AL JOLSON “THE WORLD’S GREATEST ENTERTAINER” KENRICK (CHAPTER EIGHT) Asa Yoelson Born in Seredzius in the Lithuanian region of Imperial Russia. Although he would claim Mar. 26, 1886 as his birth date, no documentation exists to verify it – it may have been anytime from 1884 onwards . Asa was the fourth surviving child of cantor Moshe Yoelson and his wife Naomi, after daughters Rose and Etta, and their son Hirsh. The Yoelsons raised their family according to strict orthodox tradition, and Moshe expected his sons would one day become cantors too. Moshe Yoelson wanted to get his family away from the ongoing threat of Tsarist oppression. He traveled to America, promising to send for his wife and children at the earliest opportunity. Naomi died in 1895 less than a year after arriving in America. “AsaYoelson would never be the same again. He grew up in that moment – probably as much as he would ever grow up. Al Jolson, for all his tough, earthy exterior, would remain an emotional child for the rest of his life – a self assured braggart who was terrified of being alone, a sentimentalist with a heart of gold who made life miserable for those around him, and a lothario who chased, conquered, and in turn ignored young women. In short, a man-boy, full of seeming contradictions and haunted by the specter of his mother's death.” - Herbert G. Goldman Jolson: The Legend Comes to Life (New York, Oxford Univ. Press, 1988), p. 9. Kenrick, Musicals 101 Hirsch & Asa become Harry & Al Asa and his brother Hirsh soon immersed themselves in American culture, learning the ragtime songs performed on the streets and in the saloons of Washington. Moshe married CheysaYoels (a.k.a. "Hessi"), an old neighbor from Seredzius who had genuine affection for the children. But nothing could keep the Yoelson boys from embracing a new way of life. Hirsh changed his name to Harry, and Asa became Al. Both boys ran away from home several times. At one point, Al spent several weeks at St. Mary's Industrial School for orphaned boys in Baltimore. Yoelson Joelson Jolson The Yoelson brothers both became obsessed with breaking into show business. Al and Harry managed to get bookings with a crude ethnic comedy act called "The Hebrew and the Cadet." They also changed their last name to "Joelson," and then the even less ethnic "Jolson.” Harry Jolson Blackface In 1904, while playing an engagement at Keeney's Theatre in Brooklyn, Al started performing in blackface, supposedly at the suggestion of veteran blackface comedian James Francis Dooley. Working behind a burnt cork mask gave Al a sense of freedom and spontaneity he had never known before. The act became a surefire laugh-getter, and was soon booked on vaudeville's Orpheum circuit. According to Kenrick “We have no reason to believe Al Jolson's use of blackface was motivated by anything other than a desire to entertain…Jolson's use of blackface is best understood in the context of his era. He was not making a statement; he was hiding behind a mask – a mask that gave him an extraordinary sense of confidence while on stage.” Jewish entertainers also put on blackface for another reason. According to Ronald Sanders, both groups felt a deep woe, had suffered at the hands of oppressors, and lived close to their pain. Many of the new songs hailed the brighter day and the aggressiveness necessary to live in the new land, but the singers invested blackface with a plaintive note, which kept them in touch with their past though with the pain once removed, hidden behind a black face. - Lewis A. Erenberg, Steppin' Out: New York Nightlife and the Transformation of American Culture 1890-1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), p. 195. In 1906, Al Jolson's solo career as a "singing comedian" began. He wore blackface with a dark suit, black shoes, white socks and gloves, and his mouth outlined in white drawing maximum attention to his hands and mouth. A triumphant engagement in San Francisco made him a top star on the Western circuits. Electronic sound systems had not been invented yet, so performers had to rely on all sorts of tricks to catch an audience's attention. Jolson knew them all, and even invented a few of his own. He danced, stamped, cried real tears, improvised risqué jokes and outrageous physical gags – even sashayed about with wildly effeminate gestures. Once he had an audience, Jolson wouldn't let go until they were begging for more. First Marriage: Henrietta Keller California native Henrietta Keller was an eighteen year old dancer. Twenty year old Al became infatuated, relentlessly courting Henrietta and her family. After nearly a year of refusals, they were married in September 1907. Henrietta would soon learn that she had tied the knot with one of the most maddening, self-centered men on earth. Early success in minstrelsy Jolson continued to win raves in vaudeville, but he could not resist when Lew Dockstader offered him a chance to star in