Ziegfeld and the Showgirl

Sara and Cynthia Brideson — and The Great Ziegfeld… 

Classic Movie Hub is very happy to welcome our two newest CMH Blog Contributors — Sara and Cynthia Brideson — twin sisters and co-authors of the soon-to-be-released Ziegfeld and His Follies: A Biography of Broadway’s Greatest Producer. We will be publishing articles from Sara and Cynthia here once a month, and we’ll be kicking things off today with their article about the great Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr.  But that’s not all… in celebration of their upcoming book release on June 12th, CMH will be giving away TWO COPIES of  Ziegfeld and His Follies in June — so please stay tuned for more details.

So, without any further adieu — here’s Sara and Cynthia — and the Great Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr… “the greatest name in show business.”

–Annmarie Gatti for Classic Movie Hub


Ziegfeld and his Follies by Sara and Cynthia Brideson

Thank you, Classic Movie Hub, for giving us the opportunity to reintroduce Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. to a new generation of film and theater enthusiasts.

Our names are Sara and Cynthia Brideson. We are twin sisters and co-authors of two books, Also Starring: Forty Biographical Essays on the Greatest Character Actors of Hollywood’s Golden Era, 1930-1965 (BearManor Media, 2013) and  Ziegfeld and His Follies: A Biography of Broadway’s Greatest Producer (University Press of Kentucky, to be released in June 2015). We have been fascinated by Ziegfeld and his career since we were eight years old. Our interest in The Wizard of Oz, and specifically Glinda the Good Witch, was what first led us to Ziegfeld. Billie Burke, who portrayed the Good Witch, was Ziegfeld’s wife from 1914 until his death in 1932. She aptly noted that “The things Flo cherished as a showman were color, music, spectacle and fun.” All three attributes applied especially to the modern day Cinderella stories Ziegfeld made a staple of early twentieth century musical comedy. Every little girl—and grown woman, for that matter—has a desire once in her life to be Cinderella, and Ziegfeld granted these girls and women their wish both on and off stage. Billie Burke’s biographer, Grant Hayter-Menzies, asserted that Ziegfeld’s sense of identity was tied “like vital organs shared by conjoined twins, to others’ enjoyment of what he created.”

The following article gives a brief glimpse into Ziegfeld’s ability to share his creations with others; moreover, it describes how he infused reality with as much color and fantasy as the visions he produced on the stage.


Ziegfeld and the Showgirl 
By Cynthia and Sara Brideson

Girl rises from obscurity to become a star, winning love and fortune in the process.

The above scenario probably sounds familiar, and for good reason: for over eighty years, it has constituted the formula in countless motion pictures. But who made this modern Cinderella story so ubiquitous? Who made girls of every background, color, and locale expand what had been the predominant goal of young women—marriage– to a new goal: stardom?

The name responsible for the transformation used to be as familiar as the Cinderella story itself.

“Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr.! The greatest name in show business…..whose daring and finesse changed the whole picture of Broadway…”

The above words, spoken by Eddie Cantor, do not lend themselves to exaggeration. Florenz Ziegfeld’s name alone was once embedded in Americans’ collective conscious as synonymous with “the top.” The shows he produced on Broadway planted the seeds of what become the modern Cinderella story, a story of which audiences still never tire.

Florenz Ziegfeld in 1927Ziegfeld in 1927

It all started in 1907 with what would become his annual Follies. These shows were revues whose plots were either nonexistent or secondary to their main purpose: glorifying the American girl. The Follies displayed “beautiful girls in lavish costumes” whose costumes “…never obviously projected or emphasized sensuality. He [Ziegfeld] wanted that to flow naturally….” The music accompanying the Follies girls certainly helped their beauty to flow naturally. It was composed by the most brilliant musicians of the period: Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, and Victor Herbert to name a few. The Follies may not have established the Cinderella plotline on stage, but they did something that made future shows like 42nd Street possible. They made the show girl respectable. Ziegfeld crafted his shows to make his actresses symbolize the modern woman– a single, urban working girl honestly earning money. He achieved this new view of the show girl by opening up the possibility of becoming one to women working in factories all the way to wealthy women sitting in the audience of his glorious New Amsterdam theater.

