— Being an illustrated record of the first five editions of the Follies (1907 - 1911).
Given the longevity and popularity of these lavish productions, it's difficult to imagine that the Follies became Florenz Ziegfeld's personal money pit. Ziegfeld was a brilliant showman who never allowed funding, or the lack of it, to influence his artistic visions. And what he visualized, he brought to the stage by employing the talents of writers, composers, directors, costume & set designers, musicians and performers, all at the top of their game. Nothing was left to chance. The Ziegfeld level of professionalism was established with the first eye-popping Follies of 1907, and over the years, they repeatedly raised the bar.
Ziegfeld adopted the name, Jardin De Paris, for the New York rooftop theater where he premiered the Follies on June 8, 1907. This inaugural production was subtitled Just One of Those Things in Thirteen Acts, and headlined Grace LaRue, Emma Carus, comic Harry Watson, and the wonderful actress/singer/comedienne Helen Broderick, whose Follies appearance was her stepping stone to a long career on the stage, in radio, and in films.
Scene after scene showcased the beautiful chorines. It wasn't unusual for at least one number to be performed in the aisles, where patrons could better appreciate the talents of the Ziegfeld Girls.
Designed to be a limited summertime engagement, the production was loosely woven around a script written by Harry B. Smith (who also wrote the song lyrics). The plot followed Capt. John Smith and Pocohontas around modern New York City, while skits gently jabbed New York's well known residents. The show was so well received that, after 70 performances, it was moved to Broadway's Lyric Theatre for two additional weeks, then toured for two months, returned to New York for a week's engagement at the Grand Opera House, then ended its run with a month of performances in Philadelphia. Toward the end of its run, the popular singer/actress/comedienne Nora Bayes made a few appearances, and subsequently was contracted to headline the 1908 edition.
Joining Miss Bayes in the Follies of 1908, which opened at the Jardin de Paris on June 15, was Mlle. Dazie who performed her Jiu Jitsu Waltz, as well as her Swingstreet/Streetswing ballet. Returning for their second Follies were troupers Grace LaRue and Harry Watson.
Harry B. Smith's script and song lyrics brought humor to an otherwise forgettable score, and Nora Bayes sang her popular "Shine On, Harvest Moon," but the Ziegfeld Girls remained the main attraction.
The theme of this edition of the Follies was...(are you ready for this?)..."the history of civilization" — which meant that everything was fair game for spoofing. Audiences loved the show, which ran almost twice as long as its predecessor.
The Follies of 1909 featured Lillian Lorraine, specialty dancer Bessie Clayton, newcomer Sophie Tucker, and the returning Nora Bayes and her husband, Jack Norworth.
This talented cast was an unbeatable combination on stage, but back stage it made for a snake pit of petty jealousies and cat fights. When Sophie Tucker proved a huge hit with pre-Broadway audiences, Nora Bayes flew into a jealous rage and demanded Sophie be fired. Instead, Sophie was removed from all numbers but an unattractive jungle skit. Bayes walked out early in the Broadway run, and Lillian Lorraine (then Ziegfeld's mistress) was given Bayes's "Harvest Moon" spot. Then, instead of restoring Sophie's comedy numbers, Ziegfeld hired the popular Vaudeville star, Eva Tanguay. Sophie was a trouper, and stayed through the run, but would never return to the Follies.
Two superb comics—Fanny Brice and Bert Williams—together with the perennial Lillian Lorraine, proved to be a friendler and more cooperative trio of featured players, making the Follies of 1910 a delicious experience from the outset. The show made history in three other ways, as well:
(1) It turned a little known burlesque vocalist, Fanny Brice, into a star overnight. The hilarious Fanny made such a hit on opening night singing "Lovey Joe" and "I Thought He Was A Business Man," that the next morning Ziegfeld tore up her contract, increased her salary and elevated her to star status.
(2) Due in part to Bert Williams's gentlemanly demeanor and the good sense to let his boss fight with the protesting bigots, Mr. Williams became the first African American performer to co-star with whites in a major Broadway show. He agreed to only appear on stage alone or with men (never in the company of the all-white chorines) and Ziegfeld agreed to book the tours only above the Mason-Dixon Line. Williams would not perform in the South.
Some performers refused to work with Williams, but it wasn't long before they realized that he was a true artist, as the June 21, 1910 edition of The New York Times pointed out: "There is no more clever low comedian on our stage today than Bert Williams, and few, indeed, who deserve to be considered in his class. Last night he was warmly welcomed, and deservedly so, though he has occasionally had better songs. In fact, without Williams to sing them, there would be little to any of these particular numbers, with the possible exception of "Constantly,"... in which he scored his best success."
(3) By employing an innovative film sequence in honor of the 1910 appearance of Halley's Comet which had not been seen since 1835, and which produced much excitement across the United States. The short film featured Ziegfeld's wife, Anna Held, as the comet and comic Harry Watson as the earth.
As the 1910 summer Follies series came to a close, it was clear that changes were on the horizon. Librettist Harry B. Smith was unhappy: He was overworked, and his boss was way behind in paying his royalties. In addition, Ziegfeld's womanizing while still married to Anna Held was like an open wound for Harry's wife who was a close friend of Anna's. On the plus side, Bert Williams had been so popular with audiences that the script and music writers were excited about developing new material for him. And beginning with the 1911 edition of "The Follies" the show was officially renamed:
Making his Follies debut in the 1911 edition was that wonderful comic actor Leon Errol. I remember this man — not on stage, but on film — and no mimic, then or now, has ever been funnier or more rubber-legged than Leon Errol's drunk. They say that on stage, where Errol was given the opportunity to "milk" the bit for laughs, the audience roared in waves, each wave louder and longer than the one before. This picture appeared in a 1911 issue of Stage Pictorial Magazine:
Not only did this mark the first of many show-stopping skits that Errol and Williams would do over the years, but it was also the first Follies where Williams began appearing on stage with all cast members, regardless of their skin color.
In addition to funny men Leon Errol and Bert Williams, headliners of the Ziegfeld Follies of 1911 were Fanny Brice, The Dolly Sisters, Vera Maxwell, Bessie McCoy, and the increasingly temperamental Lillian Lorraine. (Picking a backstage fight with Fanny Brice marked her Follies death knell.)
Specialty dancers, The Dolly Sisters, were superb in their roles as the synchronized Siamese Twins. Audiences and critics alike could never stop raving over the talents and sparkling personalities of these 20-year-old beauties.
Well, dear readers, I'll post these first 5 editions of the Follies now, and go right to work on the next 5 editions (1912 - 1916). I hope you have enjoyed your summer, and will continue to enjoy reading STAGE WHISPERS.
Stage Whispers is published by carlacushman.blogspot.com/