Impresarios of Leisure, Rise of

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A great leisure impresario's brilliance lies ultimately in extraordinary promotional energies, especially the ability to advertise and orchestrate existing elements within the popular amusement culture, to find profitable new ways to cater to the public's thirst for novelty and sensation. Master showman, obsessive gambler, and compulsive womanizer Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. (1867–1932) had a business card that read "Impresario Extraordinaire," and with good reason; he was compelled by a dream of "demolishing all the current methods of staging shows" (Ziegfeld, p. 12). No credible account of those who shaped the emergence of a distinctly American form of mass entertainment can, though, exclude Massachusetts-born showman Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810–1891), who first used extensive advertising, large-scale investment, and mass ticket sales to promote popular amusement forms. Yet according to Neil Harris in Humbug, "deception, hoaxing, humbugging, cheating, these were some of the words Americans commonly associated with Barnum, during his lifetime and ever since" (p. 57). Such pejorative language offers only a partial insight into why Barnum became, and in popular memory has remained, such an exemplary American impresario.

P. T. Barnum

Barnum's celebrity as an impresario during his own lifetime was indeed extraordinary. Variety, animal exhibits, circus acts, and especially "freak shows" owe much of their subsequent momentum to his popularization of these amusement forms. Starting out in the 1830s as a hoaxer, or "confidence man," who exhibited Joice Heth (supposedly George Washington's 161-year old nurse) and the Feejee Mermaid (a shrunken composite of monkey and fishtail), he successfully reinvented himself from the 1840s onward as a flamboyant entertainer, a circus promoter, and, finally, a respected international showman who would pay almost any price for an attraction. Yet for all his reputation today as a "circus man," Barnum was always first and foremost a "museum man." The first American Museum (1841–1865) under his management in lower Manhattan—a cornucopia of freaks and magicians, dioramas and panoramas, aquariums, waxworks and menageries, obscure relics and stuffed animals—merits recognition as a pivotal institution in the development of the nineteenth-century "culture of exhibition." The gulf between today's more grand museums and the fairground "freak show" has never been as wide as the former would have us believe.

Barnum was the central figure in recognizing that Americans would pay for popular entertainment to fill their leisure time. The great impresario was able to expand his businesses commercially because, from the American Museum and associated lecture room stage onward, he stayed carefully within the pale of middle-class respectability and thereby guaranteed a large family attendance at his various amusements. Despite his reputation as the "prince of humbugs" for his supposed hypocrisy and hucksterism, Barnum's legitimate show exhibits, such as the midget Tom Thumb, Jumbo the elephant, the Nova Scotia Giantess, or Chan and Eng (the Siamese Twins), far outrivaled his hoaxes. "He would introduce to America the modern public museum, the popular concert, and the three-ring circus, all forerunners of vaudeville, motion pictures, and television," claimed novelist Irving Wallace in his 1959 biography of Barnum (p. 9).

Barnum, we now know, instigated none of the preceding but instead took over, publicized, and energized preexisting forms, like the dime museum, the public concert, the menagerie, the "freak show," and the three-ring circus. If not the founding father of commercial amusements he is so often considered to be, Barnum was vital to the cultural formation of both the show business ethos and the American sense of national identity. A characteristic Yankee, the irrepressible Barnum believed in the tireless improvement both of himself and of new modes of public entertainment. Twitchell supplies an apt metaphor: "Barnum's American Museum, his hoaxes, his big-top circus, his sideshows, first shifted the economic engines of modern show business into gear" (p. 61).

The Barnum and Bailey Circus

A century and more after Barnum's death, this vigorous entrepreneur and master of the art of self-promotion retains his self-appointed title as the World's Greatest Showman largely because, in the 1880s, he became proprietor of the famous Barnum & Bailey circus, sideshows, and menagerie that featured Jumbo the elephant. Yet Barnum was over seventy years old in 1881 when he merged with James Anthony Bailey (1847–1906) to create "The Greatest Show on Earth." And he was in semi-retirement, his name already before the American public for thirty years, when, late in 1870, he entered into promoting the circus business that was to occupy so much of his attention over the remaining twenty or so years of his life. Barnum's future associate Bailey (born McGinness) had started out by delivering circus handbills, but before he was thirty he had taken the Cooper & Bailey Circus to Australia, New Zealand, and South America. Then he purchased Seth. B. Howes's superb "Great London Circus" and made Cooper & Bailey into a serious competitor with P. T. Barnum.

A baby elephant brought Bailey into partnership with Barnum because, when Cooper & Bailey's "Hebe" pachyderm gave birth, Barnum telegraphed a $100,000 offer for the new arrival. Bailey cleverly reproduced the telegram in his extensive advertising with the comment: "This is what Barnum thinks of Cooper & Bailey's baby elephant." Outsmarted, Barnum sued for peace with "a foeman worthy of my steel," and the two circuses combined (May, p. 121). After the amalgamation, James E. Cooper opted out and James L. Hutchinson became the third partner, having made a profit from selling Barnum's oft-revised autobiography on commission. "Barnum & Bailey's The Greatest Show on Earth" first opened in New York on 18 March 1881 in the new Madison Square Garden and was preceded by a huge torchlight parade that attracted 500,000 spectators.

