Theatre: Ziggy

7 minute read

(See front cover.)

Probably the most spectacular feature of a successful theatre season in Manhattan has been the gigantic and prolonged good fortune of that wise and prolific producer of plays, Florenz Ziegfeld. Three (Rosalie, The Three Musketeers, Show Boat) of the five shows which he has sponsored since the autumn were playing last week to capacity houses. With the possible exception of The Theatre Guild, no other producer has scored so heavily this winter. Without exception, no other producer has ever enjoyed such consistently large revenues from his theatrical ventures.

With regard to Mr. Ziegfeld, much has been said by himself and others. This can be briefly summarized as follows:

He is the son of the late Dr. Florenz Ziegfeld, who was the founder and president of the Chicago Musical College.

He received a complete musical education, to prepare him for his father’s office; in his early 20’s he decided to turn his talents to commercial ends as a producer of musical entertainment.

In this capacity, his first move was to import the Hans Von Bulow Orchestra from Hamburg to the Chicago World’s Fair. Next he captured Sandow, the strong man.

Before long, his keen and roving eye for the aesthetic beauty of the female figure caused him to enlarge the focus of his attention. He produced a dignified operetta called The Red Feather and another more sprightly beauty show called Mile, Fifi. His first wife was Anna Held, who starred in this show, became famous for singing “I Can’t Make My Eyes Behave,” and who had the narrowest waistline in the U. S. at a time when such details commanded favorable notice.

In 1907, sick of the sweet and dreary musical comedies which littered Broadway, he produced The Follies, a revue which took its name from the Parisian Folies Bergères and duplicated its gay and daring makeup. New Yorkers, at this time innocent of the malpractice which has since become famous as the “buttock and leg show,” danced with frantic eagerness to see what Ziggy* had done. They discovered over the door the legend which, however inaccurate or uncomplimentary it may have seemed, described its author’s business in terms that have been remembered. “Glorifying the American Girl” was the legend.

Since that time Ziggy has produced a new edition of The Follies every year as well as an enormous number of variegated musical shows, each devised, with unerring accuracy, to suit the taste of the season.

He built last year a theatre as imposing as a village bank and far more handsome. Departing from the old desk above the New Amsterdam Theatre, at which every important theatrical person, with the exception of Lee Shubert, has stood at one time or another during the last two decades, Mr. Ziegfeld moved his scenery into an airy office four floors above the entrance of the new theatre.

His homes (at Hastings-on-Hudson, Palm Beach; Patricia Island, Quebec; Manhattan) are full of flowers, sofas and pictures of two people. One of these is his wife, beautiful Billie Burke. The other is his daughter Patricia who is idolized by her father.

With regard to Mr. Ziegfeld’s business, many a curious one has asked questions to which replies are as follows:

He employs at present no less than 800 glorified girls in his various chori. Half of these are blonde, half brunette; all of them were chosen by Ziegfeld himself in person, with great labor, from an annual crowd of applicants numbering at least 15.000. For the six shows which he contemplates producing next year, Maestro Ziegfeld will be able to draw upon a large reserve of chorines whose names, measurements and telephone numbers he keeps on record; others he will select himself, by a process of elimination, from determined battalions that assemble for his inspection, at a whispered word. He will do this clad in shirt sleeves; the scene will be a large rehearsal hall.*

This season, his most highly paid star is said to be Marilyn Miller, of Rosalie,† she gets a guarantee of $5,000 weekly on a percentage basis which nets her $1,000 above this sum.

The members of the ensemble, if they are haughty “show girls,” receive an average of $125 weekly, in addition to extras; if successful, they are likely to graduate into the even more profitably perilous cinema industry. If they are agile “dancing girls” they receive perhaps $55 per week and they are more likely to achieve legitimate success, if any.

It would be tedious to enumerate the stars whom Producer Ziegfeld has, in the theatrical sense of the word, made. A few, in the cinema, are: Olive Thomas, Louise Brooks, Dolores Costello, Greta Nissen, Mae Murray, Marion Davies. On the stage: Nora Bayes, Anna Held, Martha Mansfield, Leon Errol, Gallagher and Shean, Peggy Hopkins (Joyce), Eddie Cantor, James Barton, Ina Claire.

Ziegfeld chorus girls report for work at 7:30; they dress not in large, damp rooms but in small, cozy ones, with walls covered with photographs and curious trophies. Their dresses are mended by ruddy Kate Reddy, for 18 years the warden of Ziegfeld wardrobes. Five percent of them marry rich men.

Ziegfeld is explicit when he explains the formula for his box-office batting average. There are, he thinks, three themes for musical shows: Sex, Adventure, Romance. Right now, he thinks Romance is the winner and builds his plays accordingly. Soon Sex will have its turn again.

He thinks that the personal contribution which he makes to all his shows can be best described by the three words “Splendor and Intelligence.” This is because he is proud of what he has done, not because he is conceited about what he is. Ziggy has never appeared upon the stage, except when pushed there after an opening performance.

Tickets to his shows are usually high in price; most of them are bought far in advance by speculators or private purchasers. It is reported that Edna Ferber, the author of Show Boat, one day learned that someone had purchased four good seats at box office prices, only one week in advance. So great was her surprise, that she developed a splitting headache.

He acknowledges no rivals in his corner of the show business; while he has established his own tradition, he would be ready to admit a forerunner in the once wealthy Edward E. Rice who produced elaborate “high class burlesque” in the 1890’s and who died two years ago, without a nickel.

Last week, as he took his ease in a country manor, placid Ziggy did not reflect that almost every dead U. S. producer of gay, tinkling dramatics has died without funds. Instead, he reflected that an airplane, driven by Bernt Balchen, had just made a record driving from Staten Island to Detroit; that the airplane was the very one in which the late Floyd Bennett had tried to reach Greenly Island, and that it contained, by a fortunate exception in the regulations made especially for him, Marie Marrifield, one of his dancers, who was hurrying to see a sick sister. Ziggy reflected also that next autumn, in Manhattan, he would have two simultaneous Manhattan productions of Show Boat, his greatest hit. He debated with himself whether to hire famed Comedienne Beatrice Lillie (Lady Peel), and he took counsel with himself, while a continent trembled, whether to produce another Follies. Also he wondered how things would go with Billie Burke when she returned to the stage after long absence, as the star of The Happy Husband (see p. 43).

* A nickname of which he is proud.

* He will not, as unsophisticated parents of ambitious girls may well imagine, command his prospective employes to stand before him naked. He will inspect them when they are dressed and standing still. After this, he sends most of them home. Then he will have the remainder in bathing suits, for a more detailed investigation.

† The name of Ziggy’s mother.

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