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This Showman’s Publicity Stunts Launched a New American Artform

#This Showman’s Publicity Stunts Launched a New American Artform

Photo of Times Square, Astor theatre, 1936.

Florenz Ziegfeld—the most famous showman of his time, and a genius of that great American art form, the publicity stunt—began his career with an animal act: “The Dancing Ducks of Denmark.”  

Actually, the ducks, like Ziegfeld, were Illinois natives, and they danced because Ziegfeld heated their feet with a hidden flame. Outraged, Chicago’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals shut down the show. In response, Ziegfeld switched from dancing ducks to dancing humans—dancing female humans, all decked out in wildly elaborate, but gloriously revealing, costumes.  

His annual Broadway extravaganzas, the Ziegfeld Follies, featured lots of lovely “Ziegfeld girls.” “It is necessary for a girl selected for the Follies to have personality and have grace,” he said. “The eyes should be large and expressive. Back and shoulders, of course, should be beautiful, and a rounded neck is also essential, while graceful hands are quite necessary. The legs must be shapely, and last but not least, the proportions of the figure must be perfect.”  

He was born in Chicago in 1867, the son of a German immigrant who founded the Chicago Musical College. His father taught him piano and punished him when he played popular songs instead of classical works. In 1893, his father opened a theater in Chicago and sent Florenz to Europe to find classical musicians to perform at it. Instead, Florenz returned with acrobats, jugglers, and a strongman named Eugen Sandow. His father was irate—until Sandow drew crowds.  

Photo of Florenz Ziegfeld.
Florenz Ziegfeld.

Ziegfeld dressed his strongman in skimpy, skin-tight silk briefs and hyped him as “Sandow, the Perfect Man.” Then he concocted a fabulous publicity stunt: He announced that any woman who donated $300 to a charity could come backstage and feel Sandow’s mighty biceps. Several Chicago society ladies took him up on the offer, donning the velvet gloves Ziegfeld provided. Sandow became so famous that Ziegfeld took him on a two-year world tour that made both men rich.  

In England, Ziegfeld met Anna Held, a French actress. They became lovers, and he brought her to New York and produced musical comedies in which she starred. The shows are forgotten but not the publicity stunt that Ziegfeld created to promote them: He informed reporters that Held kept her skin beautifully white by bathing in milk. That was baloney, but it inspired newspaper stories that boosted sales of both show tickets and milk. When the hubbub died down, Ziegfeld revived it by suing a dairy that he claimed sold Held spoiled milk.  

Ziegfeld made Held a star—and his wife—and she suggested the idea that would make him famous: Create an American version of Paris’ risqué Folies-Bergere with its chorus line of scantily clad beauties. He did just that, producing the first of his 21 annual Broadway revues. It would be titled The Follies of 1907, and though Held wasn’t included—as she was touring in another Ziegfeld show—it featured a chorus line of lovely dancers known as “The Anna Held Girls.” Included would be a goofy plot about Pocahontas appearing in modern Manhattan, and comic skits about Teddy Roosevelt and John D. Rockefeller, but essentially it was a showcase for beautiful women dancing in sexy outfits.  

That proved so successful that Ziegfeld created another Follies the following year—and for the next two decades—each one more extravagant and expensive than the last. In the process, he transformed the disreputable “girlie show” into an artistic spectacle to which a respectable gentleman could take his wife to see.  

Ziegfeld did it by spending oodles of money. He hired celebrated artists to create the look of each show—Joseph Urban designed the eye-popping stage sets; Ben Ali Haggin, a society portrait painter, created “living tableaux” in which semi-naked women re-created famous paintings; and British dress designer Lady Duff-Gordon draped the chorus girls in gowns she named “The Sighing Sound of Lips Unsatisfied” and “Red Mouth of a Venomous Flower.” In addition, Ziegfeld hired America’s best songwriters, including Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin, to write show tunes, and had the likes of W.C. Fields, Fanny Brice, and Will Rogers amuse audiences while the girls changed from one elaborate costume to another.  

Inevitably, the showgirls stole the show. They dressed as taxicabs with electric hats flashing “On Duty,” and as battleships in a salute to the U.S. Navy. They rode across the stage on fake elephants and real ponies, or flew over the audience in replicas of the Wright Brothers plane. They dressed as harem girls, as baseball players, as mosquitoes, as Marie Antoinette. They wore mirrors and radium-covered shawls that flashed bursts of light. But mostly they wore costumes featuring enormous hats and elaborately winged arms but minimal fabric on the torso.  

Ziegfeld Girls, wrote Edmund Wilson, were sexy but innocent, projecting the “high-school-girlishness which Americans like.”  

“Mr. Ziegfeld loved beautiful girls, and he didn’t object to presenting the girls in a sensuous manner—but not a vulgar manner,” Ziegfeld girl Doris Travis Eaton recalled decades later.  

Ziegfeld advertised his Follies with the slogan, “Glorifying the American Girl” and promoted them by touting the huge sums he spent on costumes, sets, and salaries. He promoted himself, too. In 1911, The Follies became The Ziegfeld Follies and the “Anna Held Girls” became “The Ziegfeld Girls.” A year later, Ziegfeld divorced Held, who had wearied of his dalliances with his dancers. After a long, public fling with one of his stars, Lillian Lorraine, he married actress Billie Burke.  

“Ziegfeld’s greatest creation was himself,” Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon wrote in Broadway: The American Musical. “He was the Big-Time Producer, imperious and grandiose, penny wise and pound foolish.”  

Famous for his Follies, Ziegfeld also produced other musicals. Most were forgettable, but one was a masterpiece. Show Boat, by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, was a musical comedy with a serious subject—American racism. That groundbreaking combination was a gamble, but Ziegfeld instantly recognized its worth: “I am thrilled to produce it,” he said. A hit in 1927, it has been revived countless times and is considered a classic of musical theater.  

In 1929, however, the stock market crashed and Ziegfeld lost nearly $3 million. “I’m through,” he told his wife. “Nothing can save me.” He sold the rights to Show Boat and the slogan “Glorifying the American Girl” to Hollywood, but he still owed millions. He moved to Los Angeles, hoping to become a movie mogul, and died there of pleurisy in 1932.  

In 1936, MGM released a movie musical with all the Ziegfeld touches—big budget, major stars, beautiful girls, toe-tapping songs, lavish production numbers—and promoted it with over-the-top hype. “The Sensation of the Century!…The Biggest Show You’ve Ever Seen.” The movie was called The Great Ziegfeld. It made a fortune and won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1936.  

Three years later, Ziegfeld’s widow, Billie Burke, appeared in another movie musical, playing Glinda the good witch in The Wizard of Oz.

This story appeared in the 2024 Spring issue of American History magazine.

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