Tag Archive | Ziegfeld Follies

Funny Lady Fanny Brice

Fanny Brice (sometimes spelled Fannie) was born on New York’s lower east side in 1891 as Fania Borach. She was the third child of Hungarian/Jewish saloon owners, but her interests were not in the family business. At fourteen years old, she made her stage debut during amateur night at Keeny’s Theater in Brooklyn. Shortly after, she started working in burlesque reviews as a singer and comedian.

In 1910 while performing in a burlesque show, she was noticed by famous show-man, Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. After the show, he approached her back stage and said he wanted to put her under contract for his Ziegfeld Follies. Fanny agreed and thus began her long association with the popular entertainment icon. She performed in seven Follies between 1910 and 1923 and in several Midnight Frolic editions 1915 to 1921. In the 1921 Follies she was featured singing “My Man.” Wildly popular, the song became her signature hit.

Brice was most famous for her character, Baby Snooks. She performed as Baby in the 1934 Follies. Fanny and Snooks then hit the airwaves in radio at CBS and The Baby Snooks Show was featured weekly till 1948. In 1944, Brice got her own half-hour show on CBS and earned $6,000 a week. Brice was so invested in Snooks, she would often do her radio performances in costume, even though her audience couldn’t see her.

Completely devoted to the character, she told biographer Norman Katov: “Snooks is just the kid I used to be. She’s my kind of youngster, the type I like. She has imagination. She’s eager. She’s alive. With all her deviltry, she is still a good kid, never vicious or mean. I love Snooks, and when I play her I do it as seriously as if she were real. I am Snooks. For twenty minutes or so, Fanny Brice ceases to exist.”

Brice was married three times, first to a local barber, in her teens. The marriage lasted three days before she sued for divorce. Her second husband, known as the love of her life, Nicky Arnstein, was a lady’s man, professional gambler, and white collar criminal. Arnstein served fourteen months in Sing Sing for wiretapping and Brice visited him in prison every week. In 1918 they married, after living together for six years. In 1924 Arnstein was charged in a Wall Street bond theft , was convicted, and sentenced to Leavenworth Federal Prison where he served three years. Upon his release, he never returned to Fanny and their two children. She divorced him and then married Billy Rose, a songwriter and stage producer. Her third marriage, too, ended in divorce.

Fanny’s career was long and varied. She worked as a song “model”, comedian, singer, theater and movie actress. She starred in many films, two in which she plays herself, The Great Ziegfeld (1934) and The Ziegfeld Follies, (1936.) She recorded several songs for Victor and Columbia. After her death, she posthumously received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award for her 1921 recording of “My Man.”

At the age of 59, Fanny Brice died on May 29, 1951, of a cerebral hemorrhage, in Hollywood, California, depriving the world of her varied and abundant talents. She is most famously portrayed in the movies Funny Girl (1968) and Funny Lady (1975) by the incredibly talented, Barbara Streisand.

Fanny Brice is the inspiration for my character, Kiki Sands, in Saving Grace. Kiki’s role in the story is that of a famous funny lady who befriends protagonist Grace Michelle, and helps her to see the less serious side of life in show business. Having lost her sister to murder, Grace is determined to swim her way up the tarnished stream of deceit and pretense in the world of celebrity, and find the killer of her sister. Kiki , as mother-figure, friend, and colleague helps Grace to find the truth about her sister, and life itself.

Please enjoy this YouTube video of Fanny Brice singing her signature song, “My Man.”

Tragic Beauty – Olive Thomas

The ethereal Olive Thomas was the inspiration for my tortured character, Sophia Michelle. Sophia is the older sister of my protagonist, Grace.  Orphaned at 15, Sophia vowed that she and Grace would always have a roof over their heads, never go hungry and never live in an orphanage.  She relied on the only asset she possessed at the time, her captivating beauty. She spent many nights “out” but always provided for her sister until she was discovered by the famous show-man, Franz Sigrid, who took the girls under his wing and made Sophia a star.

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Olive Thomas was born Olivia R. Duffy, October 20, 1894 to a working class Irish American family in Pennsylvania.  At 15 years of age she was forced to leave school and help support the family.  At 16 she married Bernard Krugh Thomas and the marriage lasted two years.  After her divorce she moved to New York City, lived with a family member, and worked in a Harlem department store.  In 1914, she won “The Most Beautiful Girl in New York City” contest and landed on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.

