Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Putting On The Ritz

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 8, 2011

Whether you think of Gene Wilder (as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein) and Peter Boyle (as the loveable Frankenstein monster) in Mel Brooks 1974 movie, “Young Frankenstein” or Clark Gable’s song and dance routine in the 1939 movie,  “Idiot’s Delight” almost everyone has a swanky notion of what it means to be “putting on the Ritz.”

The expression “putting on the Ritz” means that an individual is doing something in very grand style. The Ritz of the phrase refers to the very elegant Ritz hotels built by the Swiss hotelier, César Ritz (1850-1918) “hotelier to Kings and King of hoteliers.”

The song “Puttin’ on the Ritz” was written and published in 1929 by Irving Berlin and was used in the Harry Richman 1930 musical film Puttin’ on the Ritz.  It was recorded by Harry Richman and Fred Astaire.  Over the years, the lyrics have been re-written to keep up with the times and/or to be politically correct as follows:

Original: Spangled gowns upon the bevy of high browns from down the levee, all misfits
Revised: Different types who wear a day coat, pants with stripes and cut away coat, perfect fits

Original: That’s where each and ev’ry Lulu-Belle goes, ev’ry Thursday evening with her swell beaus
Revised: Dressed up like a million dollar trooper, trying hard to look like Gary Cooper

Original: Come with me and we’ll attend the jubilee, and see them spend their last two bits
Revised: Come, let’s mix where Rockerfellers walk with sticks, or umber-ellas in their mitts

The original lyrics referenced well-dressed but poor black Harlemites who would parade up and down Lenox Avenue. When Irving Berlin revised the lyrics, the reference changed to one about affluent whites strutting “up and down Park Avenue“.

That being said, the phrase was in use before the song was written.  On June 7, 1920 the Pittsburgh Press published an article entitled, “Convention Jazz by ‘Bugs’ Bear” where the following was reported:

The works are set pretty for tomorrow’s blow-off.  All the candidates are measuring ’emselves for that celestial mansion in the seventh political heaven at Washington.  Gen. Wood is stepping around putting on the Ritz but hasn’t got any  more chance than a sore toe in a Marathon.  Illinois is Lowden’s pond, but a frog is still a frog, whether he is big or little.  It looks as if it is Hiram Johnson’s kick at the cat.

And the New York Times published the following article on June 10, 1925 in the Sports Section:

He injured his foot the other day and the reason he isn’t wearing a cane is because he is afraid the other players will accuse him of putting on the Ritz. Captain Frank Frisch was out on the coaching lines for the first time since his finger was broken and exercising every day.

Overlooking Green Park in London, the Ritz London opened to the public in Piccadilly on May 24th, 1906.  Eight years earlier, in the heart of Paris, the Ritz Paris opened on June 1, 1898.  The term “ritzy” comes from the high standards set in the Ritz hotels.

It’s easy to see how going out in fine fashion would soon become known as “putting on the Ritz.”

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