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Ziegfeld: The Man Who Invented Show Business [Hardcover]

Ethan Mordden
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

Nov. 11 2008

Any girl who twists her hat will be fired! – Florenz Ziegfeld

And no Ziegfeld girl ever did as she made her way down the gala stairways of the Ziegfeld Follies in some of the most astonishing spectacles the American theatergoing public ever witnessed.  When Florenz Ziegfeld started in theater, it was flea circus, operetta and sideshow all rolled into one.  When he left it, the glamorous world of "show-biz" had been created.  Though many know him as the man who "glorified the American girl," his first real star attraction was the bodybuilder Eugen Sandow, who flexed his muscles and thrilled the society matrons who came backstage to squeeze his biceps.  His lesson learned with Sandow, Ziegfeld went on to present Anna Held, the naughty French sensation, who became the first Mrs. Ziegfeld.  He was one of the first impresarios to mix headliners of different ethnic backgrounds, and literally the earliest proponent of mixed-race casting.  The stars he showcased and, in some cases, created have become legends: Billie Burke (who also became his wife), elfin Marilyn Miller, cowboy Will Rogers, Bert Williams, W. C. Fields, Eddie Cantor and, last but not least, neighborhood diva Fanny Brice.  A man of voracious sexual appetites when it came to beautiful women, Ziegfeld knew what he wanted and what others would want as well.  From that passion, the Ziegfeld Girl was born. Elaborately bejeweled, they wore little more than a smile as they glided through eye-popping tableaux that were the highlight of the Follies, presented almost every year from 1907 to 1931.  Ziegfeld's reputation and power, however, went beyond the stage of the Follies as he produced a number of other musicals, among them the ground-breaking Show Boat.  In Ziegfeld: The Man Who Created Show Business, Ethan Mordden recreates the lost world of the Follies, a place of long-vanished beauty masterminded by one of the most inventive, ruthless, street-smart and exacting men ever to fill a theatre on the Great White Way : Florenz Ziegfeld.


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Review

“[Ethan Mordden possesses] the kind of long view and deep investigation that almost no writer has previously brought to bear on the [history of the Broadway stage].”
--Jesse Greene, The New York Times

“…engaging…This book is as much history as biography. Ziegfeld's personal life is consistently blank, but Mordden fills his pages with cast lists of every single "Follies," with mini-biographies of every star and comic [and] an extensive history of "Show Boat," which Ziegfeld produced…”--Washington Post
 
"Ethan Mordden offers a wealth of detail to illustrate how Ziegfeld left his stamp on every aspect of his productions…this fabled history is made fresh again by Mr. Mordden…as a look back at the beginnings of today's show-business world, "Ziegfeld" is invaluable."--Wall Street Journal
 
"In his meticulously researched and detailed portrait of the ultimate Rialto manager-producer, Mordden recalls with equal parts snark and smarts Ziegfeld's life and shows…Mordden captures the glamour, the seduction of the stage and, of course, the women who seduced both audiences -- and Ziegfeld himself -- through their beauty and talent." --Variety

Praise for "All that Glittered: The Golden Age of Drama on Broadway, 1919-1959"

“Ethan Mordden, the almost absurdly prolific theatrical chronicler, has compiled a serious and engaging history.  Mordden’s evocation of the glory days of drama is a handsome reminder—the next best thing, as they say, to being there.”—The Washington Post Book World

“Erudite, but casual and conversational, and full of fresh perceptions, Mordden is a charmingly insightful raconteur who condenses 40 years' worth of opening nights into a single engrossing montage."—Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)

“[A] witty, compulsively readable style and knack for finding the right figures to focus on in each era. Mordden is a master at revealing the web of aesthetic and business connections just beneath the surface of developments.”Booklist

“More than enlivening description, Mordden offers social, political, aesthetic and cultural context as he discusses what led to Broadway's ascendancy and demise. Mordden's keen eye, broad vision, wealth of detail and sparkling style bring to life the American rialto at its peak."—Kirkus Reviews

“Exudes intelligence and wit. The author clearly possesses a passion for and an involvement with the theater, and he easily wins over the reader (who may strongly disagree with his views as the book progresses) in the first few pages with his conversational style and sly wisecracks. This is an enthralling exploration of a legendary and glamorous time in theater history.”-- Library Journal

About the Author

Ethan Mordden has written extensively for The New Yorker and The New York Times. Besides non-fiction on theatre, music, and film, he is the author of the Buddies cycle of short stories.  The stories, adapted for the stage by Scott Edward Smith as Buddies, played an engagement at the Celebration Theater in Los Angeles. His most recent novel is The Jewcatcher, a savage black-comic fantasy on life in Nazi Germany. 


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Most helpful customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars More Then The Follies Dec 26 2010
By Dadant
Format:Hardcover
Ziegfeld's current reputation seems to focus only on the stage productions of the Follies. I too didn't know anything about the man beyond the Follies which is why the title of this book stood out.

In reading Ethan Mordden's amazingly comprehensive book one discovers the immense contribution of Ziegfeld to the craft. His work and association with the artist, entertainers and notable of the era is surprising, from Anna Held, Billie Burke, Marilyn Miller, Will Rogers, W. C. Fields, Fanny Brice, Adele and Fred Astair, Irvin Berlin, Eddie Cantor, "Diamond Jim" Bradley, George Gershwin, William Randolph Hearst and Lillian Lorraine. As the first theatre producer to mix headliners of different ethnic backgrounds, and the earliest to mixed-race cast Ziegfeld changed theatre. As he did with the production of the first modern musical the ground-breaking Show Boat.