Having caught the public’s attention, she was soon hired by Florenz Ziegfeld to perform in the Ziegfeld Follies. It wasn’t long before she had star billing in the Midnight Frolic, one of Ziegfeld’s venues, the Roof Top Theater of the New Amsterdam Hotel.  The Frolic was primarily a show for famous male patrons.  The girls’ costumes were often just a few strategically arranged balloons and the men would amuse themselves by popping the balloons with their cigars.  It wasn’t long before Olive was being pursued by a number of wealthy and powerful men. The beauty of Olive Thomas was legendary. She is said to have had “lovely violet-blue eyes, fringed with dark lashes that seemed darker because of the translucent pallor of her skin.”

Known for her beauty, she was also known for her wild ways and they only increased when she became involved with Jack Pickford of the famous Pickford family.  Alcohol and cocaine became part of her partying repertoire and it proved to be reckless.  She had three automobile accidents in one year. After that, she hired a chauffeur.

Screenwriter Frances Marion later remarked, “…I had seen her often at the Pickford home, for she was engaged to Mary’s brother, Jack. Two innocent-looking children, they were the gayest, wildest brats who ever stirred the stardust on Broadway. Both were talented, but they were much more interested in playing the roulette of life than in concentrating on their careers.”

The marriage to Pickford caused much trouble for both parties.  For Jack, his high-brow famous family did not approve of Olive’s work in the Frolics, and for Olive, her employer Florenz Ziegfeld accused Jack of taking her away from his entertainment dynasty.  There were rumors that Flo and Olive were also romantically involved.

The relationship could even have been said to contribute to her sudden death in 1920.  After a long night of partying, Olive and Jack went back to their hotel room.  Suddenly, from the bathroom, Jack heard Olive scream, “Oh God!”  According to Jack’s account, Olive had accidentally drunk from a bottle of something marked “poison”.  After a trip to the hospital and having her stomach pumped three times to no avail, Olive Thomas died.  The autopsy stated that she had died of a mixture of mercury bichloride and alcohol. Mercury bichloride was the prescribed tonic for Jack’s persistant and cronic syphyllis.

Olive Thomas had a short, but successful career.  She worked for the Ziegfeld Follies and Midnight Frolic and she starred in over twenty motion pictures.  She was also one of the first actresses to be termed “a flapper,” along with Clara Bow, Louise Brooks and Joan Crawford.

Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. – It’s Show Time

The next series of blog posts I will write will be about the real life personalities from the Ziegfeld Follies who inspired my characters for Saving Grace.  The first is about Franz Sigrid, my antagonist, who was inspired by the All-Time Greatest Showman on Earth, Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr.

Florenz Ziegfeld Jr., (Flo)  born of a German father and Belgian mother in Chicago, March 1867, was one of the first and ultimately most successful Broadway producers of his time.  Known for “the Ziegfeld Touch” he was an expert at turning plebian dramas and comedies into art without losing their mass appeal.

Many have said that Ziegfeld Jr. was foolish, extravagant, and cruel, which may be true, but, above all, he was an artist driven by the pursuit of beauty.

His career started in 1893 with a vaudeville act headlining German strongman Eugene Sandow.  Sandow, a perfect male specimen, would perform daring feats of strength .  He would set a man on the palm of his hand and lift him up, wrestle three men at one time, and once let three horses walk across a plank on his chest.  He was wildly popular with the women in the audience and Flo would charge money for them to come backstage and feel Sandow’s muscles.

Ziegfeld’s career was long and varied and produced many stars such as Fanny Brice, Eddie Cantor, Marion Davies, Irene Dunn,  W.C. Fields and Olive Thomas among others.  He hired some of the most talented musicians and composers for his musical scores, among them George Gershwin and Irving Berlin.

Flo had extravagant tastes and would often shower his stars with expensive baubles and gifts.  With some shows, he would amass a fortune, only to spend it all on women or the gaming tables.   There were times in his career that he would be so in debt, the banks would no longer lend him money, but he always found it somewhere.  He was extremely adept at publicity and would often orchestrate elaborate ruses to get his name and his stars names in the papers.  The beauty and grandeur of his shows never suffered.

Ziegfeld was married twice, first to the beautiful French actress Anna Held.   It is said that they never were actually married but were together long enough to constitute a common law arrangement.  She left him years later because of his affair with starlet Lillian Lorraine.  He then married actress Billie Burke of Wizard of OZ fame (Glenda the Witch of the North) and was with her until his death in 1932.

My character, Franz Sigrid is the antagonist in Saving Grace.  While possessing the same charm and brilliance with his artistry and publicity stunts as Flo Ziegfeld, Franz is a bit more humble, but a lot more devious!  His affairs and money problems are exacerbated by his constant strive for publicity and the limelight for his stars.  I hope you enjoy him as much as I did!