June 08, 2011
Peel back the layers of any Rollins faculty-student collaboration and you’ll find curiosity at its core. It starts with a question and a yearning to learn more. Then a research proposal is designed, submitted, approved and, before you know it, the researchers are drawn into another time. For Professor of Theater Jennifer Cavenaugh, Katy Polimeno (Class of 2011) and Katie Jones (Class of 2012) that time was the two decades between 1907 and 1927 when elaborate high-class Vaudeville-style variety shows dominated Broadway.
One series, the Ziegfeld Follies, held a particular interest for the team. Produced by the infamous Florenz Ziegfeld, the elaborate theatrical productions were, in their own right, worthy of historical significance and empirical study. But it was the Follies girls, the show’s star performers and their life stories that peeked Cavenaugh’s interest. “What I was most interested in was the girls that performed in the revues, what their working conditions were, how they contributed to the Follies success and what happened to them afterward,” Cavenaugh shared.
Jones and Polimeno joined the research, team and began splitting up the collaboration’s components. Jones began looking at employment laws and overall societal attitudes towards sex in the after-theater scene at the time. Polimeno began researching the personal stories of the girls, eventually creating a database of more than 500 of the probable 1,500 Follies girls.
“In my part of the research I focused on trying to track down as many girls as possible who were in the shows and to find out as much about them as I could,” Polimeno explained. ”I tried to find out how old they were when they were in the Follies, how many years they did the shows, and then information on their careers after the Follies and their social lives including marriages.”
Polimeno ended up finding 555 girls who had been chorus girls in the Follies. “Almost one fifth of the girls had marriage announcements in the New York Times, usually to well-off men, and of those girls, 33 percent were married more than once.” Many of the performers were under the age of 16, something Jones found interesting as she explored the statutory rape laws and attitudes of the time.
While Polimeno worked to create the database of Follies girls, Cavenaugh researched and looked at the ways in which the staging of the numbers, costumes and lyrics, created an atmosphere that encouraged men of the time to pursue the women after the show. “To be in the Ziegfeld Follies was a top job on Broadway but it also came with the expectation that the girls would be sexually available to rich men,” said Cavenaugh. “Some participated willingly and happily. Others not so much. What we discovered is that most of the girls needed the financial support these men could provide since Ziegfeld often let the girls go after only one season.”
Cavenaugh also wanted to look at the way Ziegfeld, who often did business with the wealthy and influential male audience members, benefited from this sexually charged atmosphere. “In many cases, the girls didn’t benefit at all from participating in the revue,” Cavenaugh found. “A lot of the women had very unfortunate lives afterwards. There is an unusually high number of suicides, many accounts of alcoholism, many failed marriages, abusive relationships and difficulty dealing with their lives post-Follies.”
By the time the research project concluded, the team had thoroughly researched the world of the Ziegfeld Follies and had uncovered many surprising and intriguing discoveries. “As a theater historian, I’m really interested because Ziegfeld is really up on a pedestal for creating these colorful, elaborate shows, but the girls have been an afterthought,” Cavenaugh reflected. “We think their stories are really compelling.”
Fellow theater historians and scholars agreed. In September 2010, the team presented a paper at the International Conference of Music Theater in Winchester UK. The paper called “What Price Glory: The Sexual Economy of Ziegfeld’s Follies” was expanded over the past several months and will be sent out for publication this summer.
This project originated from the 2010 Summer Student-Faculty Collaborative Research Program. To read about the 2011 Summer Student-Faculty Collaborative Research Program, please click here.By Kristen Manieri