Florenz Ziegfeld (1867-1932)

Broadway Producer, Florenz Ziegfeld Photo Portrait 1928

Florenz Ziegfeld

Florenz Ziegfeld was born in Chicago.  His Mother had been born in Belgium (grandniece of General Count Etienne Gerard); his Father was born in Germany.  Although his Father was Lutheran, Ziegfeld was baptized into his Mother’s faith as a Roman Catholic.

Not a performer himself but a true lover of beauty and talent, Ziegfeld started his long Broadway production career in 1896 when he produced his first major show  Papa’s Wife (1899.37).  In 1907, he introduced an annual series of revues filled with music by major American composers, entitled Follies, which ran continuously through 1931.

In 1908, Ziegfeld produced Miss Innocence (1908.39), with music by Ludwig Englander; however, it took another decade or more until Ziegfeld teamed up with Jerome Kern (music) and Guy Bolton (book) to produce his first major, American musical—Sally (1920.44).  Sally is also notable because the show’s Butterfly Ballet was composed by Victor Herbert and showcased the talents of Marilyn Miller as the star, supported by Walter Catlett and Leon Errol.  Catlett went on to become a superb character actor in Hollywood.  Also notable, the sets for Sally were designed by Joseph Urban who was born in Vienna and studied architecture at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna.

Urban emigrated to Boston in 1911 to be the art director at the Boston Opera Company.  Moving to New York, he later designed the Ziegfeld Theatre in 1927 that was to house a number of major Ziegfeld hits shortly after construction was completed, including Show Boat in December 1927. 

Sheet Music for Broadway show Kid Boots

Eddie Cantor

Ziegfeld’s hit, Sally, was followed a few years later with Kid Boots (1923.47), a Harry Tierney musical that ran on Broadway for 479 performances, in no small part because of the charismatic performance of its star, Eddie Cantor.  Shortly thereafter, Ziegfeld worked with Sigmund Romberg to produce his first operetta, Louie The 14th (1925.08), which ran for 319 performances.  The following year, he turned back to a more modern composer, Richard Rodgers, with whom he collaborated on Betsy (1926.51), which ran a disappointing 39 performances.

Ziegfeld’s next hit was the Tierney musical, Rio Rita (1927.08), which ran for 494 performances.

Cap'n Andy (Charles Winninger) and Chorus from Showboat

Cap’n Andy

The crown jewel of Ziegfeld’s career came with the opening of Show Boat (1927.67), with sets by Urban, orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II; it ran for 572 performances.  The cast included Howard Marsh as Gaylord Ravenal, Norma Terris as Magnolia, Helen Morgan as Julie, Jules Bledsoe as Joe, Edna May Oliver as Parthy and Charles Winninger as Cap’n Andy.

Ziegfeld reverted to a mixture of operetta and popular music with his next show, Rosalie (1928.03), running for 335 performances with songs by Romberg and George Gershwin.  The orchestrations were done by almost all of the orchestrators at the music publisher, T.B. Harms, other than Bennett.  Frank Morgan appeared in the cast, more than a decade before he would play the Wizard in the movie, The Wizard of Oz (1939).  Ziegfeld stayed with the operetta theme with his collaboration with Rudolf Friml, The Three Musketeers (1928.12).  Douglass Dumbrille (uncharacteristically) played the good Athos, while Reginald Owen (uncharacteristically) played the evil Richelieu.  Thanks to film restorations, we can still enjoy Dumbrille as the crooked lawyer in Frank Capra’s movie, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936); and Owen as “Biffer,” the retired boxer, in Mervyn LeRoy’s Random Harvest (1942).  The Three Musketeers ran 318 performances.

Returning to popular music, Ziegfeld produced Walter Donaldson’s great musical, Whoopee (1928.47), running for a total of 407 performances, with standout performers Eddie Cantor and Ruth Etting.  Ziegfeld had a shorter run with Gershwin’s Show Girl (1929.27), which opened at the Ziegfeld Theatre in July 1929, just months before the Wall Street Crash.  Running just 111 performances, the cast included Jimmie Durante (before he changed the spelling to Jimmy); Eddie Foy, Jr.; Ruby Keeler; and the Duke Ellington Orchestra.  Durante interpolated a number of his own songs into the score; nevertheless, the show included Gershwin’s American in Paris ballet and the song “Liza.”

Ziegfeld’s next show, Simple Simon (1930.08) didn’t do much better, even with the score by Rodgers, running only 135 performances.  Fitting for a show that opened after the Great Crash, Ruth Etting gave the audience the haunting “Ten Cents a Dance,” later seen in the movie Love Me Or Leave Me (1955), with Doris Day’s rendition of the song.

Ziegfeld’s last major show on Broadway had an even shorter run of sixty-three performances (Smiles, 1930.39), despite a cast that included Fred and Adele Astaire, Marilyn Miller and Eddie Foy, Jr.  The sadly beautiful “Time on My Hands” did not become immediately popular; given the beauty in the song, it is hard to understand the lack of popularity. Here are 1931 recordings of “Time on My Hands” and the swinging “I’m Glad I Waited,” which never caught on.



Early Portrait of Billie Burke

Billie Burke

The stock market crash of 1929 ruined many men, including Ziegfeld.  Broken financially and in spirit, Ziegfeld went west to see if he could get his health back, but died in Los Angeles on July 22, 1932, leaving his second wife, Billie Burke, with substantial debts.   In order to pay off those debts, she went to work, acting in films, and that is how we got the Glinda, the Good Witch of the North (The Wizard of Oz, 1939).