The Barnum, Bailey, and Hutchinson circus partnership had one of its greatest coups the following year with Barnum's £2,000 purchase of "Jumbo," the largest elephant in captivity, from the London Zoo. Hutchinson soon withdrew from the partnership, and, from 1885 to 1887, "Chilly Billy" Cole and Bailey's old partner James E. Cooper replaced Bailey as managers. When the famous Barnum and Bailey partnership of the "Greatest Show on Earth" was revived, the slight, nervous, much younger (by thirty-seven years), and full-bearded Bailey became the dominant figure in its management and direction. Barnum usually liked to take the complete credit for everything he was involved with, but in practice he had little to do with the day-to-day operations of the Barnum & Bailey big top; the old man had lost interest in the daily routine of running such a large and synchronized operation. He gained most satisfaction from being, as Les Harding remarks, "the showman par excellence, the master of self-publicity, of flash and notoriety" (p. 85). Yet even Barnum had to admit that Bailey's hard work, energy, and supervision of the smallest details on site was as great an asset to the circus as his own notoriety. Although their relationship was often strained, the famous partnership lasted until Barnum's death.

Impresarios of Vaudeville

Tony Pastor Only twelve years old and billed as an "infant prodigy," Brooklyn-born Italian American Tony Pastor (1834–1908), the "father of vaudeville," obtained his first job as a New York entertainer late in 1846, engaged by P. T. Barnum to appear in blackface on the American Museum's lecture room stage as a minstrel troupe "endman," playing the tambourine, joking, and singing. He soon left Barnum to perform under the big top for the next thirteen years, touring the country as a circus acrobat, ringmaster, and singing clown. Subsequently, having outgrown circuses, Pastor worked during the 1860s and 1870s as a comic and ballad and minstrel singer in variety theaters, which he also managed, on the Bowery and on Lower Broadway, before moving in 1881 to his final and acclaimed theatrical destination on New York's Fourteenth Street, near Union Square. Pastor's career as both performer and impresario best exemplifies the transition from variety to vaudeville in New York, even if he continued to call his entertainment "variety" in a desire not to alienate those audience members accustomed to the more liberated style of the popular genre.

"Variety" was associated with beer gardens, loose morals, and the Bowery working class, while "vaudeville" had snobbish uptown French associations that suggested refinement and good taste. Some historians of vaudeville have made a case for earlier attempts at assuring respectability by Pastor's predecessors, such as Moses Kimball in Boston and Barnum in New York, who from the 1840s onward offered safely decent "lecture room" or variety theater performances as an extension of their "museums." These early showmen also maintained an image of morality by censoring plays to please even the most fastidious, excluding prostitutes, and prohibiting the sale of alcohol, while advertising their museum exhibits as educational and morally uplifting. Yet the transformation of the sometimes dubious variety acts found in New York's honky-tonks, beer gardens, free-and-easies, and concert saloons into the new and "respectable" vaudeville owed more, ultimately, to performer-manager Tony Pastor and his much-advertised cleanup campaign, begun even before the watershed years of the early 1880s.

B. F. Keith and E. F. Albee Despite Pastor's earlier innovations in the primary theatrical location of New York City, vaudeville as an embryonic form of mass entertainment really only emerged out of impresario Benjamin Franklin Keith's "New York" or Gaiety Dime Museum in Boston from 1883, with its second-floor lecture theater showing variety performances to improve a faltering "freak show" business. Keith (1846–1910) had entered the show business through the two-bit candy concession at a circus. Within two years he had begun his association with another "grifter" (another word for a confidence man), former circus "outside" ticket man and "fixer" (legal adjuster) Edward Franklin Albee (1857–1930). From 1885, the two partners ran continuous variety programs in the dime museum's theater, rather than several shows a day of eight to ten acts, allowing audiences to come and go at their own convenience. This adjustment made the shows more attractive to women who were out shopping nearby.

The two impresarios also moved away from the rather sleazy "freak show" atmosphere of the dime museum by staging an abridged one-hour version of Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado, a current success in a major Boston theater. Together Keith-Albee built the opulent Colonial Theatre, opened in 1893, mostly with money borrowed from the wealthy Catholic Diocese of Boston. Moving into New York's Union Square Theatre in that same year and with Keith's theaters in Philadelphia, otherwise known as the "Sunday School" circuit, the Keith-Albee management banned smoking, hat wearing, whistling, stamping, spitting on the floor, and crunching peanuts. Other managers followed Pastor and Keith-Albee's lead in the move away from bawdy and male-orientated variety, restricting drinking to intermissions or removing bars from the premises entirely and thereby making vaudeville safe for women and the "respectable" lower-middle and then middle classes to attend.