America's last great minstrel troupe. He took a major cut in salary to become Dockstader's second comedian in 1908, knowing it would open the way to greater opportunity. Early success in vaudeville Audiences adored Jolson's antics. Afters a successful NYC engagement, he played a series of solo vaudeville engagements on the Orpheum circuit, and returned to Dockstader to tour in 1909. It was at this time that Jolson started whistling on stage, using loud melodic whistle trills to punctuate songs and gags. It would remain a trademark throughout his career. He was also working closely with musician Harry Akst, who became Jolson's everhandy accompanist, song selector and personal crony. NO to Ziegfeld Jolson’s ego would mark him throughout his professional life. When Florenz Ziegfeld extended an invitation to audition for the Follies, Jolson refused. Jolson insisted that he did not audition for anybody. He returned to touring the UBO and Orpheum circuits in 1910, and played a vaudeville engagement at Hammerstein's Victoria in New York in February 1911. He was already in rehearsals for his Broadway debut. La Belle Paree (1911) This musical about a wealthy widow in Paris was just an excuse for a succession of variety acts. With a curtain-raising one act comic opera tacked on, the over packed show opened on March 20th, 1911, and ran over four hours. Jolson won only a moderate response from the exhausted first night audience, but that changed in the days that followed. Soon, he was stealing the show. Jolson kept introducing new gags and new verses to his songs, and audiences kept coming back to see what he would do from week to week. By the time the summer heat forced La Belle Paree to close in June, Jolson was the hottest new star in show business. The Shubert’s Star attraction The Shuberts made the most of their new star. They tailored a series of stage musicals for Jolson and even built a runway across the Winter Garden's main floor so Jolson could sing right into the midst of his fans. The Shubert’s Star attraction His shows toured the country for years at a time, making him a star from coast to coast. Jolson's blend of comedy, pathos and powerhouse singing had a powerful effect on audiences. The Shuberts began billing him as "the world's greatest entertainer." “Gus” character The Whirl of Society (1912) was another revue-like musical. In it Jolson first played the blackface character Gus. An underdog who outsmarted his enemies while exchanging wisecracks with the audience, Gus proved to be Jolson's most successful alter ego. He would play this character in musical after musical, fitting Gus into all sorts of unlikely situations. Jolson also began interpolating whatever new songs caught his fancy – and audiences went wild. "Waitin' For the Robert E. Lee" and "Row, Row, Row" made it into The Whirl of Society, and became standards in Jolson's repertoire. “You made me love you” During the run of The Honeymoon Express (1913) Jolson’s co-star Gaby Deslys dropped out and Jolson was given top billing, which he never gave up throughout his career. During the Broadway run, Jolson interpolated "You Made Me Love You," falling to one knee during the final chorus. He often told interviewers he did this to relieve pressure on an ingrown toenail... Robinson Crusoe Jr. (1916) Jolson played three roles – Crusoe's man Friday, Gus, and someone named Fatima. The disjointed plot was of no importance. Audiences came to see and hear Jolson, and he gave them what they wanted. His most popular interpolations included "Where the Black Eyed Susan's Grow" and "Where Did Robinson Crusoe Go With Friday on Saturday Night?" After Broadway, the show toured for over a year. Robinson Crusoe Jr. When the tour reached Washington D.C., Jolson invited his family to watch him sing for President Wilson. But their seats went unused. It was the Sabbath eve, and the rabbi Moshe Yoelson was busy “singing for god.” Moshe may have been proud of his son, but he seemed to take pleasure in being the one person who could remind him of his roots. Al developed an abiding respect for his father, buying Moshe and Hessi a handsome house and visiting occasionally. Moshe accepted these gestures cordially but it never expressed the approval Al craved. Sinbad (1918) While performing this star vehicle, he heard George Gershwin play at a party and then interpolated his song “Swanee” into the show along with “My Mammy” and “Rock-a-bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody.” In Bombo (1921) Gus was a deckhand for Christopher Columbus. He added “Toot, Toot, Tootsie,” “April Showers” and ”California Here I Come” to the score. In Big Boy (1924) Gus was a jockey with live horses onstage. His big hit song was “Keep Smiling at Trouble.” Jolson the showman When audiences were particularly enthusiastic, Jolson would dismiss the supporting cast and sing solo for an hour or more. However, if Jolson felt an audience was