Tête-à-tête with The Ziegfeld Club President, Laurie Sanderson
Laurie Sanderson is the President of The Ziegfeld Club, a charitable organization since 1936. The Club endeavors to keep alive and cherish the memory of Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. and the women of The Ziegfeld Follies by empowering women of musical theatre today.
We talked with Laurie about the Follies, The Ziegfeld Club, her personal connection to Ziegfeld, and the connection between The Ziegfeld Follies and burlesque as we know it today.
Some consider The Ziegfeld Follies to be the first burlesque shows in the US? What do you think?
LS: The Ziegfeld Follies were technically variety shows but Flo Ziegfeld certainly opened the door for burlesque. Over the years The Follies became a little more burlesque and a little more bawdy. The first Follies in 1907 was relatively tame, but when he opened the roof of the New Amsterdam in 1915 for “The Midnight Frolic,” the show definitely bridged the gap between variety and burlesque. It became a sort of a burlesque training ground. So, while Follies wasn’t pure burlesque, many of the dancers eventually crossed over into burlesque. Girls like my grandmother, Nanon Gardner, and her friends, who were in the Follies, also worked for Texas Guinan, who owned the burlesque club The 300 Club on West 54th Street.
Ziegfeld took risks and pushed the boundaries of what was happening in entertainment overall. not only from the burlesque perspective
Like Fanny Brice, whom he found at the Yiddish theater. Her quirky style wasn’t traditional Ziegfeld, but he saw her and said “I want to put you on stage at the New Amsterdam.” He literally pulled her on stage to sing “The Rose of Washington Square.” She brought the house down and became his biggest star.
When he put an African American, Bert Williams, on a Broadway stage, the orchestra threatened to quit and he told them, “Go ahead and walk. There’s hundreds of you musicians, but there is only one Bert Williams.”
Also Broadway’s first duo act featuring a drag queen, Bert Savoy and straight man Jay Brennan. They would have been a much more major act, but Bert Savoy was tragically struck by lighting in Long Island when he was 30. Mae West allegedly based much of her act on Savoy’s.
How did the The Ziegfeld Club start?
LS: The Ziegfeld Club was founded in 1936 by Billie Burke, Ziegfeld’s widow, probably best known as Glinda the good witch from The Wizard of Oz. She was never a Ziegfeld Girl; she was a dramatic and comedic actress, who became an “It Girl” making theater in London. She came back to NY in 1913 when she met and married Ziegfeld.
He died in 1932 and in 1936 MGM released The Great Ziegfeld which won the Academy Award for Best Picture. The movie showed all the glitz and glamour of the Follies, but Billie Burke wanted to show the world another side of Ziegfeld, that he didn’t only care about what happened on stage.
He had some bad press over the years, but I recorded over 5000 articles in our archives, and he really was committed to the long term well-being of the girls that danced for him. Billie Burke saw this too and wanted to help preserve that.
Many of the girls came out of the Follies with a little capital and were able to buy real estate or open boutiques or get more education. But by 1936, a lot of the girls who had started dancing in 1907 were starting to fall on hard times along with the rest of the country. We were in the middle of the Great Depression, theatres are closing, there’s no work.
Also, it’s important to remember that there were no child labor laws at this time and it was very easy to lie about your age. A girl like my grandmother, who grew up in an orphanage in Brooklyn, she got in the Follies when she was fourteen. And if you were talented and lucky enough to get into the theater, instead of working in a factory or as a prostitute, you did whatever you could to stay in the theater. They trained and danced and worked and were incredibly hard on their bodies, and so by the mid-30s, many of them also had chiropractic and other health issues, and many were self medicating.
But they were a sisterhood and they were already helping each other. I saw that with my grandmother and her friends. Everyone who performed in the Follies wore a badge of honor that bonded them for life; they were committed to helping each other. Billie Burke decided to make this commitment official, and in 1936, she formed The Ziegfeld Club in New York with eight Ziegfeld girls.
There were a lot of girls. Thousands of girls danced for the Follies, four shows a night at the New Amsterdam and shows across the country from Detroit to Chicago to Los Angeles. The Club got letters from across the country from girls who needed our help.
But over the years the Club got quieter and quieter, and as the girls got older, our newsletter became an obituary page.
Which is around when you stepped in. How long have you been involved with the club and how has it evolved from its original mission to what you called “Broadway’s best kept secret” in an article in the NYTimes a few years ago?
LS: I’ve been president of the club since 2012, but I’ve been involved with the club since the 70s. My grandmother was on the board, my mother Marianne was, and remains on the Board. I’ve been going to The Ziegfeld Club meetings since I was 12 years old. Probably even before that, but that’s my first memory. The elders asked me to lead it because of my history with the club.
I said to the elders, ‘I will take on this leadership but I’m not doing it if it means euthanizing the club; I want to start a renaissance.’ Some of the older members were worried no one was going to care about this. But I was committed to preserving the archives, and I want to find new talent and help emerging artists like Ziegfeld did. So, that’s what we do now.
We built a dynamic new Board led by board chair, Emily Lansbury. As a board, we created the Billie Burke Ziegfeld award, and with the generous support of our friends at the amazing Hanky Panky, we give a $10,000 cash grant for an emerging female identifying theater composer and she gets a year of mentorship from both a producer and a composer. We are thrilled to be partnering with New York Stage and Film this year to give the BBZA. Past recipients of the Billie Burke Ziegfeld Award include composer/lyricist Masi Asare, composer/lyricist Jonathan Larson Grant recipient Anna K. Jacobs, composer and singer Shaina Taub (Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812), Lucille Lortel Award nominated composer Julianne Wick Davis (Southern Comfort), and Jonathan Larson Grant Recipient, composer/lyricist Rona Siddiqui.
The 2020 recipient is Thailand born, NYC-based composer Tidtaya Sinutoke, was announced on October 6 and will be celebrated in a virtual ceremony on November 9. Tidtaya’s talent is just extraordinary and we’ll be seeing much more from her.
We’re just a group of sisters and brothers trying to keep this legacy alive and help emerging artists.
You talked about the evolution of the follies opening the door for burlesque. What do you think about the evolution of burlesque in the neo revival over the past couple of decades.
LS: I think that it is really dignified. Creating something that is honoring its past, but isn’t overly nostalgic. Making it new, making it now. That’s what I love. When we were at The Slipper Room, there was that performer, Pinkie Special, going around the room taking selfies and turned it into a live montage. I have never seen anything like that in my life. I had no idea what she was going to do, but I was along for the ride, and it was so exciting. I think that the long pause between the Ziegfeld days and the recent revival was an incubation period for extreme creativity.
That’s how I feel about The Ziegfeld Club, it was born as one thing and then had a rebirth. I think we went through a period where we were forgotten about, and now we’re having a much deserved renaissance.
The future of entertainment in general is uncertain…particularly for Burlesque as we don’t have the infrastructure of legit theater or the music industry. Do you have thoughts about this?
LS: It’s been interesting to see how people are taking things online and working in that medium. But I can’t wait for live entertainment to come back. I miss it so much; it’s a hole in my heart. I have fear of things never coming back, but I know that creative people cannot be kept down. And I’m going to wait here and be ready for them.