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Elsie Janis



Florenz Ziegfeld considered Elsie Janis a consummate stage talent: an impressionist of clairvoyant ability, a song lyricist who combined wit with sentiment, an actress of immense dynamism, a vibrant solo dancer, and a singer who could project to the gallery. He also considered her burdened with a stage mother who made the Kaiser look like a parish deacon.

Liz Bierboner channeled all of her titanic ambition into her daughter Elsie, training her to command the stage while still in elementary school. Coach, manager, chaperone, personal svengali, Mrs. Bierboner made Elsie a vaudeville headliner by her teens, the great child impressionist of the turn of the century. When the Gibson Girl reigned as the image of the allure, Mrs. Beirboner cinched Elsie's waist, padded her chest, and had her hair put up in a chignon. When suffragette girls were the rage of the stage, Ma secured her the lead in "The Vanderbilt Cup" so she could appear to drive fast machines and win the big race disguised as a guy. When Irene Castle made the slender silhouette the rage, Ma remade Elsie as "The Slim Princess."

Elsie on her own was companionable, hard-working, and wittily intelligent, qualities that only came to the fore when she assembled her "gang" for a Broadway Revue on the eve of World War I. Ziegfeld hired her for the ill-starred "Miss 1917." During the War, she became a beloved figure for her tireless touring of the front, entertaining the American Expeditionary Force, who adopted her as their "Sweetheart." Until her death in 1956, Elsie Janis viewed her wartime experiences the pinnacle of her career.

After the armistice, she returned to Broadway, appeared regularly in Revues, including the Follies, supplied lyrics for Jerome Kern, penned uncredited scripts for motion pictures, and wrote most of the songs for "Paramount on Parade." Throughout her life she maintained a connection with her hometown of Columbus, Ohio. After her mother's death, Elsie married, and enjoyed a life enlivened by the enduring affection of the many friends she made on the stage and in song-writing circles. David S. Shields/ALS