unresponsive, he would just as easily give a half-hearted performance and skip refrains to get the curtain down early. Loved and Hated Al Jolson's personality was an outsized explosion of contradictions. Despite his almost frightening selfassurance on stage, he was so nerve wracked that he usually had vomit buckets placed in the wings – and he used them, especially on opening nights. He performed at countless benefits and gave well over a million dollars to charity, but would conveniently forget to pay off loans from longtime friends. He referred to himself in two ways -"Jolson" whenever discussing his professional work, and "Jolie" when the subject was his personal life. At the height of his fame, Jolson regularly auditioned the work of new songwriters. Frequently, he would make a few adjustments to the lyrics so he could receive part of the royalties. If anyone sharing a stage with Jolson won major applause, he warned them not to let it happen again. If it did, he would have the offending performer fired. For all his talent and fame, Jolson could not face the possibility of competition. Buckets were kept just offstage for those nights when his insecurities got the better of him. In 1918, Henrietta filed for divorce. For more than a decade, she had put up with being ignored, and even beaten while Al openly cheated on her with chorus girls and spent his days gambling with his friends. Jolson made desperate last minute gestures of reconciliation, but the divorce went through, with Henrietta accepting a small settlement. For some time afterward, Jolson tried to rekindle his ex-wife's interest, but she would have no part of him. Second Marriage: Ethel Delmar While the tour of Bombo was on its summer break in July of 1922, Jolson wooed and married Ethel Delmar. A chorus girl in George White's Scandals, Ethel's looks and fun loving personality supposedly captivated Jolson at first sight. Soon after the wedding, she found herself being ignored and abandoned for weeks at a time – a perfect echo of Jolson's first marriage. Ethel drowned her sorrows in bootleg booze. Occasionally, Jolson tried to reach out to her, but his attentions were, as usual, focused on his audiences. Al also had a volatile relationship with his brother Harry, who found it increasingly difficult to get out from under Al's shadow. As Al's star rose, Harry found himself billed as "Al Jolson's brother," and the inevitable similarities in their appearance and mannerisms only made the comparisons harder to bear. When Harry's vaudeville career petered out, Al put Harry on staff as his "manager. Harry outlived Al by three years, making no secret of how bitterly he resented his brother's success. Big Boy (1925) A recurring case of bronchitis kept forcing Jolson to cancel performances, and the Shuberts were forced to close their sold-out show after eight weeks. Few would have believed it, but Jolson would never appear at the Winter Garden again. When audiences did not respond to "If You Knew Susie," he offered it to Eddie Cantor. It became one Cantor's greatest successes, and years later Al told Eddie, "If I knew it was that good, you dog, I'd never have given it to you!” Divorce #2 - 1926 In the summer of 1926, Al took Ethel to Europe to obtain a quick divorce. As before, he made occasional attempts to reconcile with Ethel, to no avail. Her drinking became progressively worse, and by the 1930s Ethel had to be committed. Filmed in Los Angeles in the late summer of 1927, The Jazz Singer was customized to fit Jolson's talents. The original intention was to only use sound for several song sequences, but Jolson changed that by improvising dialogue. His spontaneous asides to the audience in a cabaret scene proved so exciting that it was decided to add audible dialogue in a scene with his mother. Al seats actress Eugenie Besserer on his knee. After a few minutes of charming banter, Jolson sings Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies," but is cut short when his father appears and orders him to stop. Later on, the title character is seen achieving Broadway stardom in scenes partially filmed in the Winter Garden. The film’s finale shows Jolson in blackface on his knee singing to his bawling mother. A move to Hollywood When The Jazz Singer debuted in October 1927, it signaled the end of the silent film era. Within months, movie audiences wanted nothing but sound films, no matter how mediocre. Talking movies were all the rage, and Al Jolson was the form's first star. Since films paid far more than Broadway for far less effort, Jolson did not hesitate to relocate to California and devote himself full time to screen work. Ruby Keeler Jolson’s third wife was a nineteen year old chorus dancer at a Manhattan speakeasy. Jolson was more than twice her age. After Jolson gave Ruby a pre-wedding gift of one million dollars, her Irish Catholic family dropped all objections. Al and Ruby were married in September 