[A letter from a young Ziegfeld Follies hopeful.]. Dumbris?, Betty.
[A letter from a young Ziegfeld Follies hopeful.]

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[A letter from a young Ziegfeld Follies hopeful.]

[New York], 6 January 1928. Autograph letter, 8vo (6.5” x 9.25”), 4 pp.

A vivacious letter from a soon-to-be Ziegfeld Follies girl, capturing the voice and excitement of “the glory days” of American theatrical revue.

This letter, written by young woman in the midst of a multi-part audition for Ziegfeld’s Follies, provides a breathless glimpse of the gateway to Florenz Ziegfeld’s “fairy-tale world” (Martin) at the height of early 20th century performance. Although she seems to have passed the singing test with flying colors, Betty confides: “Mr. Ziegfeld cares only for looks and as you know I’m no raving beauty.” She may not have been entirely correct, since Ziegfeld himself is said to have remarked: “Before I see their faces, I want to see how they walk. There is more sex in a walk than in a face or even in a figure” (“The Glorifier”). Betty’s nerves, however, were certainly well-founded: Ziegfeld auditioned 15,000 girls each year, and during his quarter-century running the show, only 3,000 were selected as Ziegfeld Girls. “[T]omorrow is the Day to begin to weed out the small girls […] All the girls are scared to death—me included.” If she doesn’t make it, Betty frets: “I shall have to go on the road as there are no more productions coming on now. Ain’t it awful?”

From their start in 1907 until after Ziegfeld’s death in 1931, the Ziegfeld Follies presented extravagant and prestigious performances that showcased many top entertainers of the day. Although his were far from the only revue girls, Ziegfeld’s “Glorified Girls”—a chorus of elaborately costumed young women—hold particular cultural significance as “powerful icon[s] of race, sexuality, class, and consumerist desires […] with resonances persisting into the present day” (Mizejewski, 3). While Ziegfeld’s shows included non-white performers, they were often either barred from appearing on stage with the Glorified American Girls, or, like Fanny Brice, served as the “embodiment of everything the Ziegfeld Girl was forbidden to be: spontaneous, loud, clumsy, ethnic” (Mizejewski, 6). As one scholar sums it up: “More than anyone of his time, Florenz Ziegfeld shaped the American perception of female beauty” (Lasser, 441).

Although she does not sign her last name, this letter was likely written by Betty Dumbris. A recent winner of the Miss America pageant as Miss Indiana, Dumbris first appeared with the Follies not long after this letter was written, playing “Vivian” in the 1928 musical comedy Whoopee (itself notable as early choreography by the prolific choreographer Busby Berkeley). Dumbris worked as a Ziegfeld Glorified Girl for the next 4 years, performing Ziegfeld’s idealized vision of “American womanhood” whose “afterlife has remained unique in its scope, variety, and perpetuity” (Mizejewski, 3). The last two pages of Betty’s letter turn to personal matters and news from back home, but the first two, discussing her whirlwind bid for the Ziegfeld Follies, encapsulate the mood of the age: “My nerves are about played out. Gosh! this is some game.”

A lively look into one young woman’s audition process for the Ziegfeld Follies, a theatrical revue that dazzled audiences and defined ideals of American femininity.

REFERENCES: Lasser, Michael. “The Glorifier: Florenz Ziegfeld and the Creation of the American Showgirl,” The American Scholar 63.3 (1994): 441–48; Martin, Douglas. “Former Ziegfeld Follies Girl Recalls the Glory Days,” The New York Times 18 Oct., 1996; “The Glorifier of the American Girl: Ziegfeld and his Follies,” Wander Woman NYC; Mizejewski, Linda. Ziegfeld Girl: Image and Icon in Culture and Cinema. Duke University Press, 1999.

CONDITION: Good: slight browning at top edges, two pages partially torn at crease.

Item #7195

Price: $275.00

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