“The society girl, tired of life, the school teacher, wearied with the duties of the daily grind, the one whose life has heretofore been devoid of purpose, the stenographer, the cashier, even the waitress. Maybe she is a chambermaid…a place awaits her in the Ziegfeld ranks,” the producer declared.

Billie Burke 1919Billie Burke 1919 (Burke was married to Ziegfeld from 1914 until his death in 1932)

What further attracted young women to become Ziegfeld Girls was not just an escape from drudgery, but the fact that any girl could be accepted in his shows. She did not have to be particularly talented or strikingly gorgeous. Ziegfeld claimed, “I make talent.” And indeed he could, with make-up, proper lighting, and costumes, make formerly average or plain girls became beauties who elicited gasps from men and women alike. He taught them what would become known as the “Ziegfeld Girl strut,” which had the girls “hold their chins high when they paraded” in order to create a sense of aloofness and decorum, unlike the stereotypical, risqué chorus girl who encourages the attentions of male patrons rather than keep them at bay. Ziegfeld further recreated the picture of the chorus girl by exploiting his star’s personalities until what used to be eccentricities became behaviors to be emulate. Take Nora Bayes, for instance. She was not particularly glamorous and her singing was not as perfect as it could be. Ziegfeld put a story in the papers telling her method to keep her figure and energy up: sucking on lollypops before rehearsal each day. Suddenly, everyone’s interest was piqued and Nora Bayes became one of his biggest stars, remembered today for popularizing the standard “Shine on Harvest Moon.”

Then there was Anna Held, Ziegfeld’s first wife and arguably, the first Ziegfeld girl. Ziegfeld discovered her in Paris and brought her to the United States, little worried what an enormous risk he was taking by presenting Anna’s exotic style to American audiences. He put a story in the paper divulging Anna’s penchant for milk baths, claiming that it was her preferred method for keeping her skin creamy and silky. The result of his story? Anna’s star not only shot up, but milk sales did too.

The Dolly SistersThe Dolly Sisters

Ziegfeld’s press agent, Bernard Sobel, best described how Ziegfeld made Cinderellas out of the girls he employed: “He gave his showgirls salaries as large as those some of the principals received, he exploited them as personalities, listed them in the program, had them photographed by camera artists like Alfred Cheney Johnson….”

By 1919, the term “Ziegfeld Girl” was in the country’s vernacular and the Follies had reached their peak. Now seemed the ideal time to create a show with a coherent plot and the lavishness of any a revue. Ziegfeld declared he wanted his new show to be “a hymn to life and beauty.” What resulted would prove to be the show from which so many beloved classic films were born.

Marilyn Miller in "The Butterfly Ballet" from "Sally," 1920Marilyn Miller in “The Butterfly Ballet” from “Sally,” 1920

He stumbled upon the idea when he remembered a bit of verse entitled “Sally From Our Alley,” a term that had become a national catchphrase for a working class sweetheart. “Why not make a show about a poor girl from the alley?” he asked. With the idea of a working class sweetheart as catalyst, Ziegfeld commissioned Guy Bolton to expand on the idea. The plot resulting was this: Sally, a waif, is a dishwasher at the Alley Inn. She poses as a famous foreign ballerina and rises to fame (and finds love) through joining the Ziegfeld Follies. Cast in the role of Sally was Marilyn Miller, one of Ziegfeld’s brightest stars. With Marilyn as the Ziegfeld’s modern Cinderella and a sparkling score by Jerome Kern and P.G. Wodehouse, the show became one of the top five longest running productions in the 1920s. What truly set Sally apart from all previous rags to riches stories was its finale. The show’s ending seems predictable: Sally marries and lives happily ever after. But what made the show original and fresh was that Sally becomes a celebrated star and marries the man she loves (who happens to be a millionaire).

