Although Joe Cornell was not Jewish, generations of people in Detroit’s Jewish community have interacted with him.
When news that Cornell died in California on March 18 reached Detroit, Facebook exploded with people sharing memories of him and his popular dance classes for preteen Jewish Detroiters.
I checked the William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History to see what I could find on him.
There was no shortage of JN pages that cited Joe Cornell. Since his name first appeared in 1951, Cornell was cited on 974 pages of the JN. Research in the Archive shows he was an institution in the Detroit Jewish community, as well as in Michigan and Hollywood, California.
Born and raised in Detroit, his real name was Joseph Coronella, and it seems he became an honorary member of the Jewish community.
Cornell began his career as a dancer and entertainer in the 1940s while attending classes at Wayne State University and giving lessons at the local Arthur Murray Dance Studio in Detroit. From there, he began entertaining at resorts in western and northern Michigan, and then made his way back to Detroit to develop a very successful business — and make his connection to Detroit’s Jews. His professional journey can be followed in the historic pages of the JN.
To begin, there is an excellent report in the Jan. 18, 2007, issue of the JN. It discusses the development of Joe Cornell Studios, which became Joe Cornell Entertainment, the work of his successors, and a bit about Cornell himself (for more biographical information about Cornell, see Karen Schwartz’s story on page 18).
The first mentions of Cornell begin to appear in the early 1950s, when he was the entertainment director for several Michigan resorts. By the late 1950s, there were advertisements noting that “entire families will enjoy Joe Cornell’s Omena Inn on Grand Traverse Bay.”
By the 1960s, Cornell was Detroit-based, soon becoming an institution in the Jewish community. In his column in the March 25, 1960, Danny Raskin referred to him: “Pappa Joe, the pied piper of Wyoming Ave. is more than just a dancing teacher or a social director … he’s the pride and joy of every youngster who meets him…” (Indeed, Raskin’s columns often had news about Cornell.)
Therein lies the main point: Thousands of kids, especially at their bar and bat mitzvahs, benefited from their relationship with Cornell, and the dance and etiquette lessons he taught them. And, this says nothing about his numerous charitable activities for youth in the city. Even when he moved to California, Cornell would often return and hold events in Detroit.
Star Trax Events purchased Joe Cornell Entertainment in 2015. One of its programs is the “Joe Cornell Experience,” featuring such events as a “Dance Party” for fifth graders. It is a most fitting legacy for someone who was much more than a great dancer.
Want to learn more? Go to the DJN Foundation archives, available for free at