner of today's Chicago Symphony), the Chicagoan as artist, a friend of the senior Ziegfeld and a fellow German émigré.

Or Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. For though Flo made nothing of himself till he moved to New York, there is more than a little of the Chicago can-do hustler in Ziegfeld's style. He's the guy with an angle who bluffs his way into his first million, loses it on a gamble, and starts bluffing all over again. There's a helter-skelter in Ziegfeld the man, too, a hunger for chaos. It is as if he can do his best work only with everything going off at once: just like Chicago, where the nightclub stood right next to the art museum with railroad yards behind them, and where the Women's Christian Temperance Union made its headquarters in a drinking culture so thirsty that some saloons stayed open all night.

Florenz Ziegfeld Sr. could do nothing to instill in his first born a love of great music, but he did finally make a go of teaching music to Chicago. Senior's Chicago Musical Academy, founded in the year of Junior's birth, 1867, struggled for about five years, took the more "arrived" name of the Chicago Musical College, and at length caught on as a fixture of the city's cultural life. Thriving in its quiet way, it remained the Senior Ziegfeld's legacy till it was absorbed, in 1954, by the School of Music of Roosevelt University.

Herr Doktor's approach at his college was petit-bourgeois, catering to the offspring of Chicago's neverending supply of upwardly mobile families while maintaining respectful relations with Society and the city's musical establishment. Well-brought-up young ladies took piano, though the Chicago Musical College offered courses as well in the reed and brass instruments and in harmony and composition. Above all, Ziegfeld's close ties to the imposing conductor of the Chicago Orchestra must have contributed greatly to the school's prestige, especially among the socially elect.

Letters have survived that testify to Ziegfeld's very European manner of requesting permission of the Chicago great and near-great to arrange for the personal dedication of a musical composition — for instance, to Mrs. Potter Palmer, society's undisputed doyenne, on behalf of Fritz Scheel. "Herr Scheel is one of the greatest conductors in Germany," Ziegfeld writes, "and a composer well worthy of your kind consideration." In America as in the Old World, the patronage of the powerful was a necessary support in the business of making music. Theodore Thomas was a celebrity and Mrs. Palmer a grandee: and Florenz Ziegfeld Sr. was simply a family man always renewing cordial relations with what the French call le gratin, "the crust."

Ziegfeld's school moved from one address to another in its first years; at times it was housed in rented offices while the faculty pursued tutorials in individual students' homes. During one lean period, Ziegfeld had to operate entirely out of the family residence. Aside from the usual reasons — fluctuations in enrollment and such — was the Unique Chicago Reason that affected everyone in the town from aristo to bum: the Great Fire of the night of October 8, 1871.

Young Flo was four years, six months, and one week old when Catherine O'Leary's cow legendarily kicked a kerosene lamp into the hay of her barn and destroyed a city of 340,000 people. And a legend it is. Though the press hounded Mrs. O'Leary till her death, a reporter revealed that he and two other journalists had invented the story, based on the finding of an overturned oil lamp in the O'Leary barn. While no one knows what exactly sparked the Great Fire, what built it so big so quickly was a concentration of makeshift wooden structures, a poorly equipped fire department ... and "the wind."

This last item was the effect of the cold night air being drawn into a vortex created by rapidly rising hot air, creating hurricane-like winds. These tore chunks of lumber off burning buildings, hurling them into the distance to ignite new fires. Thus, Chicago burned not in one steadily advancing military formation of flame but in little sorties of fire that leaped over untouched areas, thereby generating chasms in which fleeing humanity could find itself trapped.

Everyone living in Chicago in 1871 could tell you, ever after, exactly where he was when he realized that the city was burning. He could tell you what he saw and what he heard — a shower of flame, an orange wall, a seething mountain; a war of a thousand cannon, the screams of the damned. Most folks had simply been pulled out of bed by the noise or roused by neighbors. Still, with every Chicagoan intent on presenting the narration of His Fire, one would expect a Ziegfeld family version to have come down through time. Yet there appears to be no such story. One writer tells us that Ziegfeld Sr. spent the first hours of the fire trying to save some of the school pianos. Surely not. The Ziegfelds lived in the central business district known as the Loop, whither the fire headed after bursting out to the south in an immigrant shantytown so baked by a hot, dry summer that it was all but dying to crisp. Indeed, a serious but ultimately containable fire had raged there just one night before.

