An Oral History of the Ziegfeld Club

What is the Ziegfeld Club? How was the Billie Burke Ziegfeld Award established? And most importantly, what does it take to win? Laurie Sanderson, the organization’s executive director, tells us about the history behind the award and the future she hopes it will help create.

Can you tell us about the history of the Ziegfeld Club?

The organization was started in 1936 by Billie Burke Ziegfeld, Glinda the Good from the Wizard of Oz. She was Florenz Ziegfeld’s widow. Billie was never in the Follies, but she was very well-connected in that world as a theatre actress and a model and an “It Girl.” When Ziegfeld died in 1932, the rights to his story were sold to MGM to make the movie, The Great Ziegfeld. That’s how she was able to form our organization, because she knew how hard it was to be an aging female performer. The Great Ziegfeld glorified him so much, but what she wanted to do was prove that he really loved and cared about the people who performed for him. That’s why it’s called a club. We don’t have a clubhouse, it never was a club environment, but it was and still is a sisterhood.

These women had been performing for Ziegfeld since 1907, so by 1936 they were getting on in years and many couldn’t find work anymore.  Many dancers had chiropractic issues from all the tours and the hard work for years. There was a need to help these women, so that’s what our original founders started doing. For years, the ZC was a very successful organization that was bringing thousands of women together because thousands of women performed in the Ziegfeld Follies. In New York alone, he had four shows a night at the New Amsterdam, plus the tours, so he needed a lot of talent.

But then all the original Ziegfeld girls eventually passed away, and the next generation of women were interested but didn’t really have a mission. It was more of a nostalgic organization. My grandmother was in the Ziegfeld Follies, so I started going to these meetings and receptions since I was twelve years old, and I knew a lot of the original women like my grandmother and her friends. In 2015, the board asked me to take over leadership, so I talked to my good friend Emily Lansbury, who has done a lot of successful work in nonprofit. I became the executive director and she’s the board chair, and we built a new board and we focused our mission on what we can do today. I talked to a lot of people, a listening tour of composers and producers like Jeanine Tesori and Daryl Roth, and we looked at what other organizations were doing, like Broadway Cares and the Lillys. Everyone said there’s a huge gap with female composers, so we decided that we would give a grant to an emerging female composer, and so far we’ve given five.

The word “emerging” means someone who is out of school and is really on the track. It’s someone who has a certain amount of experience but just needs that extra support that the award gives. What the recipient gets is $10,000 cash, and mentorship from a creative mentor and a professional mentor – that’s the club part of it, that we’re a sisterhood. We’ve had Daryl Roth and Jeanine Tesori, Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Barbara Whitman, Lynn Nottage and Sue Frost, a lot of great mentors.

The grant is underwritten generously by Hanky Panky, a 42-year-old female-run lingerie company in New York City. They’re absolutely wonderful.

I didn’t know that about Hanky Panky! I knew they underwrote the award but I didn’t know it was a whole female-run New York thing, that’s really cool. Can you talk more specifically about the Liz Swados Grant?

The Swados Grant was established with myself and my dear friend Diane Lane, who had known Liz since she was twelve. Diane was in the original Public Theater production of Runaways, and Liz was someone that Diane was very close to. When Liz passed away, Diane said, I really want to do something to honor her. What about teachers of music, because Liz was such a wonderful teacher and she had so many disciples, and it’s so hard to be a teacher. We got together and we decided to focus it, we’re going to make it female music teachers and it should really be focused on the five boroughs of New York because it’s so hard to live in the city. Liz lived and worked in the five boroughs and she spoke about how difficult it was to be a teacher and support yourself in New York and raise a family. So that’s what we did. There’s no mentorship on this one, but it’s a $5,000 grant for a New York City based female music teacher. It can be any kind of music, it doesn’t have to be musical theatre.

What is the selection process like when you’re getting these submissions from writers and educators? Who are the people involved, what are you looking for?

We have a panel of industry professionals for the BBZA. The first round of people read everything, over a hundred submissions depending on the year. I’m on that panel. What the applicant gives is an artistic statement, a resume, and music from two separate musicals so we know the person is creating at least two separate works. We all get them, we share everything, and we pick our top six to ten. Usually a lot of them are the same, people kind of come to the top. The panel meets in person and we narrow it down – it’s hard to say how many we narrow it down to, sometimes it’s twelve people, other times it’s eight – and then we call them in for a face-to-face interview. We decide the recipient from that.

And you know the names of so many of these panelists: EllaRose Chary,  Nikka Graff Lanzarone John Margulis, Eric Cornell, Andy Sandberg, Shea Sullivan, Nadav Weisel, Clara Luthas, Mary Sedarat, for the preview panels, and then the final panels have been Natasha Sinha, Rachel Sussman, Michael-John LaChiusa, Mindy Dickstein, Polly Pen, Cesar Alvarez, Kirsten Childs, Kirsten Sanderson, – so we are blessed to work with many prominent people in the New York City musical world –

The current It Girls! And Boys.


So one panel does the submissions and reads everything, and then the final panel interviews them?

Yeah, but there’s overlap. 

Is it a similar process for the Liz Swados Grant?

That’s different, on that we’ve had Kati Koener, Phil Soltanoff, Maggie Koozer, Aliczia Greenberg, myself – Sarah Taylor Ellis was on the original panel before she moved to London.

With the Swados Grant, we ask for a resume and teacher’s statement, artistic statement, and then two letters of recommendation: one from a colleague and one from a student.

Oh, I love that!

It’s amazing. And then what they do with the $5,000 – this is the same with the Billie Burke Award – we’re not giving the funds to a project, we’re giving it to you, to the woman. We need to see that you have a vision and that you will use the money for smart things. To help your career and art, but we’re not giving it to that, we’re giving it to you. We like to know what your projects are and what you’re excited about, like Medina, Rona’s new show, but the money’s for Rona and not the show. We need to see when we interview the person or read their statements that they know how to spend the money. This is a seed to grow artistic endeavors. So when we interview and we read statements and we get letters of recommendation for the Swados Grant and people say, she’s working so hard on this idea and if only she could make this happen –

So that’s it.

Do you have any advice for future applicants?

People ask me, what’s your advice, what should I do, and I say, you’re doing great, be yourself and keep doing it. The thing is, it’s so hard to choose. We get so many good applications and the truth is I wish we could give five awards a year because giving only one is going to turn the tide – I’m sorry – a bit slowly

So the only advice is to still love us if we don’t give it to you.  I can name twenty other women who should have it right now because they’re so good, but right now we can only give one a year. And we vote, and it’s a fair vote, and when we’re in the room down to three or four people, it’s a matter of the committee and trusting the committee’s vote on who it goes to.

What do you see for the future of the organization?

I feel very strongly about fundraising, and I would like a couple more very strong people on my board. I really do feel like we have formed a Club now, we are a sisterhood in 2020 that is very strong. I think Billie Burke and Ziegfeld would love what we’re doing, and they would love Rona and they would love the people that we’ve awarded. Our board is great, but I would love to have a few more people that can open more doors for us and help us give even more. I would like to establish other awards for female choreographers and directors, but from the numbers I see and the applications I read – and I’ve read hundreds – female composers of musical theatre are still the key cause we have to raise money for. I would love to be able to give five a year for five years, and then I think we’ll have turned the tide. And we are turning it with Shaina and with Anna and with Masi and with Julianne and with Rona. They’re working so hard and they’re making a difference. But if we could give more a year, I think we’ll really push through. That’s me.


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