They weren’t yet called Ziegfeld Girls but here is the first chorus from the inaugural Follies in 1907.
Showman Florenz Ziegfeld had the good sense to listen to his wife. He had been named manager of the former Roof Garden Theater in New York City, an intimate venue on the top of Oscar Hamerstein’s Olympic Theater. The new owners needed a hit to fill the seats and Ziegfeld needed a new idea for a show to open the room which had be rechristened the Jardin de Paris.
The showman’s wife was the Polish born curvaceous and highly successful stage performer Anna Held who Ziegfeld had wed in Europe. She was a huge star in her own right in this country since her arrival here in the mid 1890’s. Held suggested an American version of the famed Folies Bergères of Paris—a lavish production featuring beautiful chorus girls and top talent from the Broadway and vaudeville stage. Held hoped to star in the show, but could not when she became pregnant. Eventually she either lost or aborted the baby, but too late to be featured in the show. The loss caused a rift with her husband who was soon busying himself with other beautiful actresses. Anna never got to be a Ziegfeld girl, although she continued to have a successful career until her early death at the age of 45 in 1918.
The first edition of the Ziegfeld Follies opened on July 8, 1907. The first cast included Grace La Rue, Emma Carus, Harry Watson, Helen Broderick and Nora Bayes. Although only Bayes is much remembered now, all were solid, well known performers if not yet top stars. The show was a success.
But the Follies really established themselves as a Broadway fixture the next year when the lovely chorines were dubbed the Ziegfeld Girls for the first time. Among the beauties was Mae Murray, who would be headlining the show in a few years and who became a leading star of the silent screen. Nora Bayes returned, this time with her new husband John Northwood. Together they introduced a little ditty of their own composition, Shine On, Harvest Moon. It was the first of dozens of familiar tunes introduced in the Follies.
Over the years the biggest names in show business got bigger headlining the Follies. The roll call included Sophie Tucker, Fanny Brice, Burt Williams, Ann Pennington, Ed Wynn, W. C. Fields, Ina Clair, Will Rogers, Eddie Cantor, Marilyn Miller, Gallagher and Sheen, Olsen and Johnson, Bert Wheeler, “Gentleman Jim” Corbett, Paul Whiteman, Ruth Etting, Billie Burke, Helen Morgan, John Bubbles, Ruth Etting, Jane Forman, Buddy Ebbsen, and Eve Arden.
Irving Berlin wrote the songs for three Follies. Jerome Kern and a parade of other notables contributed many more.
Many young performers got their starts as a Ziegfeld Girls including Murray, Marion Davies, Olive Thomas, Doris Eaton, Barbara Stanwyck, Louise Brooks, Paulette Goddard, and Joan Blondell.
Chicago born Ziegfeld was 40 years old when the first Follies opened in 1907. He would continue to produce ever more elaborate editions of the show until his death in 1932. He also produced many other acclaimed Broadway show most notably Sally in both 1920 and ’23; Rio Rita and Show Boat in 1927; and Rosalie, The Three Musketeers, and the Eddie Cantor vehicle Whoopie! all in 1928.
Ziegfeld suspended production of the Follies after 1927 to concentrate on the production of these plays and the construction of his own elaborate Ziegfeld Theater.
Despite all of his success, Ziegfeld lost his fortune in the Stock Market Crash of 1929. He mortgaged his namesake theater to publisher William Randolph Hearst.
In an attempt to re-coupe his fortune he mounted a new edition of the Follies in 1931. Although it was successful, as were films made from his stage plays, Ria Rita, Show Boat, and Whoopie! it was not enough to repay his creditors. The great impresario died broke in California in 1934 after a lingering illness. Hearst foreclosed on the Ziegfeld Theater. His second wife, the comedienne Billie Burke, was left in poverty. She went on to work in films, usually playing ditzy matrons in comedies. She is best remembered now as Glenda the Good in the 1939 production of The Wizard of Oz.
Two versions of the Follies were mounted with middling success after Ziegfeld’s death. His memory was preserved in an MGM musical biography The Great Ziegfeld released in 1936. William Powell played the producer, Louise Rainer as Anna Held, and a blonde Myrna Loy as Billie Burke. The film won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Rainer took home the trophy for Best Actress. The film featured many original Ziegfeld stars but is best remembered for its elaborate production number of A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody. The cost of that one scene was greater than the cost of any edition of the Follies on the stage.
In 1945 producer Arthur Freed tried to reproduce the feel of the original reviews in his MGM Technicolor extravaganza The Ziegfeld Follies. Powell reprised his role as the showman and a parade of studio talent appeared in production numbers and sketches including Fred Astaire, Jean Kelly, Cyd Charise, Judy Garland, Katherine Grayson, Red Skelton, Lucile Ball, Lena Horne, and Esther Williams. Only one star, Fanny Brice, actually ever appeared in the Follies while Ziegfeld was alive.
All in all, Flo Ziegfled left a hefty show biz legacy.