Impresario of the Follies

The guarantee that a vaudeville entertainer had finally reached the apex of the profession from the 1910s into the 1920s, after years of dragging his or her act around booking circuits like Keith-Albee and performing before unappreciative audiences, was an appearance in the Ziegfeld Follies, the most prestigious Broadway showcase for rising performers. Thus, future movie comedian W. C. Fields (1880–1947), after twenty years in vaudeville as an "eccentric juggler," first achieved celebrity status in the Follies during World War I, appearing alongside such luminaries as Eddie Cantor, Will Rogers, and Fanny Brice. Theatrical producer and impresario Florenz, or "Flo," Ziegfeld Jr., whose German-Jewish immigrant father ran the Chicago Musical College, grew up in an atmosphere of relative comfort, austere Lutheran morals, and classical music. Yet the teenage Flo supposedly ran away for a few weeks with Buffalo Bill's Wild West show when it came to town and also participated in small-time vaudeville enterprises.

At age twenty-six, the budding impresario used his promotional skills in lavishly advertising muscular strongman "the Great [Eugen] Sandow," who, in August 1893, during the Chicago World's Fair, opened at the family-owned Trocadero nightclub and became an immediate sensation. After an extended two-year vaudeville tour with Sandow, ambitious showman Ziegfeld moved to Broadway and produced a successful hit comedy, A Parlour Match, with vaudeville comedians Charles Evans and William Hoey. He then took the show to London, where Florenz met a sensational new music hall singer from Paris, the Polish-French Anna Held (1873–1918). Ziegfeld was smitten and wooed the petite Held away from both her Folies Bergère contract and her Spanish gambler husband with promises of Broadway wealth and fame. In 1897, his new client was unveiled in New York. Then, like Barnum at midcentury with Swedish soprano Jenny Lind, Ziegfeld successfully marketed Held to an adoring public, by inventing, for example, her custom of bathing in milk every day at the Savoy Hotel and by producing a run of musical comedies in which she appeared.

As a showman cut from the Barnum mold, Ziegfeld strove to replace the popular, multiethnic but often crude appeal of vaudeville with a sophisticated, romantic entertainment that would flaunt a changing lineup of glamorous chorus girls yet still maintain respectability. In 1906, he lost 2.5 million francs in one session gambling at the Casino in Biarritz, but a new contract with theater owner Lee Shubert came to the rescue. Ziegfeld made a further deal in 1907 with prominent "Syndicate" theatrical bookers Marc Klaw and Abe Erlanger to produce a revue-style Follies, based on the Folies Bergère of Anna Held's fame but set on the rooftop garden of the New York Theatre. This show, which featured the "Anna Held Girls" both as drummer boys and in a bathing-pool act, was not an instant success with sophisticated Broadway audiences. On tour it picked up more appreciative reviews and, back in New York, Ziegfeld engaged star vaudeville singer Nora Bayes to provide additional support. For the subsequent Follies of 1908 a new beauty, Lillian Lorraine, was engaged and massively promoted; recognizing that she had become superfluous, Anna Held departed temporarily for Europe. For close to twenty-five years, the self-indulgent, promiscuous, and rich Ziegfeld (who married Billie Burke in 1914) had a series of affairs with beautiful and susceptible Follies showgirls.

Ziegfeld may not have rated comedians like Fields, Cantor, and Rogers too highly, but he knew that comedy interludes were essential between the parades of beautiful women, at times in dance scenes "glorifying the American girl," for his kind of lavish, racy, and escapist revue entertainment to work properly. The famous "Ziegfeld Look" of the Follies at the New Amsterdam Theatre, on the corner of Forty-second Street and Seventh Avenue, was exemplified from 1915 onward by the brilliant Viennese designer Joseph Urban and the costumier Lady Duff-Gordon. Ziegfeld also continued to produce full-length musical comedies and innovative popular musicals like Showboat (1927) on Broadway, but he lost his entire fortune in the 1929 Wall Street crash. Impresario Billy Rose (1895–1966), a highly successful producer in the 1930s and 1940s of expensive musicals and aquatic showcases, was the most Barnumesque and flamboyant of Ziegfeld's Broadway successors. Ultimately, the label "Produced Under the Personal Direction of Florenz Ziegfeld" was to define an era, not only on the American stage but also in American popular culture.

The impresario or showman of an earlier time has now become an iconic American figure and since Barnum has been constantly replicated. Society would be greatly the loser for the disappearance of the larger-than-life promoter, creating huge hits and pushing big flops, earning millions then losing the lot, but always brimming with new schemes, some of them successful, others disastrous.

See also: Carnivals, Circuses, Commercialization of Leisure, Gilded Age Leisure and Recreation, Progressive-Era Leisure and Recreation, Urbanization and Leisure


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John Springhall