Showman and impressario Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. was one of the most famous producers of the American theater. He born four years after the end of the Civil War in Chicago in March of 1869. His father, Florenz, Sr., was a German immigrant to Chicago and Director of the Chicago Musical College (CMC). The CMC burned down in the great Chicago fire of October 1871 but it was back in business the next year with 900 enrolled students. CMC eventually became part of Roosevelt University in the 1940s. Florenz had two brothers and one sister. Even as a teen, he had a creative penchant for publicity. According to a family legend he got in trouble by selling tickets to kids in the neighborhood who wanted to see his "invisible fish." What they saw was just a bowl full of water and Florenz returned the money and was punished. At about age 16 his parents sent him to a ranch in Wyoming because he thought he wanted to try the life of a cowboy but that hard life only lasted a few months before he came back to the city.
When Florenz, Jr. was 24, his father opened the Tracadero night club in Chicago just before the start of the 1893 World's Fair. At first, the club was not a success. The odd combination of variety acts with classical, not popular, music did little to attract patrons. But Florenz, Jr. returned from Europe where he was supposed to be looking for musical talent for the fair.
Instead he brought back Sandow the Strongman who appeared at the club and attracted a gaggle of socialites and other admirers who decided to adopt both Sandow and the club and their favorite "in" spot. Florenz Jr. displayed his talent for coordinating publicity campaigns when he promoted Eugene Sandow. Florenz Jr. literally saved his father from bankrupcy with Sandow's act.
In 1894 he took Sandow on the road where he continued to pull unique publicity stunts. But public reaction to his San Francisco stunt backfired when he promised that Sandow would wrestle a man-eating lion. The lion could barely walk and the crowd believed that the lion had been drugged. Florenz and Sandow parted on good terms in 1896. Florenz Jr. made a lot of money with Sandow but he also lost a lot of money to his gambling habit at the same time.
Florenz was preparing to produce a musical comedy on Broadway with the top names in the business when he saw Anna Held sing in a London music hall in 1895. She was under contract to the Folies Bergere in Paris but Florenz spent his bankroll wooing her and when the Folies demanded $1,500 as the price for her contract, Florenz got the money from his friend "Diamond Jim" Brady who wired it from New York.
She was in fact not French, but the daughter of a Polish-born Jewish glove maker. In any case, the now famous Ziegfeld pubicity machine went into high gear and Anna Held was a household name before she ever arrived in New York. In the Yiddish of European Jews at the time, Florenz brought his "chutzpah" to show business publicity campaigns.
His 1896 revival of Parlor Match caused a sensation when it introduced a new song, Daisy Bell, also known as A Bicycle Built for Two. (In the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, the HAL 9000 computer was taught to sing this old song by his programmers at the University of Illinois.) The song came near the start of the golden age of Tin Pan Alley in New York where dozens of song writers composed new songs and published them on sheet music for stores around the country. Parlor Match also featured the songs of Anna Held.
Ziegfeld constantly manufactured publicity to keep Anna's name before the public. He started a rumor that she took milk baths and supposedly sued a milk company for sending sour milk. The milk company president countered that her baths only looked milky and were actually scented oil. It was all an arranged stunt and it all worked.
At the start of the 20th Century, Anna, though married in 1897, became over time the common law wife of Ziegfeld and eventually his legal wife after her first marriage was nullified. Together Anna and Florenz developed the chorus lines of pretty girls and musical revues that eventually became the Ziegfield Follies starting around 1908. The follies called on the best musical and comedic talents of the day including George Gershwin and Victor Herbert.
Irving Berlin wrote a song called A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody that became the signature song of all the follies. Ziegfeld also became a theater owner and the most famous producer in the country. By 1912 Anna and Ziegfeld were going through a divorce and she died of a rare bone cancer in 1918. Ziegfeld married actress Billie Burke in 1914 when she was a raving beauty seventeen years his junior. If Burke is remembered today, it is usually for her role many years later in 1939 as Glinda, the good witch of the north in The Wizard of Oz.
Throughout the late teens and the 1920s, the musical and comedy revues known as The Ziegfeld Follies made many stars including Fanny Brice, Eddie Cantor, Ed Wynn, Will Rogers, W.C. Fields, and dancer Ann Pennington. In 1927 Ziegeld produced the highly acclaimed Show Boat on Broadway which ran 527 performances. It was based on a book written by Edna Ferber when she lived in Hyde Park in Chicago.
The stage and film version featured actress and singer Helen Morgan from Danville, Illinois who played Julie. A 1932 revival of the play featured a new cast member, Paul Robeson, whose powerful performance of the song Old Man River made him a star.
Ziegfeld lost a fortune in the stock market crash of 1929. He tried a revival of Show Boat in 1932 to make money but got very sick as he was producing this revival. On the night of July 22, 1932 Billie Burke was informed that Ziegfeld's penumonia and a lung infection were worse and he did not have long to live. He died that same night.
It is an ironic footnote that when Billie got the news about Florenz, she was filming a screen test with a young actor named Walter Pidgeon. Thirty-six years later In 1968, Walter Pidgeon was a Hollywood veteran when he played the role of Florenz Ziegeld in Funny Girl, a film that starred Barbara Streisand as Ziegfeld's protoge, Fanny Brice.
For a list of the theatrical productions of Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. readers may visit his page on the Internet Broadway Data Base.