Ziegfeld Follies of the Air

 

Theatrical history in broad, entertaining strokes

 

By Joel Benjamin

 

 

Just how charismatic and talented were the many artists who Florenz Ziegfeld chose to populate his Follies? They were the superstars of the early twentieth century. What little evidence remains can be found on TCM and YouTube where Billie Burke (Ziegfeld’s wife), Eddie Dowling, Marilyn Miller, Ruth Etting, Vilma & Buddy Ebsen, Libby Holman, Helen Morgan, Eddie Cantor and Fanny Brice displayed their wares. Too often their efforts are embarrassingly old-fashioned and their timing far too slow for modern minds.

 

 

It was fascinating to see the Ziegfeld Follies of the Air, the New 1934 Live from Broadway Revue at the Birdland Jazz Club in Times Square which gathered many fine performers to breathe life into these legendary singers, dancers and actors in the form of a fantastical radio broadcast emanating from that very space and included some very funny “words from our sponsor.”

Although the results were mixed, the evening was an entertainment goldmine. Who can resist hearing all the old gems performed by skilled artists?

 

Lilliane Montevarchi

 

The radio show simulation began with Arthur Nichols (Ian Whitt, totally in tune with the period) announcing the opening of the show followed by Eddie Dowling (Walter Willison, in fine voice) singing the totally appropriate “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody” (Irving Berlin). Marilyn Miller (a sweet-voiced Erin Cronican) and Ruth Etting (dramatic Candice Oden) were oddly paired—the two represented diametrically opposed theatrical visions—in a medley of songs while Billie Burke (Carole Demas, not quite catching the winking humor of the song) sang Rodgers and Hart’s “A Twinkle in Her Eye.”

 

Walter Willison

 

David Giardina’s Will Rogers was too young and missed the folksy, laconic quality of this huge star who met an untimely end. He did capture a certain gangly quality that Rodgers’ early silent films show.

Lee Horwin’s Libby Holman movingly spoke of her poverty-stricken childhood and her big break with “Moanin’ Low” (Ralph Rainger & Howard Dietz), the song that became her signature. Shelly Burch, looking elegant and sultry, atop the grand piano blissfully manned by Mark York masquerading as jazz great, Paul Whiteman, was Helen Morgan, spinning out an elegantly moving “Can’t Help Lovin’ that Man of Mine” (Kern/Hammerstein).

Cabaret star Loni Ackerman found all the ethnic humor in Fanny Brice’s “Becky Is Back at the Ballet” but it was Lilliane Montevecchi who stole the show as the great French chanteuse Mistinguett, singing “My Man” (Jacques Charles, Channing Pollock, Albert Willemetz & Maurice Yvain) in its original French. (The song was, of course, a huge hit for Fanny Brice much later on).

The rest of the game cast: Sheila Wormer as Ziegfeld’s secretary Matilda; Chelsie Nectow as Vilma Ebsen; Matthew McFarland as Buddy Ebsen; Jamie Buxton as Judith Barron; Taylor James Hopkins as Jack Pepper; and Heather Gehring and Lou Brockman as the dance team Renee & Tony DeMarco.

This was theatrical history in bold strokes, embellished by detailed program notes. (Perhaps this will lead some theatre fans to Google these names…?) The Ziegfeld Society did a great job. They have several programs coming up, so check their website.

 

Photos: Steve Friedman

 

Ziegfeld Follies of the Air – The New 1934 Live From Broadway Revue (January 30, 2017)
Birdland Jazz Club
315 West 44th Street, between 8th and 9th Avenues
New York, NY
For Birdland events, call 212-581-3080 or visit www.birdlandjazz.com
For Ziegfeld Society events, visit www.theziegfeldsociety.com

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