Wherever there is
a gathering of old vaudevillians and horse-players—the terms are often
synonymous—the talk will turn sooner or later to reminiscence of Joe Frisco.
And once it has started, there is no stopping the flow of anecdote, for
scarcely a soul in show business exists who hasn't a favorite tale about the
man who lost more bets and made more friends than any other 50 railbirds.
time Joe came into the Derby with money dripping out of all his pockets after
hitting that long shot at Santa Anita?" someone will begin. "Oh boy, do
I?" someone else will add. "That was the day he ran into Crosby and
offered him a sawbuck for two quick choruses of White Christmas." "But
the real payoff," a third party will hasten to explain, "was that
Frisco was stony broke that morning and hit the Groaner for a C-note, then bet
the whole bundle on this nag."
didn't care," the first narrator will say, "everybody knew that when
Frisco made a touch it was just to play some hunch. If he lost, you lost. If he
won, boy, everybody was ace high till the next race."
Born Louis Wilson
Josephs, the son of a hog-medicine salesman from Rock Island, Ill., the wispy,
whimsical little man known as Joe Frisco was an entertainer's entertainer from
the first. An appreciative crowd of pros at Lindy's or The Lambs was the kind
of audience he loved the best, and as far as money was concerned Joe always
felt that some bookie would get it sooner or later, so why worry? Whether he
was heading the bill on Keith time in his great days or filling in for peanuts
at Charley Foy's Supper Club in L.A. in his leaner years, whatever Joe got, he
promptly turned in at the pari-mutuel windows, invariably betting a long shot
to win. He rarely won and hence was in constant trouble with bill collectors,
room clerks and the agents of the federal income tax bureau.
Joe never minded
too much. A perennial fall guy with an instinctive wry appreciation of his
tragicomic role in life, he would explain his troubles in the gentle stammer
that became his trademark and even offer to take on those of others. Once,
after patiently explaining to the income tax men why he couldn't pay the $4,000
or so they said he owed them, Joe spotted an old friend waiting in the tax
office. "He's a g-good g-g-guy," Joe confidentially told the treasury
man. "Whatever he owes, p-p-put on my t-tab."
Nobody knows for
sure by now which of the thousands of stories told about Joe are true and which
have merely clung to him as legends cling to all great heroes. It is at least a
six-two-and-even shot that he was the original of the railbird who touted a
friend on five "sure winners" only to have them all finish well out of
the money. Joe would have had an answer to that just as the tout did when his
friend approached angrily at the start of the sixth race. "G-g-get away
from me," he would have cried. "You've been b-b-bad luck to m-m-me all
Bad luck, like
his stammer, was Joe Frisco's trademark. It made him a host of friends, and it
pursued him right to the end in the Hollywood hospital where he lay last year
forced to play out what he called "the Big Casino"—Joe's phrase for an
incurable cancer. "It ain't that I really mind," he explained to
friends. "It's just that right now I got a line on some real good things
going at Santa Anita."
Joe Frisco never
got on to those good things at Santa Anita, and maybe that's a good thing too.
But Joe's friends in Hollywood are determined that his memory will live on at
one of the tracks where he dropped his biggest pile. The membership of the
Masquers, a kind of West Coast chapter of The Lambs, are setting up a bronze
statue of Joe Frisco in the paddock at Del Mar in time for the August season
next year. Most of the contributors to the fund for this work of art are famed
Hollywood and Broadway characters, but at least one of them prefers to hide his
gift under a cloak of anonymity. He is a bookie who carried Joe Frisco on the
cuff for five years.
The Old Man and
The old man was
pushing 80. He sat in Box 13 at County Stadium and shook from the cold wind
which blew through Milwaukee, through his thin topcoat, raised dust-devils on
the base paths. The old man had first seen a World Series in 1906 and had
watched 35 since then, but he had never had a seat like this one in the
Commissioner's box with the bunting on the railing and the catcher's backside
hardly a good spit away.