Drama long shad­owed Ziegfeld

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - BY TIM PAGE

Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. was clearly the sort of per­son around whom le­gends will form. Put him up there with P.T. Bar­num and David Be­lasco among Amer­ica’s can­ni­est im­pre­sar­ios, a man who prided him­self on “glo­ri­fy­ing the Amer­i­can girl” in re­vue af­ter re­vue — or fol­lies, as many of them were called — on Broad­way in the first decades of the last cen­tury and who went on to pro­duce the first great work of Amer­i­can mu­si­cal theater, “Show Boat.”

His ad­vo­cacy was es­sen­tial to the suc­cess of W.C. Fields, Will Rogers and Fanny Brice, among many oth­ers. In­deed, Ziegfeld is a lead­ing char­ac­ter in “Funny Girl,” the fic­tion­al­ized showbiz bi­og­ra­phy of Brice that won Bar­bra Streisand her first fame on Broad­way and, later, an Os­car. He in­te­grated the New York stage by cast­ing the bril­liant Ba­hamian comic Bert Wil­liams in an oth­er­wise all-white pro­duc­tion. When some cast mem­bers com­plained, Ziegfeld re­sponded that he could re­place all of them “ex­cept the one you want me to fire.”

He was also a dif­fi­cult, im­pe­ri­ous man who regularly bed­ded his stars and chorines and re­fused to at­tend the fu­neral of his first wife, the Pol­ish-born ac­tress An­naHeld. By then, he was mar­ried to Bil­lie Burke, who sur­vived him by nearly 40 years and memo­ri­al­ized their life to­gether in two au­to­bi­ogra­phies. Burke also was an ac­tress of some dis­tinc­tion and was re­port­edly fu­ri­ous when MGM re­fused to cast her as Ziegfeld’s wife in a 1936 faux-bi­og­ra­phy, “The Great Ziegfeld.” (She was past 50 at the time.) Still, she won im­mor­tal­ity three years later when she played Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, in “The Wiz­ard of Oz.”

“Ziegfeld and His Fol­lies” was writ­ten by two sis­ters, Cyn­thia and Sara Brideson, who pre­vi­ously wrote “Also Star­ring ... : Forty Bi­o­graph­i­cal Es­says on the Great­est Char­ac­ter Ac­tors ofHol­ly­wood’s Golden Era, 1930-1965.” For those with an in­ter­est in the­atri­cal history, the new­book will rec­om­mend it­self as the first de­tailed bi­og­ra­phy of Ziegfeld in four decades. (Ethan Mordden’s 2008 study is best de­scribed as a witty and en­gross­ing gloss on the pro­ducer’s artistry and in­flu­ence.)

There is much to en­joy in the Brides­ons’ book, in­clud­ing 76 pho­to­graphs — some of them rare, all of them evoca­tive.

The Brides­ons get most of the facts right, have as­sem­bled dates and par­tial cast lists for all of Ziegfeld’s pro­duc­tions and have had un­prece­dented ac­cess to the pro­ducer’s letters to Burke and their daugh­ter, Pa­tri­cia. Some of the anec­dotes are hoary ones, of course, hav­ing been told and re­told for more than a cen­tury, but who can re­sist char­ac­ters with such names as A. Tox­enWorm, as one hap­less ri­val of Ziegfeld’s was chris­tened?

A lively story of Ziegfeld’s early pro­mo­tion of the pro­fes­sional strong­man Eu­gen Sandow and his at­tempt to wres­tle a “man-eat­ing” lion de­serves men­tion: “Sandow put up his fists as if pre­par­ing to box another man. The lion yawned at him. Sandow pulled at the big cat’s whiskers to rouse him. The lion half rose but then lay down again. Sandow then grabbed the lion’s mane, but the cat did noth­ing more than flick saw­dust in the strong­man’s face with his tail. . . . In an at­tempt to sal­vage the evening, Sandow lifted the lion as if it were a house cat and car­ried it around the ring. The lion seemed to en­joy be­ing car­ried, which only an­gered the crowd more.”

As it hap­pened, an old, in­firm lion from San Fran­cisco’s Golden Gate Park had been brought in (and likely drugged) for the oc­ca­sion. It would be some 20 years be­fore Ziegfeld vis­ited the Bay Area again, and even then, the lo­cal news­pa­pers re­mem­bered and mocked him for his long-ago sub­terfuge.

Not all the writ­ing is so lively. When Burke learned, to what can­not have been any great sur­prise, that Ziegfeld was once again in­volved with another ac­tress, the Brides­ons in­dulge in spe­cial plead­ing: “Her faith in Ziegfeld may have seemed naive or even pa­thetic to cyn­i­cal New York­ers, but it was ac­tu­ally a sign of great strength.” Well, maybe. Of the short-lived ac­tress Olive Thomas, we are told: “Leg­end has it that her rest­less spirit still wan­ders the New Am­s­ter­dam Theatre. Jan­i­tors and night watch­men claim they have seen her white, shrouded fig­ure hov­er­ing in the halls.” Well, maybe not.

Still, for the most part, this is an agree­able book about an im­por­tant fig­ure, suf­fused with vi­gnettes of the oldNewYork, a place that later New York­ers of­ten vainly try to pre­tend still sur­rounds them.

Tim Page, a for­mer mu­sic critic at The Washington Post, is a pro­fes­sor of mu­sic and jour­nal­ism at the Univer­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

JERRY MUR­BACH

Rosie and Jenny Dolly of the Ziegfeld Fol­lies, circa 1912. Florenz Ziegfeld prided him­self on “glo­ri­fy­ing the Amer­i­can girl” on Broad­way and was played byWal­ter Pid­geon in the film “Funny Girl.” The au­thors of “Ziegfeld and His Fol­lies” had un­prece­dented ac­cess to Ziegfeld’s letters to his wife, Bil­lie Burke, and their daugh­ter.

AL­FRED CHENEY JOHN­STON/HIS­TOR­I­CAL ZIEGFELD GROUP

Bar­bara Stan­wyck, in a photo from about 1923, when she danced with the Ziegfeld Fol­lies.

ZIEGFELD AND HIS FOL­LIES A Bi­og­ra­phy of Broad­way’s Great­est Pro­ducer By Cyn­thia Brideson and Sara Brideson Univ. Press of Ken­tucky. 516 pp. $40

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