Saturday, November 1, 2008

Florenz Ziegfeld's Show Girl




The show was designed as a vehicle for Ruby Keeler. Though Ziegfeld never attempted to sleep with her, he was fascinated by Ruby Keeler: her naive charm and her openness captivated him.

The following is another version of the infamous "Liza" tale from Show Girl, this time from the biography "Ziegfeld" by Charles Higham. As with others before-and-since, there are some new anecdotes and more discrepancies, but one thing comes through loud and clear - the Great Ziegfeld was a man besotted.

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Ziegfeld
By Charles Higham

Henry Regnery Company, Chicago, 1972


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Dark Waters

RECHARGED with new energy that summer [1928], Ziegfeld was preoccupied with a new show by William Anthony McGuire: Whoopee, based on Owen Davis's Broadway play The Nervous Wreck. Gus Kahn wrote the lyrics, and Walter Donaldson wrote the music. The show was designed as a vehicle for Eddie Cantor, whose on-again, off-again relationship with Ziegfeld had finally blossomed into a deep and lasting friendship. Whoopee was ideal for Cantor; it was the story of the hypochondriac Henry Williams, who goes to California to recover from an imaginary illness and on the way arrives in a Wild West settlement.

Ruby Keeler was signed to play opposite Cantor, but her husband, Al Jolson, insisted that she should go to Hollywood to be with him. Ruth Etting took over the role. [...]

The year 1929 opened without powerful fanfare. The Follies were being held in abeyance, too difficult to mount because of the enormous work involved in the other musicals and still affected by the interminable litigation between Klaw and Erlanger. William Anthony McGuire, still drinking, still subject to unpredictable vanishings, still as unreliable and charmingly reckless as ever, was busy on a new production: Show Girl. The show was designed as a vehicle for Ruby Keeler. Though Ziegfeld never attempted to sleep with her, he was fascinated by Ruby Keeler: her naive charm and her openness captivated him.

Show Girl opened at the Ziegfeld theater on July 2, 1929. It was based on a novel by J. P. McEvoy with a score by George Gershwin. Basically the story of the rise to fame of a showgirl, Dixie Dugan, the whole scenario was designed as a hymn to Ziegfeld himself. The second act curtain actually rose on a scene of the Ziegfeld Theater, echoing Ziegfeld's earlier use of the New Amsterdam in Sally and in some of the Follies productions. There were fine moments of comedy—Jimmy Durante made his most important early stage appearance; and Eddie Foy, Jr., was witty as a greeting card salesman whose cigarette case blew up every time he opened it and whose gifts contained alarming devices (his routines twice brought the audience to its feet.) The highlight of the entire production was Gershwin's An American in Paris ballet, danced superbly by Harriet Hoctor against a glittering background of the Eiffel Tower and the city skyline. To this one scene Ziegfeld, passionately fond of Gershwin's music, gave almost superhuman effort, creating a glittering chiaroscuro of color and movement.

Ruby Keeler was extremely nervous during rehearsal, and Ziegfeld—who worshipped her more every day—and director Bobby Connolly found it very difficult to get a good performance out of her. At the dress rehearsal she reached the top of the superb staircase that had been designed especially for her, and she froze. She stood motionless in her tuxedo and high hat, clearly at a loss about what to do next. Bobby Connolly yelled, "Come on, Ruby!" Al Jolson, who was out front, jumped up. He sang her song back to her—Gershwin's "Liza"—and she suddenly snapped to into life, remembered the lyrics, and danced beautifully down the stairs. Ziegfeld immediately said to Jolson, "Al, do that on opening night." For several nights, until Ruby was settled in, Jolson continued to help Ruby perform the number, creating a sensation with every audience.

One much-published story was entirely true. In Ruby Keeler's honor Ziegfeld completely redecorated the star dressing-room at the Ziegfeld Theater in white organdy, the walls covered in ruffles. Her dressing table was also in organdy, the entire décor exquisitely designed by Urban. On opening day Ziegfeld called Goldie from Hastings and told he to take a taxi to Cartier's to pick up a package. She obeyed the instructions and picked up the "package"—actually a huge box. When she came back, she called him and said, "I'm back, and I've got the box. What do I do now?" He said: "Well, open it!"

She did so. It was a magnificent toilet set of brushes, mirrors, perfume bottles, and makeup boxes, 21 pieces of solid gold inlaid with crystal and mother-of-pearl. He told her to write on it "To the greatest star I've ever had" in a facsimile of his handwriting and instructed her to hide in a cupboard in Ruby Keeler's dressing room to report on Ruby's reaction when she saw the set.

Goldie said: "Mr. Ziegfeld, where am I going to hide?" He said: "You figure it out!" She was lucky: the dressing room was so full of flowers that she was able to hide just behind the door without being seen in the mirror.

When Ruby arrived, late, nervous, red-eyed, and in the midst of a quarrel with Jolson, Goldie had been hiding behind the flowers for over an hour. Ruby sat down at the dressing table and began to use the toilet set, too distraught to notice that it was new. Jolson ran in after her and saw the card. He exclaimed, Look, look at what Flo gave you, look at this!" But she went right on making up her face without comment. Goldie slipped out unobserved. Goldie told Ziegfeld that Ruby hadn't noticed the set until Al Jolson saw it. Ziegfeld was bitterly disappointed, and when he tried to give Ruby Keeler several pairs of $125 silk stockings imported from Paris, Ruby's mother intercepted the gift at the dressing room door.



Show Girl opened on July 2, 1929. Unfortunately the show had only a brief run.


Source:
Ziegfeld, by Charles Higham
Henry Regnery Company, Chicago, 1972

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