Suddenly one of these gypsies, in trembling opal, seizes a cocktail out of the air, dumps it down for courage and, moving her hands like Frisco, dances out alone on the canvas platform.
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
If you are like this author, when you first encountered the preceding passage in your assigned high school reading you shrugged it off as some arcane reference to the city of San Francisco, and moved on. Thank God you’ve got me to clear up your misconceptions! Joe Frisco (1889-1958) was not only vaudeville’s most imitated dancer (after the Castles had passed from the scene), he was also its most quoted off-stage wit – far more so than any other person in these annals. One of his remarks, “Don’t applaud, folks, just throw money” has truly become public property, used by every twelve year old ham the first time they steal a spotlight. (How do you like that?) To make matters more truly American, let it be known that vaudeville’s own Oscar Wilde was also a functional illiterate with a stuttering problem.
His real name was Louis Joseph and he grew up on an Iowa farm. Legend has it that he was descended from Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz-Josef – an interesting lineage for someone who took his stage name off the side of a box car. His mother had been in English panto, and it was she who taught him to dance from the age of seven. Before long he was dancing Lancashire clogs and soft shoes outside of Dubuque theatres. His father, who was determined to see his son succeed at being a plow-boy, ridiculed his stutter and threw his tap shoes in the stove.
Joe was barely into adolescence when he hit the road, hopping a freight train and winding up in Milwaukee where he was part of an act called Coffee and Doughnuts. (Joe was Doughnuts). From there, he moved up to Chicago, a much larger city with more opportunities. He obtained a job as a Western Union messenger boy, which helped him to network with theatre people. On a delivery to a dance studio he met a young hoofer named Loretta McDermott. The two hit it off, and, as was common in vaudeville, she became his paramour and partner.
In a New Orleans night club one evening, they heard their first jazz. Inspired by the crazy crash of improvised sounds, they did what any spontaneous young dancers would do on the dance floor – threw out their own crazy moves to match the music. This brought the house down, so they built an act around it. In 1915, Joe hired the Dixieland Five to come back to Chicago with them to accompany them. This makes Frisco a crucial figure in the history of jazz, too, for he was among the first to bring the intoxicating new music to the attention of mainstream audiences in the north. Frisco’s success brought a whole stampede of jazz quintets to the Big Time stage, hired to back up the likes of Blossom Seeley, Sophie Tucker, Mae West and dozens of others.
When Joe found McDermott playing around with the band’s singer, he left the lucrative scene in Chicago for stardom in New York. He claimed to be the “World’s First Jazz Dancer”, and “the Frisco dance” or “Frisco shuffle” became the most widely imitated dance in the country. A picture of Frisco, once formed, is indelible: in a sharp business suit, with a derby and spats, a cigar in his mouth, he performs a compulsive series of motions, pelvic thrusts, bunny hops, and contortions, all the while playing with the derby and cigar as props. Decades later, Bob Fosse was to cop much of his vocabulary from the Frisco lexicon.
In 1917, he broke into Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolic, which he continued to play, along with the Follies, Earl Carroll’s Vanities, and of course Big Time vaudeville into the early 30s. One of the highlights of this act was the patter he began to introduce in the teens. Despite the stuttering (or perhaps because of it) he developed a reputation as a great wit, and he began to let audiences know it.
There is a deflating pragmatism to Frisco’s wit that makes it peculiarly American. Once, when Bert Lahr was bragging at the Friar’s Club about taking numerous curtain calls after a show in Kansas City (a town notoroius for its unresponsive audiences), Lahr wrapped up his story with an offer to buy the drinks:
“What would you like, Joe?”
“I’d l-l-like to see your act, you bastard!”
On another occasion, while waiting in the wings at a benefit show for found himself standing next to Enrico Caruso. He turned to the famous tenor and said, “Hey, Caruso, don’t do ‘Darktown Strutters Ball’. That’s my number and I follow you.”
Once, when a man tried to sell him a copy of “The Last Supper” for $250, Frisco replied “I’ll give you t-t-ten dollars a plate.”
In later years, when the vaudeville work dried up, he restricted himself to performing at his room-mate and best friend Charley Foy’s Los Angeles nightclub. When not dancing or gambling at the race track, Frisco was performing in films, such as the 1944 Atlantic City or, his last one, The Sweet Smell of Success (1957). One of the best places to see him nowadays is in the 1930 Vitaphone short The Happy Hottentots, much cherished as a hilarious love poem to vaudeville. He passed away in 1958.
To learn more about vaudeville and the legendary Joe Frisco, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.