Of all the stars of the iron game and the other celebrities that I’ve met in my 77 years, Joe “the Great” Rollino stands out as the most amicable, genuine and utterly amazing. At age 103, he has total recall of names, dates, venues, poundages and events of every important person in the iron game during the last century. He is truly a walking encyclopedia. Just mention anyone involved in strength feats and other sports from the past, and without a second’s hesitation he can relate fascinating stories about that person. I’ve now coined a phrase that I use every time I can’t remember something: “Joe would know.”
Even the very young who are involved in any aspect of the strength sports are mesmerized as they listen to every word he so willingly shares with his fans. They wait patiently for a handshake and for a photograph with a truly amazing man. To do justice to his incredible life would be comparable to engraving the entire Bible on the head of a pin.
As someone once wrote, “Joe looks at least 20 years younger, acts at least 40 younger and thinks 60 years younger than his age.” That’s an understatement.
Joe’s father, Bruno (1860–1940), emigrated to the United States from Austria and was a great strongman in his own right. He stood 6’2” and weighed about 300 pounds. His diminutive mother, Clara, at 5’2”, weighed 120 pounds and “had arms like iron, carrying logs, wielding an ax and holding up her end on a two-man saw.”
Joe, born in Brooklyn, New York, on March 19, 1905, was the middle of 14 children. His nine brothers all stood over 6’ like his dad. Joe inherited his strength and height from his mother. He reveals that he had a rough childhood and that the family often had little to eat. Upon his mother’s advice, Joe never ate meat, never smoked, never consumed alcohol.
At the tender age of five, Joe began to lift some of his father’s dumbbells. Bruno noticed Joe’s interest and strength and determined to find an able strength-training teacher for his son. When Joe was 10 years old, weighing 68 pounds, they went to Coney Island to meet Warren Lincoln Travis, the most renowned strongman of the era, who could lift across his back 10 men standing on a plank.
Travis, however, was doubtful about the small child’s strength until Joe lifted one of the 250-pound dumbbells off the ground five times in succession. Joe quit school, and Travis took him on as an apprentice, working with him for the next 23 years, until Joe entered military service.
The two became so close that Travis actually wanted to adopt the boy. Of course, that wasn’t acceptable to Joe’s parents. Together they traveled the country and abroad as Travis taught Joe how to train and perform onstage, as well as other invaluable skills, including self-confidence and perseverance.
By age 12, Joe was part of Travis’ vaudeville act, bending a six-inch spike with his hands. Then, with his teeth and neck, he’d bend one back and forth until it broke in two. Joe once raised a carrousel holding 14 people.
Over the years some of Joe’s lifts, at a bodyweight of between 130 and 150, were the back lift, 3,200 pounds; harness lift, 1,800 pounds; one-finger lift, 635 pounds; chins while pinch-gripping rafters, 15; hundreds of pullups on a two-by-four beam with a pinch grip; one-finger chins. To this day he can bend dimes and quarters, a feat I witnessed myself, seated next to him at the 25th reunion of the Association of Oldetime Barbell and Strongmen’s banquet in Newark, New Jersey, on June 7, 2008. Joe confided that nickels are much harder to bend. He showed me that his left middle finger was a bit smaller than the right one—the reason he could lift only 500 pounds with it compared to the 635 pounds with his right middle finger!
In 1919, when Joe was 14, his brother took him to Toledo, Ohio, to see Jack Dempsey knock out the gigantic Jess Willard. That instilled in Joe a desire to become a boxer. At 5’4” and 155 pounds Joe, known as “Kid Dundee,” had some 100 fights as an “armory boxer,” in National Guard halls and arsenals. He could not be knocked out. Even if matched against much bigger opponents and there was a clinch, no one could move him because he possessed such unbelievable strength.
Joe has met every great in the iron game and other sports celebrities as well:
• Eugen Sandow, who, in 1924, when Joe was 19, covered himself in white powder and posed against a black drape in the same city where famed Italian opera singer Enrico Caruso had performed. Sandow was so famous that Thomas Edison used his posing to demonstrate his new moving-picture camera.
• Josephine Blatt (“Minerva”), proclaimed the strongest female in the world, who in the 1890s stood on a high platform and lifted a lower platform containing 23 men.
• Kate Brumbach (“Sandwina”), who at 6’2” and 200 pounds could lift 1,000 pounds of cannon on her back and 280 pounds overhead.
• Jack Dempsey, heavyweight champion of the world from 1919 to 1926, with whom Joe once sparred.
• Bernard MacFadden, known as the “father of physical culture.”
• Charles Atlas (real name Angelo Siciliano), who lived across the street from Joe. The “World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man” was the original 97-pound weakling who had sand kicked in his face. He was best known in comic books and magazines as a mail-order bodybuilding expert.
Joe married in 1924. He and his wife, Clara, had twin boys, Bruno and Orazio, and a daughter, Clara. He had been too young to fight in World War I, but in 1939, with World War II brewing, he joined the 41st Infantry Division at age 34 and served through the war in the Pacific theater.
While fighting in the jungle, he was severely injured by shrapnel that tore into his right thigh and neck; he still carries shrapnel in his legs. The scars have nearly faded from his neck, but he has a metal plate in his left shoulder. He received three Purple Hearts, a Silver Star and a Bronze Star. During Joe’s tour of duty in the South Pacific, Travis suffered a heart attack while performing on July 12, 1941. Sadly, Joe could not attend his mentor’s funeral.
After returning from combat, Joe became estranged from his wife and children. He held numerous jobs over an amazing lifetime, working as a lumberjack, a seaman and a sandhog, building New York City’s Holland and Lincoln tunnels in the 1920s. That was a very strenuous and dangerous job. While working as a longshoreman, he wasn’t afraid to stand up to union goons.
For 50 years Joe belonged to the Iceberg Club. As one who’s never used air-conditioning, I’m dumbfounded that anyone would swim with air temperatures in the teens and the water 32 degrees. Joe didn’t just take a dip, as the Polar Bear club members do. His group swam in the frigid ocean three or four times a week, when the water temperature was actually warmer than the air temperature. They believed that if one stayed in the water for five or 10 minutes, it killed any germs inside the body—back in the day the waters off Coney Island were clean. He described those swims as invigorating, and he stopped the practice only five years ago. He claimed that other members also continued the routine into their 90s and 100s.
Today, Joe lives with his niece Christina, the daughter of one of his sisters who was named after her grandmother (there were five Christinas in the immediate family). She is as protective of her uncle Joe as all the presidential bodyguards combined. After a few bad experiences with the media, Tina also ferociously protects him from being exploited. In return he protects Tina, walking her to the bus stop every morning, and then continues his morning walk for 3 1/2 miles. He stopped vigorous weight training at age 85 but continues to work on his neck and abs and occasionally does some curls. IM