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When you see jazz hands, you think Bob Fosse. Fosse understood the power of an isolated movement; the tacit command of a shoulder slump, flick of a wrist, or jut of a hip.
Dancer, choreographer, screenwriter, film director, and actor Bob Fosse died on September 23, 1987, he was 60 years old. (On June 23, he would have been 90.) To this day, his distinctive style continues to thrive via stage, screen, and film.
The Newberry’s Ann Barzel Dance Research Collection documents dance history of Chicago and across the world. Ann Barzel (1905-2007) collected dance memorabilia throughout her career as a dance teacher, critic, and historian. Her insights are reflected especially in her collection of Fosse memorabilia: highlights include press releases, photographs, and her personal notes from a 1959 interview with Fosse in which she scribbled that the best “way to learn is to perform.”
Barzel first met Fosse as a young student at the Marguerite-Commerford Dancing School at Ashland and Montrose avenuse in Chicago. Ann was asked by Miss Commerford to show her ballet films to the class. Barzel recalled this first meeting in a1988 Dance Magazine article: “As in most dance schools, there were a few male students, and most dropped out at the ripe age of ten or eleven…Marguerite had two youngsters who showed talent and they hung on until their teens.” The two students were Charles Grass and Robert Fosse. Together, Grass and Fosse formed the dancing team the Riff Brothers.
Influenced by Fred Weaver, husband of Commerford and trained vaudevillian dancer, the Riff Brothers performed in theaters all over Chicago. As a teen, Bob spent his days as a student at Amundson High School, his nights in the city’s underbelly performing in sleazy smoke-filled clubs and strip joints. These early performances influenced his choreography, film career, and personal life.
Barzel’s clipping files provide a timeline of Fosse’s hits, misses, and enduring legacy. One clipping shows his Best Director Oscar win in 1973 for the film Cabaret, files record his Tony for both directing and choreographing the musical Pippin, and Barzel noted an Emmy for the television production of Liza with a Z starring Liza Minelli.
Barzel’s records of Fosse’s career also include some failures, like his 1986 and final production, The Big Deal. Though nominated for five Tony awards and winning for best choreography, the show was panned by critics and closed within a scant two months of opening.
Fosse never slowed down during his lifetime, and his legacy seems to match his pace. His work left an outsize impact on the art of dance. In the 30 years since his death, his artistic genius continues to thrive and captivate new audiences through countless revivals of his works and imitations of his infamous style.
As Barzel noted in a 1959 article for the Chicago American, “Bob Fosse’s immediate future seems assured and busy. He has two musicals to direct and choreograph. Hollywood too is beckoning…all this is major league for the boy who came from a minor league dancing school on Chicago’s north side.”
By Jo Ellen McKillop Dickie, Reference Librarian