Joe Frisco: The First Jazz Dancer by Barbara Quintana-Bernal

Joe Frisco strikes a characteristic pose in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1918. From the University of Arizona School of Anthropology Vaudeville Collection.

Joe “Frisco” Rooney, was born as Louis Joseph in Milan, Illinois in 1889, and died in Woodland Hills, California in 1958. Joe was not one of the most famous entertainers or dancers in American History, but most of his legacy was left as stories from other show people across the country. Joe Frisco was basically a talented dancer and comedian. He was thought to be the first to dance with jazz music and the one to coin the line used by many young comedians: “Don’t applaud, folks; just throw money”. In his later career, Frisco appeared in many films, but, they made little impact and Joe Frisco’s memory faded with time (American Vaudeville Museum, 1998-2012).

Frisco was raised in an Iowa farm where his mother taught him to dance, but his father would shame him for his stutter and make him do chores around the farm (Cullen, Hackman, & McNeilly, 2007). Despite his father’s attempts to keep him at the farm and stop him from dancing, Joe left home in his early teens for Milwaukee (Stars of Vaudeville, 2010). During the 1900s, before moving definitively to Milwaukee, Joe Frisco would dance in front of the Grand Opera House in Dubuque, Iowa, hoping someone would notice him (Lowry, Foy, & Levitt, 1999). He would later perform in Chicago, alongside Loretta McDermott, to the music from the Dixieland Five. Their first performance was in 1915 (Stars of Vaudeville, 2010). From these performances, Frisco’s signature dance was born, known as the Jewish Charleston, or Frisco Shuffle, one of the most imitated dances of that time. Joe and Loretta first came up with this type of dance in New Orleans, while listening to a band playing jazz music, and this is when Frisco first used his signature phrase (Cullen, Hackman, & McNeilly, 2007). The dance consisted of a series of shuffles and contortions, along with Joe using his derby hat and cigar as props, to the rhythm of jazz, creating the first jazz dance (Stars of Vaudeville, 2010). Due to his eccentric dancing skills, Joe was hired as a dance coach and back-up for other great performers, like Mae West (Mae West: Joe Frisco, 2011). He was also mentioned in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel “The Great Gatsby” during one of Gatsby’s parties when a girl began to dance.

Andrew Erdman in Blue Vaudeville (Erdman, 2004) describes a series of vaudeville concepts, some of which grew out of characteristics in Joe Frisco’s life. When Joe Frisco moved to New York in 1917 and appeared in his first Broadway performance, the Ziegfeld Follies of 1918 (Mae West: Joe Frisco, 2011), he started to add his stutter and dead pan expression to performances, becoming a great comedian both on and off the stage (Lowry, Foy, & Levitt, 1999) and his act attracted great attention, allowing him to bill himself as “Star, Ziegfeld Follies”. He became known for his expressionless delivery of comedy and for his stutter and he never added any beautiful girls to his act to attract the audience’s attention. Joe always dressed in a suit, sporting his signature derby hat and cigar (Stars of Vaudeville, 2010). Frisco’s dress along with his deadpan expression, arching of his back, odd posture balancing on one foot with his toe jutting out, and a forward tilt he gave to his hat added character to his comedy, and humor to his dancing (Lowry, Foy, & Levitt, 1999).

Joe Frisco would often waste the money he earned betting on horses, which kept him in debt until the day he died in 1958, despite his earning thousands of dollars each week (Cullen, Hackman, & McNeilly, 2007). He spent most of his time at race tracks, and he had more time to do this after the decline of vaudeville began in the 1930s. As Joe’s career began to fall, he would only perform at night clubs owned by his friends (FRISCO, Joe, 2015). Frisco also made some appearances in films; however, they were not memorable and Frisco’s career began to fade (American Vaudeville Museum, 1998-2012). His last film performance was in Sweet Smell of Success (1957), one year before his death (Stars of Vaudeville, 2010).

Though little information is known about Joe Frisco today, he left a great imprint in entertainment history. From his eccentric jazz dancing to his witty comedy, deadpan and stutter, Joe Frisco was a unique performer.


Bibliography

American Vaudeville Museum. (1998-2012). Retrieved from Vaudeville website: http://www.vaudeville.org/profiles_A_H/index_files/Page375.htm

Cullen, F., Hackman, F., & McNeilly, D. (2007). Vaudeville Old & New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America, Volume 1. New York: Psychology Press: Routledge.

Erdman, A. L. (2004). Blue Vaudeville: Sex, Morals and the Mass Marketing of Amusement, 1895-1915. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc.

FRISCO, Joe. (2015, November 28). Retrieved from Encyclopedia Dubuque: http://www.encyclopediadubuque.org/index.php?title=FRISCO%2C_Joe

Lowry, E., Foy, C., & Levitt, M. P. (1999). Joe Frisco: Comic, Jazz Dancer, and Railbird. Carbondale: SIU Press.

Mae West: Joe Frisco. (2011, February 12). Retrieved from Blogspot: http://maewest.blogspot.com/2011/02/mae-west-joe-frisco.html

Stars of Vaudeville. (2010, March 5). Retrieved from Word Press: https://travsd.wordpress.com/2010/03/05/stars-olf-vaudeville-127-joe-frisco/

Name: Frisco
Topics: Dancers