Ziegfeld: How that man could put on a show Just Granddad: Florenz Ziegfeld was a legend in his own time -- and his granddaughters know all about it.

February 26, 1996|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Florenz? Sort of a strange name for a girl, don't you think?

Not really, not when you consider that Florenz Ziegfeld Crossley's grandfather was Florenz Ziegfeld, possibly the greatest showman in Broadway history, the man whose "Ziegfeld Follies" defined glamour in America for nearly a quarter-century.

"We knew pretty early on that our grandfather was someone special," Mrs. Crossley, 55, says of the man being profiled at 8 tonight on A&E's "Biography" series. "Our grandmother lived next door to us, and she talked about him a lot."

Florenz Ziegfeld died in 1932, eight years before his eldest granddaughter was born. But his wife made sure all his grandchildren knew the glamorous legacy he left behind. She would tell them all about how he scoured the country for the most beautiful women and would recruit them to star in his "Ziegfeld Follies," how his perfect American girl was never too thin, hardly touched make- up and assiduously avoided the sun.

And they'd hear all about the talented men and women he helped popularize, entertainment legends like W. C. Fields, Will Rogers, Fannie Brice and Eddie Cantor.

Not that the grandmother ever came up short in the legacy department. She was quite the entertainer in her own right. Her name was left to Mrs. Crossley's sister, Cecilia Burke Duncan.

Billie Burke was one of the hardest-working actresses in Hollywood throughout the 1930s. Although many of her films are now forgotten, you might know her as the host of "Dinner at Eight" or the wife in the TV series "Topper."

Oh, and she played Glinda the Good Witch in "The Wizard of Oz," too.

"That's how all our friends knew who we were the grandchildren of," Mrs. Duncan, 54, says with a hearty laugh. "They all knew Glinda."

Nowadays, both women are about as far from the glamour of Hollywood and Broadway as one can get. Mrs. Crossley has been a kindergarten teacher at the Park School for 15 years. She and her husband, David, rector at St. David's Episcopal Church in Roland Park, moved to Baltimore in 1976.

Mrs. Duncan, an administrative assistant for a Pikesville accounting firm, moved to Baltimore in 1994. She and her husband, Donald, a manager in the city's Office of Urban Planning, have been married a year and a half.

Neither one ever seriously considered a career in show biz -- "I think we saw the hard work that it took, and that it's not all glamour," Mrs. Duncan explains -- but they are brimming with happy memories of the Hollywood in which they grew up.

Listening to them talk is like taking a walk through Hollywood history. Appropriately, perhaps, Mrs. Crossley's sharply chiseled features resemble her grandfather's, while Mrs. Duncan's soft, rounded face brings her grandmother to mind.

They first saw "The Wizard of Oz" during a private screening at MGM for Mrs. Crossley's 9th birthday. They visited Judy Garland's house, went to school with Nancy Sinatra, watched their grandmother work with such renowned directors as John Ford and George Cukor, attended Hollywood premieres and Broadway openings. They can recall sitting in a soundproof room, waiting to come out and surprise their grandmother when she was the subject of TV's "This Is Your Life."

And they listened in rapt attention as their grandmother and mother, Patricia Ziegfeld Stephenson, spun tales of the man who was such a giant in the entertainment field that one of the earliest MGM blockbusters was a film biography of the man forever after known as "The Great Ziegfeld."

The two women also have some tangible memories of their grandfather . . . sheet music, a robe, the humidor which held his beloved cigars, tickets to some of his shows, even receipts from the original Broadway run of "Showboat."

"He loved jewelry," Mrs. Crossley recalls. "That was how he got out of many a sticky wicket with my grandmother. He'd give her jewelry."

"One time she threw it back at him," Mrs. Duncan adds, "one time when he had been with another woman. We used to hear that story all the time. In fact, I think that was the only time I heard her talk about another woman."

Tonight's "Great Ziegfeld" talks about their grandfather's reputed way with the ladies, particularly with the actresses and dancers he'd recruit for the Follies. But it spends far more time dealing with his accomplishments, culminating in his production of "Showboat" -- which by itself would have guaranteed his place in entertainment history.

Which is just fine with his granddaughters. They understand their grandfather may not have been a saint, but they know how deeply their mother and grandmother loved him. And like them, they remain proud of his accomplishments.

"I have a vision of him," Mrs. Duncan says. "Even though he was a shrewd businessman, and even though he was tough in the business world, he was a very fatherly person.

"Our mother always assured us that he was a wonderful father," Mrs. Duncan says, "and that he would have loved us very much if he was still around."

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