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NY Public Library for the Performing Arts Artistic Producer Evan Leslie on the Ziegfeld Club

BroadwayWorld.com continues our exclusive content series, in collaboration with The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, which delves into the library's unparalleled archives, and resources. Below, check out a piece by Evan Leslie (Artistic Producer for The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts) on the Ziegfeld Club:

On October 21, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts transformed its normally unassuming café into the glamorous, 1904 roof-top garden of the New Amsterdam Theatre for a program celebrating The Ziegfeld Club, a charity for "Follies girls" founded in 1936 by Billie Burke. Presented in partnership with Past Made Present, the evening featured archival photographs of Ziegfeld performers, authentic costumes from the Follies, plus memories recorded in letters and stories from original Follies girls and their families. Exploring the archives the of the Ziegfeld Club and The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, one understands the profound impact these women made on American theater.

A famous movie star and second wife of Florenz Ziegfeld, Burke was one of the most historically significant Follies girls. When she wasn't charming the world as Glenda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz, Burke was tirelessly helping other theater women find housing, healthcare, and job skills through The Ziegfeld Club. The Library for the Performing Arts' Billy Rose Theatre Division holds and preserves many rare materials related to Burke. One can sift through Burke's correspondence with playwrights and producers or hum along while browsing through the sheet music Burke used in preparation for her performances. The Library even has Burke's personal scrapbook of press clippings from her career. Turning through the brown paper pages, covered with newspaper reviews and cut-out photographs, posed and pasted like paper dolls, one can track Burke's life from Vaudeville performer, to movie star, to philanthropist and steward of the Ziegfeld legacy.

Many of the early stars of the Ziegfeld Follies are well represented in the Library's collections. For example, the Library has incredible artifacts related to Fanny Brice, the comedian who headlined at the Amsterdam and later inspired the hit Broadway musical Funny Girl. Featured in the Library's Digital Collections, Brice can be seen, a slumped, pitiable bride, performing the comic song "Shall I Do It or Not?" in her 1910 Follies debut. Yearning for a Funny Girl/Gypsy crossover? You can sit in the Library's special collections reading room and scan through six letters Brice wrote to Gypsy Rose Lee. The Library also holds the archive of the Anna Held Museum. Anna Held was Ziegfeld's first wife and muse. The Anna Held Dancers were a featured act in the very first Follies in 1907. Held's datebook, carefully preserved at the Library, shows Held to be much more than a precious peacock. She was a courageous patriot, traveling to France to perform for troops on the front lines.

Of course, not all of the women of the Ziegfeld Follies went on to fame and fortune. Every year, Ziegfeld employed hundreds of women as dancers, hostesses, and singers. You can find these women at the Library for the Performing Arts also, captured in the collection of the White Studio, one of the most important photographers of early 20th century Broadway. The White Studio provides a rare glimpse of what the Follies actually looked like 100 years ago: women in elegant poses, wearing elaborate peacock tails; dozens of dancers balancing feathered headdresses, packed across the stage in uniform rows; showgirls draped in exotic fabrics.

Viewing these materials makes it easy to see how the women of the Ziegfeld Follies helped lay the foundation for contemporary Broadway. But despite their impact and legacy, many Follies girls struggled financially and faced enormous challenges both personally and professionally. Since the '30s, The Ziegfeld Club has been a remarkable resource, and it continues to celebrate and support these incredible performers and their families today.


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