THE ZIEGFELD FOLLIES • PART THREE

— Being the third set of illustrated records of the Follies (editions 1917 - 1919).





Part 3 begins with the Ziegfeld Follies of 1917, which opened June 12 at 42nd Street's New Amsterdam Theatre, where it played 111 performances. Scores by Irving Berlin and Victor Herbert were added to the music mix, and the show was staged by Ned Wayburn. Headliners were Bert Williams, Fanny Brice, Eddie Cantor, Dolores, Will Rogers and the youngest members of the Ziegfeld girls, The Fairbanks Twins.




The twins, Madeline and Marion Fairbanks, had been child actresses in films, but outgrew those roles, and were being groomed for more glamorous scenarios. Each was a triple threat, quite able to sing, dance and act when called upon. They would remain with the Follies for several years before accepting leading roles in several Broadway musicals.




Eddie Cantor (in blackface) was a smash hit in his Follies debut, and he had to encore "That's the Kind of Baby for Me" at almost every performance.




Will Rogers, who performed in the coveted next-to-closing spot, did exactly what the program notes warned he might do: talk about anything or anybody.




In addition to some ballet music, Victor Herbert's major contribution to this edition of the Follies was a stirring wartime song sung by the newest Ziegfeld Girl, Peggy Hopkins Joyce, described by New York Times journalist Constance Rosenblum, as "wearing beaded chiffon and a gleaming helmet topped with a plume, performing Victor Herbert's red, white and blue sparkler called 'Can't You Hear Your Country Calling?'"




It was generally agreed that Miss Joyce's talents were not in the performing arts, but as a Jazz Age gold digger, she had no equal. (I recommend Ms. Rosenblum's book, Gold Digger. It's an eye-opening read.)


Other patriotic tableaux were staged around the stunningly underdressed chorus girls, paying tribute to an array of American patriots from Paul Revere to Woodrow Wilson.




That famous one-name beauty, Dolores, neither sang nor danced; she would merely glide across the stage with elegance and regal bearing. She appeared throughout this edition as The Empress of Fashion, wearing a succession of stunning costumes. The most striking of all was the butterfly gown.




Despite this show's critical acclaim, audience numbers fell off a bit toward the end of the run because of the deadly flu epidemic. It continued to affect audience turnout for the Ziegfeld Follies of 1918, but thankfully, less so.



The 1918 edition opened at the New Amsterdam on June 18, and ran for 151 performances. It featured some returning stars — Eddie Cantor, W. C. Fields, Will Rogers, Ann Pennington, Lillian Lorraine, The Fairbanks Twins — and added 20-year-old dynamo Marilyn Miller, popular vaudeville comedy team Savoy and Brennan, actor-dancer Frank Carter, and comedy jazz dancer Joe Frisco.


Oops! I almost forgot to mention the new, the handsome, the then-unknown rehearsal pianist for the Follies of 1918:




Imagine the stories cast members would tell their children and grandchildren about working with the great George Gershwin when he was just starting out in the music biz.




Young Marilyn Miller literally sang, danced and joked her way to becoming a bright star in Ziegfeld's constellation of beauties. (Note: It was here that she met her first husband and the love of her life, Frank Carter. A year after they were married, Frank died in an automobile accident. Eventually, she married twice more, but her heart wasn't truly invested in either relationship. She died following surgery, at the age of 37, and was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, next to Frank Carter, in a mausoleum she had constructed to house his remains.)




Hilarious (and adorable!) Joe Frisco was famous for his jazz dance, and for being a witty and stuttering stand-up comedian. Performing to the tune of "Dark Town Strutters' Ball," wearing his trademark derby and puffing on a king-size cigar, he shuffled his feet, rolled his hips and contorted his body to create the eccentric dance that Variety called the "Jewish Charleston." He was backed up by a chorus of beauties in leotards, short jackets and derbies, all puffing on big prop cigars.




She's ba-a-ck! Remember Lillian Lorraine, the jealous and disruptive performer who kept getting fired after missing rehearsals and picking fights with her cast mates? As you may recall, she was discharged during the Follies of 1912. Well, six years later, she was back in the fold — no caustic barbs, no fights, no visible jealousy.




Having honed her talents and done fair box office for a few shows since her 1912 fiasco, it was generally assumed that the 1918 Follies would be her break-out vehicle. Alas, no matter how good Lillian Lorraine was, Marilyn Miller was better, completely overshadowing Lorraine's final appearance in the series. That is not to say she was washed up, merely that her Follies time had expired. She did a couple of book musicals, then made a couple of films, but tragically in 1921, she fell and hurt her spine, quickly ending her career.





Follies funny men W. C. Fields and Will Rogers did what they did best: kept their audiences laughing. Fields introduced a new routine involving a misshapen golf club; and Rogers kidded the headlines and lassoed a dancing Ann Pennington. Then out of the wings came two popular vaudevillians: Bert Savoy, an earthy, aging drag queen, and Jay Brennan, an understated, cool, quiet spoken gent. When they first teamed up, their act was built around songs and dances held together by jokes and snappy patter. It wasn't long before their audiences let them know that they should get rid of the music and stick with the humor. They did, and their career as the comedy team of Savoy and Brennan took off. Brennan wrote all their routines.