Mordden's book was a surprise and a please to read and I would recommend it to any one working in the theatre today.
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Amazon.com: 3.6 out of 5 stars  14 reviews
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A light and breezy read Nov. 22 2008
By Damien Slattery - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
An enjoyable book. Ethan Mordden digs into the archival material relating to all things Ziegfeld and presents us with a leisurely account of the rise and fall of this formidable showman. It is a 21st century perspective, and reflects the culture of celebrity and American dream that was no different in the 1890s. Typical of Mordden's style are the many footnotes filled with interesting trivia. Untypical of the author, is the inclusion of a concluding bibliographical chapter.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "...she had the content of a confetti cannon" Nov. 14 2011
By adorian - Published on Amazon.com
I love Ethan Mordden's writing, whether fiction or non. This is a wonderful biography, and unlike most biographies, the narrator's voice is not dry and dull and neutral. It's very bright and dishy, like he's sitting across the table from you with both of you slurping margaritas out of giant fishbowl goblets. He doesn't waste time on the parents' lives or young Flo's early years. (I hate biographies where you have to plough through early chapters on how the grandparents suffered back in the Old Country. None of that stuff here.) He just plunges right in and gives you a vivid account of the ins and outs of Broadway show biz when Ziegfeld was heeding the call to succeed and dominate.

Mordden knows everything about Broadway, so he doesn't want to weigh you down with the dull stuff. He knows that, like Ziegfeld, you must keep the audience constantly alert. He wants to pour you the hot tea in the most delicious way with lots of inside jokes, campy wordplay, heavy sarcasm, snide and snarky putdowns, bitchy asides.

Examples? There's a book which "bore such occult power that straights who as much as glanced here and there in them were instantly struck gay, never to return." "That tryout hell that everyone keeps wishing on Hitler." A certain song is "a gingerbread doll baked by Erik Satie." "So quiet one could hear the lint accumulating in men's trouser cuffs." An almost throwaway description of the death of Charles Cochran (p. 294) is so bizarre and grotesque that you almost wish Mordden had written your high school history texts.

Little nuggets of trivia gleam at you like flecks of gold in a dry creek bed. The tone is always "I know more about everything than you do, so just listen and absorb." That's fine with me. We learn that Show Boat is the greatest musical ever, that Ziegfeld invented much of what we consider standard, that he was always suffering from money problems, that he had great fun feuds with his stars and rival producers. This really is an excellent read. My only complaint is that the pictures are too small, so you can't see the faces very well. But this book is not about little pictures; it's about a show biz giant, and Mordden has made of him a fascinating and entertaining portrait, framed by admiration and verve.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Mordden meets the eye Dec 3 2008
By S. Berner - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
When Ethan Mordden writes about theater, especially musical theater, he has no peer. So if you approach this book as a survey of Ziegfeld's WORK, you will not be disappointed. However, from the outset Mordden tells us how little is really known or understood about the private life, the internal life, if you will, of Ziegfeld the man. He then proceeds to live up to this caveat by telling us as much, or as little, as he promises. The general feeling of the book is: we may not know how a man who grew up with classical music as his background ended up starting in Burlesque or, looked at another way, how a man whose very being was wrapped up in revue and burlesque gave us "The Follies" or how the "Follies" man gave us "Show Boat", but who cares, he did! Mordden is right! The only real flaw in the book is Mordden's referral to pictures, posters, artwork, etc. that we never get to see. How about a revised, illustrated, edition!
10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A decent book but misrepresenting its focus Dec 17 2008
By david brown - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
In the middle of this book there is a half page describing Ziegfeld taking his daughter backstage to introduce her to the Follies star, Marilyn Miller. Unfortunately Ms. Miller was angry at Ziegfeld and throws a jar of cold cream at him as he backs out the door with his daughter. I cite this episode, presumably from his daughter's book about her parents, for the simple reason that it appears to be the only personal story about Flo Ziegfeld in the book. Oh yes, we're told when and where he was born, etc. but when it comes to his character, thoughts etc. we are left with bare declarative sentences. For example we're told, as a fact, that Ziegfeld had no sense of humor but we are not given a single story to illustrate this. While I can accept the author's statement that Ziegfeld did not divulge much personal information the fact is that he was surrounded by collaborators for three decades. The whole purpose of a biographer is to research those secondary sources to reveal the enigma. Unfortunately this author does not appear to have undertaken that effort. That being said, I must acknowledge that the author is extremely knowledge in musical theater history and evokes the period and setting well. The author is also a fluid writer and the book is quite readable. As a book about the Ziegfeld Follies in the Arts section of the bookstore I would rate this volume a four if not a five. However, as a book about Ziegfeld himself in the Biography section of the bookstore I would rate this volume as a one but have generously upgraded to a three in appreciation of the informative musical theater details.
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Everything Old Is New Again Dec 17 2008
By John Converse - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I was surprised how immediate all this old show business seemed. It starts in the 1890's! Yet we get a real feeling for what Fanny Brice, Eddie Cantor, and Bert Williams were like in the Follies, and how this secret and almost invisible man became the best known producer on Broadway. I have read three other books on him, but this is the first one that actually explained why they called him the *great* Ziegfeld, after all. The way the author narrates, it could almost be a novel, with cliffhanger chapter closings, plot twists, and a lot of odd little jokes about what all these high and mighty stars are really up to. The best line was where one Ziegfeld girl is so dumb, "she had the content of a confetti cannon."
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