Chicago’s legacy as a toddling theater town began in the 1830s with informal traveling variety shows held in saloons. These shows targeted rowdy male frontier audiences and lasted for hours, rarely distinguishing between high- and low-brow entertainment.
During the 1860s and ’70s, the Rialto, Rice and McVickers theaters began catering to distinct ethnic and social communities within the city.
By the 1890s, the interests of Chicago audiences clearly diverged between popular traveling vaudeville shows and high-art productions. Theaters like the Garrick (1891-1961), Illinois (1900-1936), Powers’ (1872-1924) and Cort (1909-1934) capitalized on these distinctions by hiring theatrical and musical acts that targeted specific audiences’ tastes.
Chicago’s diverse entertainment tastes also influenced the planning of the city’s 1893 Columbian Exposition. Theodore Thomas (1835-1905), the first director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, served as the Exposition’s music director. He insisted on programming only high-art music within the fair’s White City District, charging high admission fees to “keep out indiscriminate audiences.”
Sol Bloom (1870-1949), a Chicago impresario and music publisher, responded by establishing cheap, theatrical performances featuring world music and popular music in the fair’s Midway District.
Like Thomas, Florenz Edward Ziegfeld (1841-1923) envisioned the fair as an opportunity to showcase the city’s high-art culture. As one of Chicago’s leading promoters of cosmopolitan music and the founder of Chicago’s Musical College, Ziegfeld proposed “to stage Italian, English and Negro operas with Negro vocalists and instrumentalists at the fair.”
The fair’s music board declined his proposal, but Ziegfeld remained undeterred. In response, he constructed the Trocadero International Temple of Music in the block immediately north of the newly constructed Art Institute to draw fairgoers away from Thomas’ music programs staged in the Exposition’s White City.
Ziegfeld marketed the Trocadero as a first-class music theater and contracted a variety of European and popular musical acts to perform there.
However, it soon became clear the fairgoers were disinterested in both Thomas’ and Ziegfeld’s high-art performances. As the Trocadero’s financial losses mounted, Ziegfeld’s son, Florenz “Flo” E. Ziegfeld Jr. (1867-1932), was put in charge of programming. He immediately contracted the popular Sousa Civilian Military Band, which had become wildly popular through its performances several months earlier at the Exposition.
In addition, Ziegfeld Jr. hired vaudeville acrobats, comedians, singers and beautiful dancers to enhance the theater’s programming.
As word spread about the Trocadero’s colorful burlesque performances, new audiences began filling the theater for every show. However, the theater’s new burlesque reputation created uncomfortable challenges for the musicians originally contracted by Ziegfeld Sr.
Some artists refused to appear there, and even though Sousa’s performances at the Trocadero were a financial success, Sousa found the burlesque theater was poorly suited to his band’s “refined” concerts.
In 1906, Ziegfeld Jr. began using his Trocadero experiences to produce the popular New York Ziegfeld Follies, a touring Broadway show that featured comic acts, musical sketches and women performing elaborate dances in revealing costumes to the music of Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern and George Gershwin. During the late 1990s and early 1920s, these tours performed frequently in Chicago’s Colonial and Illinois theaters, which continued to exacerbate the tensions between the city’s high- and low-brow arts establishments.
The Ziegfeld Follies influenced Broadway for decades, and many of the programs contained in the Sousa Archives’ Yolande Oglesby collection of playbills illustrate Ziegfield’s influence on New York and Chicago theatrical offerings.
The programs’ colorful and intricate cover art document Chicago theaters’ and audiences’ diverse tastes for live entertainment throughout the first decades of the 20th century.
The collection also includes rare programs featuring Ziegfeld’s traveling performances at Chicago’s Colonial Theatre (1904-1925).
For further information about this unusual collection, call 217-333-4577 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Special thanks to Kelda Habing and Nolan Vallier for their editorial and research assistance.