Between 1907 and the early 1930s, the Ziegfeld Follies was the most spectacular and famous American revue (a theatrical production consisting of songs, skits, and dance numbers). The Follies was conceived by theatrical impresario (the promoter and manager of a theater company) Florenz Ziegfeld (1869–1932) and his first wife, European performer Anna Held (1873–1918). The revues featured singers introducing the day's top musical numbers, dancers performing elaborately choreographed routines, comedians tickling funny bones, and actors performing one-act plays. Most of all, however, the Ziegfeld Follies was fabled for featuring scores of young, beautiful, elaborately costumed showgirls, who often would do little more than parade about or pose prettily, amid settings that formed a living picture, or tableau.
The Follies began as an American version of sophisticated yet risqué (bordering on indecent) French revues such as the Folies Bergère. The American Follies quickly created a formula all its own: the production of romantic musical performances as well as the inclusion of more low-brow fare. The romantic musical performances featured ornate art-nouveau settings designed by artist Joseph Urban (1972–1933). (The term art nouveau refers to a movement in art, lasting from the 1890s to about 1914, that evolved into a decorative style.) The more unrefined low-brow fare highlighted the pretty showgirls, whose costumes included elaborate accessories such as headdresses but were quite revealing of the wearer's body. Other revues might spotlight a couple dozen showgirls, but a typical Ziegfeld Follies would feature more than 120 attractive women. During the course of a show, there might be five or six costume changes. All the clothes, and the materials from which they were made, were handpicked by Ziegfeld. Ziegfeld viewed his showgirls—who came to be known as the Ziegfeld Girls—not as performers but as art objects to be adorned, creatures inhabiting an elaborate fantasy world.
However, the Ziegfeld Girls were far from the entire show. Dozens of legendary singers, dancers, and comic performers appeared in the Follies, among them Bob Hope (1903–), Will Rogers (1879–1935; see entry under 1910s—Film and Theater in volume 1), Bert Lahr (1895–1967), Eddie Cantor (1892–1964), Fanny Brice (1891–1951), Marilyn Miller (1898–1936), Bert Williams (1874–1922), and Leon Errol (1881–1951). Famed song-writers Irving Berlin (1888–1989), Oscar Hammerstein (1895–1960), and Jerome Kern (1885–1945) composed musical numbers for Ziegfeld. Many of the songs that debuted in the Follies went on to become standards of popular American music.
The initial revue was called The Follies of 1907. Ziegfeld kept the Follies going for the next twenty-three years, until the advent of the Great Depression (1929–41). The Depression made the expensive productions impractical for both Ziegfeld to fund and potential ticket buyers to attend. His life and his Follies were captured on screen in several films: The Great Ziegfeld (1936), a biography featuring William Powell (1892–1984) in the title role, which became a Best Picture Academy Award winner; Ziegfeld Girl (1941), a tale of three Follies showgirls; and Ziegfeld Follies (1946), which featured skits, dances, and songs, all introduced by a fantasized Ziegfeld (played again by Powell) who now resided in heaven.
For More Information
Cantor, Eddie. The Great Glorifier. New York: A. H. King, 1934.
Carter, Randolph. The World of Flo Ziegfeld. New York: Praeger, 1974.
Farnsworth, Marjorie. The Ziegfeld Follies. New York: Bonanza Books, 1956.
The Great Ziegfeld (film). Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1936.
Higham, Charles. Ziegfeld. Chicago: Regnery, 1972.
Ziegfeld Follies (film). Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1946.
Ziegfeld Girl (film). Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1941.