Monday, September 23, 2019

Tietjens Goes to FIDDLE-DEE-DEE

Fiddle-Dee-Dee in Chicago, 1901.
On the evening of May 13, 1901, Paul Tietjens went to the Chicago Grand Opera House to see Weber and Fields’s latest burlesque, Fiddle-Dee-Dee. It was the opening night of the Chicago run.

Tietjens could hardly have imagined that little more than a year later The Wizard of Oz would be playing at that same theatre, under the same director, Julian Mitchell, and with many of the same actors. Harold T. Morey, who played Pourboire the waiter in Fiddle-Dee-Dee, would create the part of Brigadier-General Riskitt in The Wizard of Oz and play that part for the next five years. May McKenzie, who played Cinquentieme in the burlesque, would a year later become Bardo the Wizard’s factotum. Weber and Fields chorus girls Ella Gilroy, Virginia Foltz, Clara Selten, Belle Robinson, Grace Heckler, and Carrie Bowman would all eventually appear in The Wizard of Oz. Fiddle-Dee Dee lyricist Edgar Smith would write lyrics for the Wizard’s Irish number in the “Ball of All Nations.” And Will R. Barnes, the costume designer, would design many of the costumes for the original Chicago production of The Wizard of Oz.

Fiddle-Dee-Dee, An Entertainment in Two Exhibits was director Julian Mitchell’s fourth season with Weber and Fields. These annual productions were burlesques in the original sense of the word, comedic send-ups or spoofs of other popular shows—think Saturday Night Live! or Mad magazine.

The first act of Fiddle-Dee-Dee was set at the Paris Exposition in the “Swiss Village," where frolicked Leo, a large Saint Bernard, played by animal impersonator George Ali. Weber and Fields played, respectively, Michael Krautknuckle and Rudolf Bungstarter on a pleasure trip to the Paris Expo. Lillian Russell played Mrs. Waldorf Meadowbrook, a young widow with a longing to do something to startle society. Weber’s and Fields’s characters join up with Shadrach Leschinski, “a Hebrew Prestidigitator” played by David Warfield, in an effort to fleece the athletic young American Hoffman Barr played by DeWolf Hopper, who has “nothing but money and nothing to do but spend it.” Weber’s and Fields’s characters are upended by a recreation of the famous “moving sidewalk” of the Paris Exposition.

DeWolf Hopper (center) in Weber & Fields's Fiddle-Dee-Dee (1901).

The score to Fiddle-Dee-Dee was composed by John Stromberg. Tietjens found “there were some fair musical numbers, a Tyrolean Yodel song, and the great 'Kiss me, Honey, Do,' which is really beautiful.” I think Tietjens is misremembering the title to the latter, which was from Weber and Fields’s Hurly Burly in 1898. In Fiddle-Dee-Dee, Lillian Russell sang the similarly titled “Come Back, My Honey Boy, to Me." Lillian Russell also has an Oz connection—her brother-in-law, Owen Westford, would play Pastoria II in The Wizard of Oz.

Actual color film and recording of Lillian Russell circa 1913.

The second act of the show featured a series of shorter burlesques on recent Broadway hits. Tietjens enjoyed the first two: “The acting of DeWolf Hopper and especially of Fay Templeton . . . was really great in the burlesque of The Gay Lord Quex. . . . The sextet from Florodora was burlesqued. It is very pretty.”

The original sextet from Florodora, “Tell Me, Pretty Maiden,” was one of the most popular moments in the musical theater of the early 20th century. The beloved production number featured a chorus of six “pretty maidens,” who coyly flirted with six male suitors, each group singing in turn. The girls stood, posed, tapped their parasols to the music, and did little else—until the chorus of the song, when the men and women formed six strolling pairs and took “a little walk” in unison to the lively and catchy tune (which you may listen to here).

The original sextet from Florodora - Click to enlarge.
In the Weber and Fields parody, “Tell Me, Pretty Ladies,” Warfield, Weber, and Fields attempted to get friendly with Bonnie Maginn, Allie Gilbert, and Belle Robinson. Armond Fields, author of From the Bowery to Broadway (1993), explains: “the women feigned complete indifference as the men bowed, stumbled, argued, and tried to outdo each other with exaggerated shows of gentility.” Edgar Smith’s lyrics were a goof-ball send-up of Paul Rubens’s original. You may listen to Weber and Fields’s version by clicking here. In the photo below, Weber is the gentleman at center, and Fields, the fellow at right.

Weber & Fields's parody of the Florodora sextet in Fiddle-Dee-Dee
Tietjens found the burlesque on The Royal Family “not as clever, with the exception of the part DeWolf Hopper played in it.” Tietjens also enjoyed Julian Mitchell’s choreography and attention to detail. “One of the chief features of the production was the dancing and the pretty costumes.”

Fiddle-Dee-Dee shared one other feature with The Wizard of Oz—a three-hour-plus running time. “The performance,” Tietjens noted in his diary, “lasted until 11:25.”

In closing, here is a fun clip of the "Tell Me, Pretty Maiden" sextet as performed in the 1930 Marion Davies film The Florodora Girl. It's not terribly authentic, but it does give a feel for how the number might have been performed back in the early 1900s. Also of interest is the fact that Marion Davies's sister, Reine Davies, played Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz in early 1906.

"Tell Me Pretty Maiden" as performed in The Florodora Girl (1930).

Copyright © 2019 David Maxine. All rights reserved.

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