“Skill at entertaining, theatrical presentation or performance” is the internet definition of “showmanship.” Two men, one a producer and the other, essentially a director, were equally skilled at the art of showmanship. They were Florenz Ziegfeld (1867-1932) and George Abbott (1887-1995).
Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr.
Perhaps Ziegfeld’s dedication to spectacle can be attributed to having personally seen the Chicago fire of 1871. It was in Europe while on his Grand Tour that Ziegfeld discovered a young singer named Anna Held. He brought her to the U.S., where she became a star, inspiring the creation of the Ziegfeld Follies, suggested by revues at Paris clubs like Folies-Bergere and the Moulin Rouge. From 1907 to 1931 the Ziegfeld Follies were staged annually.
Based on the premise that they were ‘Glorifying the American Girl,” the Follies were filled with sumptuous, often outrageous costumes and sets, while composers like Gershwin, Kern and Irving Berlin wrote the scores. Many performers knew they’d made it when they played in the Follies; performers such as W. C. Fields, Ruth Etting, Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson, Fanny Brice, Marilyn Miller, Bert Williams and Ed Wynn. These and other performers would later star onscreen and on television. Companies like the Rockettes would be one group that would carry on traditions established by Ziegfeld.
The Follies were staged at the New Amsterdam Theater on 42nd Street. One of the oldest theatres still in use, the story of that theater was discussed in a previous column (http://minnesotaplaylist.com/magazine/article/2017/broadway-theaters-lost-and-found).
Ziegfeld and Held had a common-law marriage that lasted 16 years, while Ziegfeld was also involved with a showgirl, Lillian Lorraine, who was the love of his life, although they were never married. Held died in 1918. Meanwhile, Ziegfeld married Billie Burke (Glinda in the film of The Wizard of Oz). They had a daughter, Patricia, born in 1916.
The Ziegfeld Theater
Ziegfeld built a theatre named for him on Sixth Avenue between 54th and 55th Streets. Financed by William Randolph Hearst, it opened in February 1927 with Ziegfeld’s production of Rio Rita. However, it was the theater’s second attraction that proved to be his crowning achievement. That was, of course, Show Boat. Based on Edna Ferber’s novel, the show, with a score by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, was the first great musical of the 20th Century. It’s
Plot about racial segregation, with a score that included “Ol’ Man River,” “Bill,” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” (the latter two introduced by Helen Morgan, discussed in my previous column) was a massive hit! (Sadly, the Ziegfeld was torn down in 1956).
Like many, Ziegfeld lost a lot of money in the stock market crash, from which he never recovered. In 1932, while in Hollywood with Burke, he died from pleurisy. He’s buried with Burke in Valhalla, New York. In 1936, MGM released The Great Ziegfeld. William Powell was cast as the showman because of his elegance and style. As elaborate as a genuine Ziegfeld production, it won Best Picture and actress Luise Rainer, who played Anna Held, was honored as Best Actress. Fanny Brice and others appeared in it, but the spectacular “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody” number was the astonishing highlight of the film. (As I was writing this column, Funny Girl was on television. The Bride number is exactly what Ziegfeld, played in the film by Walter Pidgeon in Funny Girl, would have done, not if he’d had the money, but if he’d had a big enough theater).
He was always called “Mister” Abbott. His incredible list of contributions to the American Theater (125 productions) as a producer, director, playwright, screenwriter, film director, and actor crosses nine decades. George Abbott (1887-1995) is indeed one of the Icons of 20th Century Theater.
Born in upstate New York, but raised in Wyoming, he was educated at Harvard, where he won $100 for his play, Man in the Manhole. Debuting as an actor on Broadway in 1913, by the mid-20s, he was the most sought director, writer and play doctor. Among his successes were Three Men and a Horse, On Your Toes, The Boys from Syracuse, Too Many Girls (which introduced Lucille Ball to Desi Arnaz), Pal Joey, On the Town, High Button Shoes, Where’s Charley? Call Me Madam, Wonderful Town, The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, Fiorello! (for which he won the Pulitzer Prize), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and introduced Liza Minnelli to Broadway audiences in Flora, the Red Menace. No one else will ever duplicate the achievements.
He directed the original 1926 version of Chicago as well as Hecht and MacArthur’s 20th Century, both of which later became hit musicals. With Philip Dunning, he wrote and directed Broadway. His long list of collaborators includes Helen Hayes, Shirley Booth, Garson Kanin, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Eddie Albert, Gene Kelly, Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Nancy Walker, Jerome Robbins, Harold Prince, Carol Haney, Bob Fosse and Carol Burnett.
Mr. Abbott had noteworthy instinct, and his knack of knowing how to make an actor, a scene, a show, work was always impressive. He never wasted time as he led actors through rehearsals, directing them when to move or fix a line. Abbott shows were efficiently and tightly staged. Because his style was relaxed and casual, actors adored working with him. Audiences could rely on Abbott, because he was attuned to them, and while there no trademark moves, he always put the production before anything else. After a show opened, Abbott didn’t stick around to bask in the praise, either. There was always another golf club with his name on it to pick up and shoot 18 holes.
Like Ziegfeld, Mister Abbott had style!
He carried that style into his personal life, too, although it sounds theatrical. His first marriage was a success that lasted 16 years and only ended because of his wife’s death. His second, however, was a failure. When he was in his early 80s, he had a decade-long affair with Maureen Stapleton. At 96, he was again married, and this lasted until his death from a stroke at 107. He was honored at the 1994 Tony Awards with a performance by Gwen Verdon and Jean Stapleton, both of whom had starred in Damn Yankees, which was having a Broadway revival.
He was also honored when the 54th Street Theater was renamed for him. Sadly, the building, including the theater was demolished to make way for the Ed Sullivan Theater, now home for CBS’ The Late Show.
Like so many, Abbott was honored with Life Achievement Awards. He held Honorary Doctorates from the University of Rochester and University of Miami, and along with Lillian Gish, Benny Goodman, Gene Kelly and Eugene Ormandy, he received a Kennedy Center Honor in 1982. He was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame and was awarded the National Medal of Arts.
The work of Ziegfeld can be seen onscreen in Glorifying the American Girl, Whoopee, The Great Ziegfeld and Ziegfeld Follies. George Abbott’s best work can be seen in the film versions of The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees. These films are available on disc and through Netflix.