The Glorifier of the American Girl: Ziegfeld and his Follies

While walking my dog yesterday, I noticed a giant, limestone head sitting outside a brownstone on East 80th Street. I was struck by just how out of place it looked. With the Metropolitan Museum of Art only a few blocks away, it seemed particularly odd that such a beautiful statue was sitting outside in the slush of day-old snow.  The jagged bottom also gave me pause. It looked like it may have once been a part of a larger statue, but it seemed impossible that a proportional base would fit comfortably inside of an apartment. Normally, decapitation of this magnitude garners some sort of recognition, but no one else seemed to give it a second glance. 

 

 

Google kindly informed me that the head is actually the last remaining relic of the original Ziegfeld Theatre, which, when it opened in 1927, was considered one of Broadway’s grandest. Located on the corner of 6th Avenue and 54th Street, the theatre was named for the legendary producer Florenz “Flo” Ziegfeld, famed for his risqué revues that “glorified the American girl.” The $2,500,000 theatre was financed by William Randolph Hearst, who not so coincidently was having an affair with one of Ziegfeld’s showgirls.

 

 

The exterior of the Ziegfeld Theatre melded classical Greek design with art deco influences. The entranceway, formed by a pair of 10 foot wide columns, took up almost an entire city block. At night, the building's curved facade was illuminated by hundreds of hidden lightbulbs, which gave the theatre a striking, otherworldly glow. The inside of the theatre was equally extravagant. The 1,600 seat auditorium was described by the New York Times at the time as “a setting of ineffable luxury” with plush upholstered chairs, a golden curtain, and a giant wall mural “delicately blended with pastel shades of blue and green.” The mural was the largest oil painting in the world, which one reporter claimed to prefer “to its nearest rival for size, the mural in the Sistine Chapel, largely because you do not have to lie on your back to look at it.” 

 

 

The theater was home to several of Broadway’s most legendary musicals, including Ziegfeld’s signature Follies, an elaborate multi-act show that featured comedy sketches and musical numbers loosely strung together by a common theme. This formula borrowed heavily from vaudeville, which was considered by many at the time to be a vulgar, low-brow form of entertainment unworthy of the Broadway stage. Ziegfeld’s genius, was his ability to flirt with the boundaries of social acceptability without ever fully crossing them. He was provocative enough to continually shock his audience, but took great care to never be crude. For example, one of his shows featured a suspended glass walkway, which allowed gentlemen seated in the first few rows to look up the showgirl’s skirts. While titillating, Ziegfeld maintained propriety by instructing the girls to wear ankle-length bloomers.

 

Throughout his career, Ziegfeld continuously pushed social decorum to its limits, his shows being the first on Broadway to feature female nudity and multiracial casts. He was equally as audacious in the scale of his productions, settling for nothing less than perfection. All costumes were custom-made using only the finest materials such as lace, silk, ostrich feathers, pearls, and even real roses that needed to be replaced nightly. Ziegfeld’s sets were just as magical. They were designed by Joseph Urban who was lauded by the New York Times for his “protean imagination in the use of exotic figures and coloring.” The paper went on to assert that “unlike most of us, who see art in the flat terms of your environment, Mr. Urban is a creator who paints nothing more tangible than dreams.” 

 

Most beloved were the show’s iconic Ziegfeld Girls, which were inspired by the Parisian 

Folies Bergère. Ziegfeld interviewed over 15,000 aspiring showgirls a year, hand-selecting only the most beautiful and talented for his shows. The process was notoriously selective and several famous actresses such as Joan Crawford and Lucille Ball failed to make the cut. Ziegfeld ranked the women that auditioned based on their height, weight, and dimensions (36-26-38 was his preference) and most importantly, the way they walked. “Before I see their faces, I want to see how they walk,” Ziegfeld once said, “There is more sex in a walk than in a face or even in a figure.” 

 

 

 

The Ziegfeld Girls were idolized. Admirers lined up outside of their dressing rooms with gifts of flowers and jewelry. They dated celebrities and attended the city’s most exclusive parties. A handful of former Ziegfeld girls went on to have successful modeling and acting careers, but the majority ultimately faded into obscurity. Many though also  died prematurely or experienced tragic losses, leading many on Broadway to suspect that a “Ziegfeld Curse” doomed anything associated with the once great producer. For some, the existence of this curse was confirmed in 1966 when his theatre was razed and replaced with a sterile looking office building. According to the New York Times the theatre’s demolition was “an act of urban vandalism…on par with the destruction of Pennsylvania Station.” 

 

 

Today, only one piece of the great Ziegfeld Theatre remains. A carved limestone head, which sits quietly behind an iron gate at 52 East 80th Street. According to Broadway legend, the theatrical producer Jerome Hammer jokingly asked his friend Zachary Fisher (the developer responsible for the demolition) if he could have one of the massive heads. To his surprise, four months later, several workmen arrived at his house with a crane and asked where he wanted it. The statue was lowered into his front lawn where it remains today. 

 

 

Ziegfeld Head

52 East 80th Street

New York, NY 10075

 

 

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