Florenz Ziegfeld

Florenz Ziegfeld (1869-1932) developed the American musical revue and became a dominant force in musical theater in the early 20th century.

Florenz Ziegfeld was born in Chicago, III., on March 21, 1869. His father was a German musician of the old school who eventually became president of the Chicago Musical College. Young "Flo" found this dignified life too quiet. In his first venture into show business he managed Sandow, the strong man of the World's Columbian Exposition, in 1893. He next turned to theatrical management. In London in the 1890s he met the French beauty Anna Held and placed her under contract. Recognizing the American public's insatiable urge to know about the private lives of stars, he promoted Held into national attention with press releases describing her milk baths. He married her in 1897; they were divorced in 1913.

Ziegfeld's early musical productions enjoyed modest success; more important, he was perfecting his style. In 1906 The Parisian Model featured the beautiful girls and intricate though precise musical numbers that made him famous. That summer he visited Paris, and the Folies-Berge‧re became the model for his annual Ziegfeld Follies. Recognizing that the risqué elements of the Folies would be unacceptable in the United States, Ziegfeld substituted more displays of beautiful girls.

Few realized the future of the Ziegfeld Follies when it first opened in July 1907. Presented on the New York Theater roof, the Follies was an immediate success, and in September Ziegfeld moved it indoors. By 1910 others were beginning to copy his format, but no other revues had the precision, discipline, and homogeneity of the Ziegfeld Follies.

In 1915 Ziegfeld added an important element when he hired Joseph Urban as designer. Urban's sense of spectacle was perfectly suited to the Ziegfeld idea—beautiful girls, intricate numbers, lavish and artistic design. The Ziegfeld pattern was completed with stars: Fannie Brice, Marilyn Miller, Bert Williams, W. C. Fields, Eddie Cantor, Gilda Grey, Gallagher and Shean, and Will Rogers were under contract at one time or another. Ziegfeld had a sharp eye for talent. The first Follies had cost only $13,000 to produce; the preproduction costs of the 1927 Follies totaled nearly $300,000.

While continuing the Follies, Ziegfeld returned to musical comedy in 1920. Among his hits were Sally (1920), Show Boat and Rio Rita (both 1927), and Bitter Sweet (1929). Ziegfeld abandoned the Follies in 1927; by the time he returned to it in 1931, the magic was gone. He had lost some of his touch, and the mood of the country, deep in the Great Depression, had changed. He died on July 22, 1932, in Hollywood, Calif.

Further Reading on Florenz Ziegfeld

No definitive work on Ziegfeld has appeared, but Cecil Smith, Musical Comedy in America (1950), contains information about his career.

Additional Biography Sources

Ziegfeld, Richard E., The Ziegfeld touch: the life and times of Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., New York: H.N. Abrams, 1993.