Florenz Ziegfeld

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Perhaps the most important and influential producer in the history of the Broadway musical.
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b. 21 March 1867, Chicago, Illinois, USA, d. 22 July 1932, New York, USA. The most important and influential producer in the history of the Broadway musical. It is said that Ziegfeld was involved in his first real-life, but accidental, ‘spectacular’ at the age of four, when he and his family were forced to seek shelter under a bridge in Lake Park during the great Chicago fire of 1871. While in his teens, he was constantly running a variety of shows, and in 1893, his father, who was the founder of the Chicago Music College, sent him to Europe to find classical musicians and orchestras. Florenz returned with the Von Bulow Military Band - and Eugene Sandow, ‘the world’s strongest man’. The actress Anna Held, with whom Ziegfeld went through a form of marriage in 1897 (they were ‘divorced’ in 1913), also came from Europe, and she made her US stage debut in Ziegfeld’s first Broadway production, A Parlor Match, in 1896. He followed that with Papa’s Wife, The Little Duchess, The Red Feather, Mam’selle Napoleon, and Higgledy Piggledy (1904). Two years later, Held gave an appealing performance in Ziegfeld’s The Parisian Model, and introduced two songs that are always identified with her, ‘It’s Delightful To Be Married’ and ‘I Just Can’t Make My Eyes Behave’.

Her success in this show, combined with her obvious star quality and potential, is said to have been one of the major factors in the impresario’s decision to launch a series of lavish revues in 1907 which came to be known as the Ziegfeld Follies. These spectacular extravaganzas, full of beautiful women, talented performers, and the best popular songs of the time, continued annually for most of the 20s. In addition, Ziegfeld brought his talents as America’s master showman to other (mostly) hit productions such as The Soul Kiss (1908), Miss Innocence, Over The River, A Winsome Widow, The Century Girl, Miss 1917, Sally, Kid Boots, Annie Dear, Louie The 14th, Ziegfeld’s American Revue (later retitled No Foolin’), and Betsy (1926). After breaking up with Anna Held, Ziegfeld married the glamorous actress, Billie Burke. He opened his own newly built Ziegfeld Theatre in 1927 with Rio Rita, which ran for nearly 500 performances. The hits continued to flow with Show Boat (1927), Rosalie, The Three Musketeers, and Whoopee! (1928). In 1929, with the Depression beginning to bite, he was not so fortunate with Show Girl, which only managed 111 performances, and to compound the failure, he suffered massive losses in the Wall Street Crash of the same year.

Bitter Sweet (1929) was a bitter disappointment, and potential hits such as Simple Simon, with a score by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Smiles with Fred Astaire and his sister Adele, the last Follies of his lifetime (1931), and Hot-Cha (1932) with Bert Lahr, simply failed to take off. It is said that he would have been forced into bankruptcy if his revival of Show Boat, which opened at the Casino on 12 May 1932, had not been a substantial hit. Ironically, Ziegfeld, whose health had been failing for some time, died of pleurisy in July, two months into the run. His flamboyant career, coupled with a reputation as a notorious womanizer, has been the subject of at least three films: The Great Ziegfeld (1936) with William Powell which won two Oscars; Ziegfeld Follies, William Powell again, with Fred Astaire; and a television movie, Ziegfeld: The Man And His Women (1978).