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Encyclopedia Dubuque


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Joe Frisco became a popular Hollywood star.
FRISCO, Joe. (Milan, IL, Nov. 4, 1889--Hollywood, CA, Feb. 12, 1958). Joe "Frisco" Rooney was the stage name of a former Dubuque resident named Louis Joseph. (1) It was claimed that his nickname "Frisco" came from a westbound box car. (2) Working as a bellhop at the BIJOU ANNEX HOTEL, Frisco often met vaudeville players. To catch attention, he often tap-danced in front of the GRAND THEATRE during the early 1900s. (3)

Joe was barely into adolescence when he hit the road, hopping a freight train and winding up in Milwaukee. He was part of an act called "Coffee and Doughnuts." Frisco performed with some of the first jazz bands in Chicago and New York City, including Tom Brown's Band from Dixieland, the Original Dixieland Jass Band, and the Louisiana Five. (4) According to Variety editor Abel Green, Frisco introduced the first "jazz dance" at Chicago's Green Mill Garden. (5) He claimed his “Frisco dance” or “Jewish Charleston” became the most widely imitated dance in the country. (6) Another crowd favorite called for Frisco, wearing a derby hat and smoking a large cigar, to stop dancing at the front the stage. While the music continued, he would twirl the derby sending it rolling along one arm and down the other while frantically puffing perfect smoke rings until be resumed dancing. This was called "The Frisco Shuffle." (7)

The great American novelist, F. Scott Fitzgerald, mentioned him in The Great Gatsby when describing one of Jay Gatsby's parties: (8)

            "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.

In 1918, he broke into Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolic, which he continued to play, along with the Follies, Earl Carol’s Vanities, and Big Time vaudeville into the early 1930s. (9) One of the highlights of this act was the dialogue he began to introduce. Despite the stuttering (or perhaps because of it), he developed a reputation as a great wit. (10)
         Once, when Bert Lahr was bragging at the Friar’s Club about 
         taking numerous curtain calls after a show in Kansas City 
         (a town notorious 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!”
         On another occasion, while waiting in the wings at a benefit 
         show he found himself standing next to Enrico Caruso, the great 
         opera singer. He turned to the famous tenor and said, “Hey, 
         Caruso, don’t do ‘Darktown Strutters Ball’. That’s my number 
                              and I follow you.” 
         One of his remarks, “Don’t applaud, folks, just throw money” 
         continues to be used by comedians.

In the 1920s, Joe Frisco played the major vaudeville houses and in the 1930s, the top restaurant clubs. He developed celebrity status in vaudeville and later MOTION PICTURES by making the most of his pronounced stutter and his flashy jazz dancing. In the 1940s, he moved to Hollywood. (11) The "Darktown Strutters' Ball" became Joe Frisco's theme. Orchestras were known to start playing the tune as he entered a restaurant. This was revived in the film "Atlantic City" in 1944, in a nightclub scene recreating Ziegfelds Follies. (12) In 1932 Frisco earned an estimated $4,000 weekly while making the movie The Gorilla. He last appeared in Sweet Smell of Success in 1957 with Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis.

1920 advertisement. Photo courtesy: Telegraph Herald
Frisco returned to Iowa several times with a group of entertainers to appear at the Dells of Durango under the sponsorship of the DUBUQUE CLUB. The first night of the two night engagement was reserved for Club members and their guests. The second night was open Club members and the general public. (13)

Despite his salary, Frisco's overdue bills, bets at the track, and income tax troubles were well known among his friends in the film industry. He owned one of the first portable radios which was always turned on so that he could hear racing results. (14) Although needing frequent loans from those he knew, an estimated twelve hundred well-wishers attended a testimonial dinner in his honor just weeks before his death. Addicted to gambling, he died penniless. (15)

Films: (16)

1930 - The Song Plugger (Vitaphone)

1930 - The Hottentots

1930 - The Border Patrol

1930 - The Benefit

1931 - The Gorilla

1933 - Mr. Broadway (himself)

1938 - Western Jamboree (Frisco)

1940 - Ride, Tenderfoot, Ride

1944 - Atlantic City

1945 - Shady Lady

1946 - That's My Man

1950 - Riding High (himself)

1957 - Sweet Smell of Success [ DVD]





1. Sonny Watson's Sweetswing.com, http://www.streetswing.com/histmai2/d2frisc1.htm

2. "Story of Frisco's Debut is Written," Telegraph-Herald, January 10, 1927, p. 2

3. Lowry, Ed; Charlie Foy; Paul M. Levitt, Joe Frisco: Comic, Jazz Dancer, and Railbird, SIU Press, 1999, p. 12

4. "Mae West: Joe Frisco," http://maewest.blogspot.com/2011/02/mae-west-joe-frisco.html

5. "'Had a Good Day at the Track, Managed to Get a Ride Home,'" Telegraph Herald, August 21, 1960, p. 17

6. "Mae West..."

7. Tigges, John. They Came From Dubuque. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 1983, p. 71

8. "Mae West: Joe Frisco."

9. "Marxology-Joe Frisco," http://www.marx-brothers.org/marxology/frisco.htm

10. "Joe Frisco," American Vaudeville Museum, http://www.vaudeville.org/profiles_A_H/index_files/Page375.htm

11. "Marxology-Joe Frisco"

12. Ibid.

13. "Frisco Will Be Here Two Days," Telegraph-Herald, April 15, 1936, p. 16

14. "'Had a Good Day at the Track..."

15. "Mae West: Joe Frisco," http://maewest.blogspot.com/2011/02/mae-west-joe-frisco.html

16. Sonny Watson's Sweetswing.com, http://www.streetswing.com/histmai2/d2frisc1.htm