Ziegfeld’s Folly

Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld Jr knew how to pack a Broadway theater, and from 1907 to 1932 he staged a number of revues and plays (most notably Showboat) that featured lavish costumes and a bevy of chorus girls.

Dec. 6, 1930 cover by Rea Irvin, depicting a peephole view of a speakeasy during the holidays.

When his latest show, Smiles, hit the stage of the Ziegfeld Theatre on Nov. 18, 1930, it was greeted by an audience that had endured the first year of the Great Depression. Ziegfeld’s entertainments, on the other hand, were more associated with the high times of the Roaring Twenties. So even the popular brother-sister dance team from Omaha — Fred and Adele Astaire — seemed a bit old hat.

GO WITH THE FLO…Broadway impresario Florenz “Flo” Ziegfeld Jr with his Follies cast, 1931. (Wall Street Journal)

Or so it seemed to Robert Benchley, who observed in “The Wayward Press” that most of his readers could draw pictures of the Astaires from memory. But what really irked Benchley was the way William Randolph Hearst manipulated his mighty newspaper empire to promote Ziegfeld’s Smiles in a way that made the show appear to be the biggest hit of the year.

Ziegfeld Theatre was built with Hearst’s financial backing, so the media mogul was determined that the show would be a success, commanding his editors and writers to lavish praise on the tepid production, which would close in less than two months as a box office failure.

SAY CHEESE…Program for Smiles featuring Fred Astaire, Marilyn Miller and Adele Astaire. At right, publicity photo for Smiles featuring Fred and Marilyn. (Playbill/Pinterest)

For the Astaires, they were nearing the end of their 27-year collaboration — Adele would retire from the stage in 1932 to marry Lord Charles Cavendish, and in 1934 Fred would pair up with Ginger Rogers for the first of nine films they would make together for RKO. Marilyn Miller, one of the most popular Broadway stars of the 1920s and early 1930s, would also seek her fortune in films, but would only make three. Alcoholism and persistent sinus infections would cut her life short in 1936 — she would die at age 37 from complications following nasal surgery.

BRIEF CAREER…Marilyn Miller in 1931’s Her Majesty, Love, one of just three films she would make before her death in 1936. (IMDB)

Benchley revealed how some of Hearst’s reporters responded to the edict from their boss:

TWEAKING HIS NOSE…Walter Winchell, left, registered his protest against his boss, William Randolph Hearst, by laying it on thick in his column. (IMDB/BBC)
THE FOLLY OF FOLLIES…Robert Benchley (left) cried foul regarding Hearst’s attempt to prop up a lousy show; Ogden Nash (right) found humor in the “immorality” of Ziegfeld’s productions.  (Wikipedia/Notable Biographies)

On a related note, Ogden Nash also zeroed in on Ziegfeld’s latest show, turning the tables on religious zealots who found the Follies immoral. An excerpt:

And finally, one more theater-related item: a drawing by Al Frueh highlighting the melodrama On The Spot, which ran from Oct. 29, 1930 through March 1931 at the Forrest Theatre.

BETTER THAN ZIEGFELD, THIS…At right, Crane Wilbur and Anna May Wong in the melodrama On The Spot, which opened Oct. 29, 1930 at the Forrest Theatre. (New Yorker/Pinterest)

 *  *  *

In the Dec. 6, 1930 “Notes and Comment,” E.B. White shared his observations on a new type of chair that doubled as a dog house…

…and he wasn’t making it up, because the chair he described was featured in this ad from the same issue…

 *  *  *

Drunk History

In the fall of 1930 Scribner’s magazine published a series of three articles titled “If Booth Had Missed Lincoln,” If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg,” and “If Napoleon Had Escaped to America.” The New Yorker’s James Thurber claimed to be the author of a fourth article, “If Grant Had Been Drinking At Appomattox.” An excerpt:

REVISIONIST…James Thurber circa 1930. (thurberhouse.org)

   *  *  *

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…for reference, Maggie gives it to Jiggs in this comic book cover from 1953…

(Good Girl Comics)

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…and in stark contrast, this ad appealed for donations to help the jobless…

…our cartoons are supplied by Art Young

…the ever reliable Barbara Shermund

…and equally reliable Peter Arno

…and Helen Hokinson

…and we close with this gem by Garrett Price

Next Time: A Blue Angel…

Published by

David O

I read and write about history from the perspective that history is not some artifact from the past but a living, breathing condition we inhabit every moment of our lives, or as William Faulkner once observed, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." I read original source materials, such as every issue of The New Yorker, not only as a way to understand a time from a particular perspective, but to also use the source as an aggregator of various historic events. I welcome comments, criticisms, corrections and insights as I stumble along through the century.

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