Savoy, known as Maude on stage (and familiarly back stage and to his friends), always wore voluminous, hard-to-handle gowns, and wide hats perched at precipitous angles. Throughout their routine, Maude would gab non-stop to the quiet, dignified Brennan. Savoy never stopped moving; he was known for his exaggerated hip-swaying saunter, as well as his sexual innuendo and big contagious laugh.



The Ziegfeld Follies of 1919, which opened at the New Amsterdam on June 23, and ran 171 performances, featured Marilyn Miller, Eddie Cantor, Bert Williams, Eddie Dowling, John Steel, The Dooleys (brother and sister Johnny & Ray), Gus Van, Joe Schenck, and The Fairbanks Twins.


This 13th edition deserves to be introduced with some fanfare, maybe an overture of show tunes. As I'm unable to provide that, let me stage it another way:


Among the hit melodies Irving Berlin wrote for the 1919 edition, one instantly became the signature song of the Ziegfeld Follies — sung as accompaniment to the parade of Ziegfeld Girls in their intricate costumes and headdresses, as they gracefully glide across the stage and maneuver stairways — during every performance of every edition through the end of the series.






The handsome tenor who sang that song was John Steel.




Now click on this link:


http://www.last.fm/music/John+Steel/_/A+Pretty+Girl+Is+Like+A+Melody


Then close your eyes and pretend you're in the audience, to hear John Steel sing "A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody."


Another Irving Berlin hit, "Tulip Time" was also introduced this night by John Steel.



This edition of the Follies was, without question, the most expensive, most lavish production thus far, and it showed in every facet of staging — performances, costumes, sets, the top-quality musical score, and the many hit songs by Irving Berlin, including "You'd Be Surprised," a comic song about a seemingly shy man who is really a sexual dynamo in private. Sung by Eddie Cantor, it stopped the show.




The mild innuendo of the lyrics titillated 1919 audiences, but when sung by Eddie Cantor, who knew just when to punch a word or roll his eyes, it brought down the house. Here are the lyrics to YOU'D BE SURPRISED:


Johnny was bashful and shy.

Nobody understood why

Mary loved him.

All the other girls passed him by.

Every one wanted to know

How she could pick such a beau.

With a twinkle in her eye

She made this reply:


He's not so good in a crowd but when you get him alone

You'd be surprised,

He isn't much at a dance

But then when he takes you home

You'd be surprised.

He doesn't look like much of a lover,

but don't judge a book by it's cover.

He's got the face of an Angel but

There's a Devil in his eyes.

He's such a delicate thing but when he starts in to squeeze,

You'd be surprised.

He doesn't look very strong but when you sit on his knee,

You'd be surprised.

At a party or at a hall

I've got to admit he's nothing at all,

but in a morris chair,

You'd be surprised.


Mary continued to praise Johnny's remarkable ways,

To the ladies,

And you know advertising pays.

Now Johnny's never alone,

He has the busiest phone.

Almost every other day.

A new girl will say:


He's not so good in the house but on a bench in the park

You'd be surprised.

He isn't much in the light but when he gets in the dark

You'd be surprised.

I know he looks as slow as the Erie,

But you don't know the half of it dearie.

He looks as cold as an Eskimo,

But there's fire in his eyes.

He doesn't say very much but when he starts in to speak

You'd be surprised.

He's not so good at the start but at the end of a week

You'd be surprised.

On a streetcar or in a train

You'd think he was born without any brain,

but in a taxicab,

You'd be surprised.




The Volstead Act would soon take effect, and entertainer Bert Williams protested Prohibition via another Berlin comedy song entitled "You Cannot Make Your Shimmy Shake on Tea." The first act ended with a minstrel show in which Cantor was Tambo, Bert Williams was Bones, and Marilyn Miller was interlocutor George Primrose. Later in the show, she danced to Berlin's minstrel-style hit, "Mandy." There were a number of skits spoofing Prohibition, including one that depicted the Saloon of the Future with girls parading as Coca-Cola, Sarsparilla, Grape Juice, Lemonade, Bevo*, and Lady Alcohol.



*Bevo: A non-alcoholic malt beverage, or near beer, brewed in the U. S. by Annheuser-Busch. It enjoyed its greatest success during Prohibition, when beer was illegal.



Before signing off this post, I'd like to point out that the Follies of 1919 was hailed by reviewers as the outstanding Ziegfeld production thus far. The New York Herald blessed it with a 10-word headline: Thirteenth Ziegfeld Follies Eclipses Predecessors in Beauty, Color and Action. But the Evening Sun said it better and quicker in only three words: Ziegfeld Outziegfelds Ziegfeld.


Unfortunately, the run was interrupted in August by the Actor's Equity strike which caused a rift between Ziegfeld and several performers. Cantor stayed away for several years. Bert Williams also left, and was never to appear in a Follies again. Most likely he would have been tempted back at some point, but he died in 1922 at the age of 48, following a long history of cardiac problems. A light went out on 42nd Street.





The next post will begin with the Ziegfeld Follies of 1920. The Roaring '20s will feature many familiar faces, but a whole lot of new ones as well. Be sure to bookmark STAGE WHISPERS, and check back to see what's new. Better yet, sign up for our e-mail posts.



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