So Ziegfeld Sr. could have wasted no time wrestling with pianos. He would immediately have taken his family to the place where everyone else instinctively went: the lake. Besides parents Florenz and Rosalie, there was just young Flo and Carl, barely toddling. All four made it through the holocaust — as, ironically, did the mainstays of Chicago, the millionaire's city: the lumberyards, the grain elevators, and the stockyards. There is yet more capitalist instruction in the miraculously speedy rebuilding of the town. It was as if the nation couldn't afford not to reimplement this essential piece of the prosperity machine. Some Chicagoans claimed that the Great Fire did them all the favor of excavating the foundation for a new and improved metropolis.

This was the level of energy and self-belief in which young Flo grew up, and the family found a new residence, at 1448 West Adams Street, a thoroughfare that ran for miles from the Art Institute in the east on into the Illinois countryside in the west. This house, at last, was not temporary quarters; Senior and Rosalie remained there from then on.

Shouldn't the Herr Doktor have sought a more suburban location for his school and family, perhaps on the north side, where the money lived? Or did the Senior Ziegfeld enjoy being in the very center of a boom town as much as his son did? Enlisted as a junior officer in the running of the Chicago Musical College, young Flo couldn't wait to get out of the place and into the world of People Who Do Things, into theChicagoness of life. As the school's assistant treasurer, then treasurer, and so on up to general manager under his father's presidency, Junior was dutiful but distracted, all the more so after attending the great theatrical event of his adolescence.

The touring spectacle entitled Buffalo Bill's Wild West and billed as "America's National Entertainment" was a show without a theatre: a great outdoor representation of the facts and legends of the world of cowboy and Indian, settler and scout. Formed in 1883, Buffalo Bill's Wild West featured shooting acts, horseback-riding stunts, historical and generical reconstructions ("Battle of the Little Big Horn," "Attacks on the Settler's Cabin"), and a genuine hero, Bill Cody himself. In 1885, Annie Oakley swelled the drawing power of the posters, for Oakley, too, was famous. If Bill Cody was admired for his abundance of manly qualities, Oakley was as well: she not only shot like a man, but did so with the confidence of the surest hand that ever drew.

A woman without nerves! And what was Bill Cody? Nothing less than the man who avenged all of America for the slaughter of Custer's cavalry. His show depicted the terrible battle and left it at that — but every spectator knew the tale of Buffalo Bill's real-life "duel" with Yellow Hair, a Cheyenne brave who symbolized the other side in the We Versus They of America's push westward. As Bill himself told it, a month after Custer and his men bit the dust, army scout Cody and his trackers met up with a Cheyenne war party led by Yellow Hair.

"I know you, Pa-he-haska," Yellow Hair called out to Cody. "If you want to fight, come ahead and fight me."

Instantly, Cody spurred his horse, and the two rode at each other like two terrors. At thirty yards, Cody fired his shotgun, wounding Yellow Hair. Cody's horse tripped and Cody went down, but he and Yellow Hair kept firing till Cody got close enough to stab the brave in the heart. Then, in Cody's own words, "jerking Yellow Hair's war bonnet off ... I scientifically scalped him in about five seconds."


Excerpted from Ziegfeld by Ethan Mordden. Copyright © 2008 Ethan Mordden. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Ethan Mordden has written extensively for The New Yorker and The New York Times. Besides non-fiction on theatre, music, and film, he is the author of the Buddies cycle of short stories. The stories, adapted for the stage by Scott Edward Smith as Buddies, played an engagement at the Celebration Theater in Los Angeles. His most recent novel is The Jewcatcher, a savage black-comic fantasy on life in Nazi Germany.

Ethan Mordden is the author of dozens of books, both fiction and nonfiction, including Buddies and I've a Feeling We're Not in Kansas Anymore. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker and numerous other magazines and journals. He lives in Manhattan.

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