Joe Frisco was an American vaudeville performer who first made his name on stage as a jazz dancer, but later incorporated his stuttering voice to his act and became a popular comedian.
Born Louis Wilson Joseph (Milan, Illinois, November 4, 1889). In the mid and late 1910s he 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. He made his Broadway debut in the Florenz Ziegfeld Follies in 1918. Frisco was a mainstay on the vaudeville circuit in the 1920s and 1930s.
His popular jazz dance act (called by some the “Jewish Charleston”) was a choreographed series of shuffles, camel walks and turns. It was usually performed to Darktown Strutters’ Ball. It, or at least a minute or so of it, can be seen in the film Atlantic City (1944). He typically wore a derby hat, and had a king-sized cigar in his mouth as he danced. He often performed in front of a backing danceline of beautiful women wearing leotards, short jackets and bowler hats—and “puffing” on big prop cigars.
Frisco was a compulsive gambler and spent many afternoons while in New York City at the track with actor Jay C. Flippen, playwright Jerry Devine, actor Martin Gabel (husband of Arlene Francis) and Danny Lavezzo (owner of P. J. Clarke's), and when he began to incorporate stand-up comedy into his act, his humor revolved on tales about his bad luck gambling, speakeasies, and his constant state of debt.
Frisco stuttered, but could recite scripted dialogue without impairment. His 1930 comedy short The Happy Hottentots shows Frisco as a snappy vaudevillian, without any speech impediment at all. He soon became known for his witty off-stage remarks, made in a stammering voice: “After they made that guy, th-th-they threw away the sh-sh-shovel!”
Many vaudevillians traveled with animals that were included in their routines. While in New York, Frisco called down to the front desk of a hotel and said, "The smell in my room is t-e-r-r-i-b-l-e, my g-g-goat can't s-s-sleep." The concierge replied, "Try opening the window." Frisco answered, "What? And let my p-p-pigeons out?"
Perhaps his most famous line was uttered while in a New York hotel. The room clerk called and said, "Mr. Frisco, we understand you have a young lady in your room." Frisco replied, "T-t-t-then send up another G-g-gideon B-b-bible, please."
In the 1940s, he moved to Hollywood, made appearances in several low-budget and otherwise forgettable movies. According to the American Vaudeville Museum, later in Frisco’s career, bookies and IRS agents lined up outside the paymaster’s door at theaters where Frisco was performing in order to collect on their debts.
- Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
- Riding High (1950)
- That's My Man (1947)
- Shady Lady (1945)
- Atlantic City (1944)
- Ride, Tenderfoot, Ride (1940)
- Western Jamboree (1938)
- The Gorilla (1930)
- The Benefit (1930)
- The Border Patrol (1930)
- The Happy Hottentots (1930)
- The Song Plugger (1930)
- He was so well known for his jazz dance that writer F. Scott Fitzgerald makes reference to him in The Great Gatsby when he describes how an actress at one of Gatsby's parties starts the revelry: "Suddenly one of the 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." The Great Gatsby, chapter 3.
- He was friendly with Bing Crosby who constantly gave him money.
- He was illiterate.
- Many believe he was reincarnated in 1958, the year of his death, into the personage of author-songwriter Paul Zollo who has spoken and written at length about his connection with Frisco.
Joe Frisco: Comic, Jazz Dancer, and Railbird, by Ed Lowry, Charlie Foy, Paul M. Levitt (1999), (ISBN 978-0-8093-2241-1)