The show was a true amalgamation of Ziegfeld’s ambitions on and offstage to glorify the American girl. His cousin and biographer, Richard Ziegfeld, summed up the producer’s efforts this way: “The themes of the American Dream recurred in his shows, paralleled in his own life. In 1920 as Sally became a smash hit and made him a millionaire, he was probably only conscious of the silver lining. All he knew was he had worked hard to make the most of his considerable talents and that the American Dream had served him well.”

It had certainly served him well, but almost all who knew Ziegfeld declared that what brought him more happiness than his own success was giving gifts to others. Though most of his gifts were conspicuous, ranging from Rolls Royce automobiles for his stars to bags of gold coins for the cleaning women at his theater, he gave immeasurable gifts to the girls he employed as well as to those watching them in the audience. In realizing his own dream, Ziegfeld strove to make his girls’ dreams come true too. In reference to the show girls he employed, he stated: “Let us hope that for many it does mean the end of trouble so far as earning a livelihood is concerned, that it means happy and comfortable home living honestly earned.”

picture from 1936 biopic "The Great Ziegfeld,"1936 biopic “The Great Ziegfeld”

The image of a comfortable home clashes with the archetypal Ziegfeld Girl depicted in film and in the minds of many Americans today. Joan Blondell in Gold Diggers of 1933 or Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes summon the term Ziegfeld Girl more than wide-eyed Janet Gaynor in A Star is Born or naïve hopeful actress Ruby Keeler in 42nd Street. True, some of the girls were gold diggers. But in reality, most Ziegfeld Girls were exactly what Ziegfeld glorified in Sally: poor young women with big dreams who just wanted to be “happy” with a “home living honestly earned.” Most Ziegfeld Girls retired after marrying (an inordinate amount happened to marry into wealth) and led fairly normal lives. But they never lost the golden sheen of having been a Ziegfeld Girl and having been Princesses even before they married their Princes.

Ziegfeld was often described as a man who was hard to know, but through his work audiences can glimpse a man who did not have the word ‘impossible’ in his vocabulary. Some described his constant optimism as foolish; ultimately, his blindness to anything but the silver lining would be his downfall. Fool or genius, it doesn’t matter. Ziegfeld left theater and film with a priceless legacy. One time Ziegfeld Girl Doris Eaton offers this insight about the legendary producer:

“Employing a star was simple, but discovering and developing unknown beauty and talent was the exciting challenge…molding, exploiting, and claiming as his own those rare flawless visions. This was Ziegfeld’s romance with life.”

You can watch our interview about the book on YouTube by clicking here.

You find our books, Ziegfeld and His Follies: A Biography of Broadway’s Greatest Producer and Also Starring: Forty Biographical Essays on the Greatest Character Actors of Hollywood’s Golden Era, 1930-1965 at amazon by clicking on the images below:



–Sara and Cynthia Brideson for Classic Movie Hub

Sara and Cynthia Brideson are avid classic movie fans, and twin authors of Ziegfeld and His Follies: A Biography of Broadway’s Greatest Producer and Also Starring: Forty Biographical Essays on the Greatest Character Actors of Hollywood’s Golden Era, 1930-1965. They also are currently working on comprehensive biographies of Gene Kelly and Margaret Sullavan. You can follow them on twitter at @saraandcynthia or like them on Facebook at Cynthia and Sara Brideson.

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3 Responses to Ziegfeld and the Showgirl

  1. FANTASTIC article on one of America’s great showmen. Can’t wait to read the book!

    • Cynthia and Sara says:

      Thanks so much for your comment! We hope the book brings some joy to people out there. By the way, we love your “Me TV” blog-a-thon! “The Andy Griffith Show” post made us feel very nostalgic 🙂

  2. Pingback: “Ziegfeld and His Follies: A Biography of Broadway’s Greatest Producer” Book Giveaway (via Twitter June 1 through June 30) | Classic Movie Hub Blog

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