Today in theatre history–July 1, 1931–Flo Ziegfeld opened the last of his famed follies. Beginning in 1907, the annual Ziegfeld Follies had quickly become a staple of the Broadway scene, introducing an extraordinary number of major stars to American audiences including W.C. Fields, Eddie Cantor, Josephine Baker, Fanny Brice, Bob Hope, Bert Williams, Will Rogers, Ray Bolger, Louise Brooks, Nora Bayes, Sophie Tucker, and Ed Wynn–not to mention the iconic Follies chorus, known as the Ziegfeld Girls. But by 1931, the theatre industry was in serious trouble. Audiences and profits were down over 30% from Broadway’s banner season of 1927-28. The primary reason for this sudden decline, of course, was the Great Depression. Contrary to popular belief, people do not flock to the theatre to forget their troubles during tough economic times. When income is in short supply, people dispense with costly luxuries until a cheaper alternative comes along. In this case, film. It is a curiosity of history that when Broadway was experiencing its greatest year–1927–the cinema was introducing its latest technology, one that would sink the live stage as the premiere form of entertainment–sound-on-film. With the arrival of “talkies,” film now had everything it needed to surpass the live stage. Moreover, film was cheaper to produce and distribute. Broadway producers in 1931 were as yet unable to develop a profitable business model in the face of such severe competition. Apart from the usual high costs of staging live daily productions, Broadway producers were facing increased labor costs as a result of successful unionization by stagehands and actors–an expense that wouldn’t hit the film industry until 1937 when film producers finally agreed to negotiate with the recently founded Screen Actors Guild following the passage of the National Labor Relations Act. Thus the cost of stage production continued to rise after 1929 while box office revenue tanked. Anyone who had a bit of extra change went to the movies, not the stage. So in many ways, Ziegfeld’s decision to conclude his annual revues in 1931 marked a watershed moment in American theatre in which the form and structure of American popular entertainment was permanently changed. Live stage was now faced with developing new ways to survive while new technologies would forever propel film and television to the forefront of the entertainment industry. Even Ziegfled acknowledged this change when he moved his follies to the radio in an effort to adapt to the new reality of popular technology, first in 1932 and again in 1936. Neither program was particularly successful.
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