Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. was a man who neither sang nor danced. But he gambled and collected showgirls the way other men collect paintings. Born in Chicago in 1867, he was a complex, contradictory soul. He would exploit his women but was a passionate defender of civil rights: he once threatened to move out off his apartment building when Bert Williams, a black performer, was refused entry to his house by the doorman. His shows featured gaggles of scantily clad women and the public made him rich.
This is the kind of man he was: he wanted beautiful Anna Held to join his Ziegfeld’s Follies revue, but had no cash to guarantee her contract. So he took all his personal jewels put them in a handkerchief and had a staff member sell them. With that $1,500 he secured his star and put a down payment on his future wife.
By 1905 his lavish dandy lifestyle left them continually hounded by debt and Anna grew despondent as they teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. Another man may have worried, but not Flo. On a trip to France he took their last remaining money went to the casino, and won. He surprised Anna by lining the hotel bed with gold coins. Another time in Biarritz, he wasn’t so lucky and lost 100,000 FF at the baccarat table. In a fit of chutzpah he refused to pay claiming the tables were rigged... and got away with it.
His production numbers were legendary. The first Follies cost $13,000. By 1919 his elaborate sets had pushed the cost to $100,000 a week, plus salaries. One act featured star Lillian Lorraine riding on stage on a pony, then being lifted in the air in an elevator onto a swing which circled the track high above the audience... He once paid an actress $650 to parade across the stage in a $1,200 gown — in a single scene. Another time when a $25,000 set was deemed too garish, he simply discarded it.
In 1927, he opened his own theatre, and in 1931 produced his last Follies show a year before his death. He discovered Eddie Cantor, and of course Fanny Brice, later immortalized by Barbara Streisand in the film Funny Girl. Around the time that film appeared in the late 1960s, and the name Ziegfeld was once again on everyone’s lips, the movie cinema was built on the site of the old theatre. It’s the last of its breed and its grandeur echoes the man for whom no spectacle was too great.
At 141 West 54th Street is an appropriately ornate cathedral of entertainment. Red velvet seats are arrayed like a plush regiment within the high ceilinged auditorium, its carpet speckled with gold, a remnant of its spendthrift Vaudevillian namesake. The circular lobby is bathed in the soft glow of crystal chandeliers, hanging down like glistening spider’s webs. In this building dwarfed by the skyscrapers surrounding it, you can feel the echo of a time before the show got small.