Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Scandalously Fabulous Joan Sawyer

When Jack and Blanca divorced in 1916, the grounds were that he had cheated on her. The “other woman” was a successful Broadway dancer named Joan Sawyer.

From about 1914 to 1918, Joan Sawyer was one of the country's most popular and successful dance stars. Her main competitors were the dance team of Vernon & Irene Castle who promoted their wholesome image as a married couple. Joan Sawyer – a single, unmarried woman – went through dance partners like satin shoes.

As a self-reliant business woman, she managed a New York nightclub called “Joan Sawyer's Persian Garden” and her business manager was also a woman. She marketed herself to a general audience beyond the vaudeville theater goers. She made records on the early Columbia label and published sheet music with instructions on how to dance her versions of the fox-trot, the waltz, or the maxixe heel step.

Sawyer used her fame to promote the cause of women's suffrage (the right to vote) though ironically her business manager Jeanette Gilder was anti-suffrage.

Pushing the envelope, Sawyer employed black musicians at her nightclub, calling them her “Persian Garden Orchestra” and would not perform without them. Under the direction of Dan Kildare (of the Clef Club) and later Seth Weeks, the orchestra earned rave reviews wherever they played. Sawyer's role in sponsoring talented black musicians in these early days of ragtime and jazz is mostly forgotten.

Sawyer is mostly remembered for being the one who gave silent film star Rudolph Valentino his first break into show business. Sawyer and Valentino danced on stage in New York, Philadelphia, and once did a performance for President Woodrow Wilson. Valentino left New York to pursue a career in silent films. On his job application to the Hollywood studios, he wrote that he was tired of ballroom dancing.

Joan Sawyer also tried getting into films when exhibition dancing fell out of fashion during the First World War, but her movie career fizzled. Eventually, she faded away into obscurity.

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