‘The first thing you know, I was doing my acrobatics with the violin.’
Jean Reese danced through 46 states, Canada and Mexico when she was a young woman. Trained as a dancer and musician, she discovered a novel way to combine her agility and her skill at playing the violin. She now teaches dance in Canoga Park.
My father named me Jean Jul Jennie Josephine June Jemiolo after every person in the family ith a name starting with J who had passed away. I just use Jean with a middle initial, J.
My father gave me a good education. I studied piano, violin and how to write orchestration. I also took dancing lessons. When I was 10, I won amateur shows they had in our neighborhood in Chicago. In Depression days, if you won $3 or $5, that was a lot of money.
We had a relative who owned a bar. Every time they had a wedding party or a christening party, he would ask my father to bring me over. They’d ask me to dance, and they’d throw money on the floor. To come home with $40 for that one night was a lot of money for 1933 and ’34. That was more than my dad was making in a week. During the Depression there was not a week that I didn’t do a show someplace--for the Masons, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Shrine. My mother would see that I had the time to go. Some of it was paid, some of it was not. She just took me because it was experience and I liked it.
In 1939 I was part of a six-girl tumbling act. We worked county fairs, state fairs, things of that type. It was frightening being away from home for the first time. I was 15 years old. I was out for about two weeks working in South Bend, Ind. I was homesick and ready to go home. In the audience was one of the boys who had taken classes with us. He was attending Notre Dame. He came back to me, and we chatted. He said, “Take two more weeks. If you feel the same after two weeks, then give your notice.” So I waited two weeks and changed my mind. I just got used to traveling and being away from my parents.
When we worked county fairs, we stayed in homes, because the little towns didn’t have hotels. In a house in Illinois, this little old lady had beautiful little antique glasses on her windows. She gave me a very pretty little antique dish. I still have it and cherish it.
I went on the road with a vaudeville act when I was 17. I worked with a band in a three-girl acrobatic group. We were one of the last shows that played in many theaters. I did tap, ballet and acrobatics. My father made me take my violin with me because he said I spent all those years learning and he didn’t want it to go to waste. One day the accordionist got me to play the finale with her, so I thought it would be nice if I danced with it. So, the first thing you know, I was doing my acrobatics with the violin.
I was booked as the Phantom Violinist. I came out in the dark with the violin wrapped in my gown. It was painted fluorescent. Then I would turn around and start to play. When the lights went up, I finished playing the song. Then I stripped off the gown and went into a fast ballet and acrobatic dance, all with the violin. I did flips that gymnasts do today without their hands while I was playing the violin.
After nine months in vaudeville I joined a USO camp show. The war was on. One day we did 45 shows going from one ward to another. Once we were performing in a handball court. The walls, floors and ceiling were all white. My first trick was to come out and do as many flips as I could across the room. I couldn’t tell the difference when I was getting close to the walls, and splat --right into the wall I went. It was a shock to me and to the audience.
Sometimes the shows were out on bivouac. When Bob Hope came to a camp, they would set up a big stage, but we might be out in the desert where they’d set up a portable stage on two tables or the back of a truck. We had just five people in our unit.
Every dancer’s dream is to go out and work in front of a live audience. Today, when I teach, I look at my children and I hope that they can all have at least a few years of performing.