1928 and honeymooned in Europe. Al assured reporters, "This is for keeps.” Ruby had been raised on the streets of New York, and unlike his other wives, Ruby also had a career of her own. Ruby Keeler When Florenz Ziegfeld invited Keeler to star in the Broadway musical Show Girl (1929), Jolson insisted that she accept. At the first pre-Broadway performance in Boston, she was dancing to the Gershwin showstopper "Liza" when Al unexpectedly stood up in the audience and started singing it. The audience, thinking that Jolson was encouraging his young wife, roared its approval. Ziegfeld made the most of the situation by convincing Al to repeat the stunt during the show's first week in New York. The resulting avalanche of publicity helped the poorly received show sell tickets. But weeks later, Jolson encouraged his wife to move with him to Hollywood and Ziegfeld was forced to close the show at a loss. The Hollywood Years Audience tastes were changing, but Warner Brothers kept Jolson doing the same thing in film after film. Jolson made Say It With Songs (1929) into yet another sentimental sobfest. By the time he starred in the syrupy Mammy (1930) and the clumsy screen version of Big Boy (1930), his reign as a top Hollywood star was already over. His “style” had become too big for the screen and his career began to falter. Although he and Keeler adopted a son who was legally renamed Al Jolson, Jr., the marriage did not last. They were divorced in 1940. By then he had returned to Broadway in such shows as The Wonder Bar (1931) and Hold Onto Your Hats (1940). He played supporting roles in film and made frequent appearances on radio. World War II helped to revive his career. Although he toured with the USO to the front. Despite frequent illness, he continued to perform. Erle Galbraith While touring Georgia military camps in 1944, Jolson met Erle Galbraith, a twenty-one year old x-ray technician. Instantly smitten, Jolson soon offered her a screen test. He got her under contact at Columbia, and started squiring her around Hollywood. When a recurring case of malaria (contracted during one of his frontline concert tours) left Jolson near death, his relationship with Erle intensified. They were married in March of 1945. It was soon clear that this marriage would be different. Erle walked out on Jolson's tirades, refusing to fight on his terms. With no interest in a career of her own, she devoted all her attention to Al, and he found himself appreciating her as he never had his other wives. While it is unlikely that life with Al Jolson was truly easy, Erle would always insist that her years with him were happy. Rhapsody in Blue (1945) During his prolonged recovery from malaria, Jolson took any opportunity to resume work. He appeared as himself singing "Swanee" in the George Gershwin biographical film Rhapsody in Blue (1945). Then Columbia Pictures began work on a film version of Jolson's life. Al recorded the songs, but was not allowed to play himself – that honor went to the relatively unknown Larry Parks. Parks lip-synched to Jolson's vocals and used many of his performing mannerisms. The Jolson Story (1946) The Jolson Story (1946) became a sensation, thanks in large part to Jolson's electrifying renditions of two dozen of his hits. The score included one new number, the sentimental "Anniversary Song" ("Oh, how we danced on the night we were wed . . ."), which became an immediate standard. The plot was a heavily revised version of Jolson's life story. Serving up schmaltz with style, it added up to extraordinary entertainment. In just one distant shot, Jolson appears as himself dancing to "Swanee" – even the Columbia bigwigs agreed that no one else could capture his physical style. Rediscovered At sixty-one, Jolson was back on top. The Jolson Story introduced him to a new generation of fans and sent his record sales soaring. Because he was entitled to a percentage of the film and recording profits, Jolson raked in a fortune. On radio, his presence now guaranteed high ratings. Several guest appearances with Bing Crosby (who was a longtime fan of Jolson) remain classic examples of network radio at its best. In 1947, Jolson returned to hosting the Kraft Music Hall, a series he helped initiate back in 1933. Al's new stardom restored his zest for life. He and Erle adopted two infants, naming them Asa Jr. and Alicia. Jolson also started to dye his hair and put away his glasses when friends were on hand. His recordings of "Is It True What They Say About Dixie?" and "Baby Face" made the hit parade, and his version of the Israeli national anthem raised over $100,000 for the United Jewish Appeal. Jolson Sings Again (1949) Columbia Pictures filmed a sequel to The Jolson Story. This time, Jolson's thinly veiled displeasure with Larry Parks erupted into a sound stage tirade, and Jolson was barred from the set. Jolson Sings Again (1949) took as many liberties with Al's life as the first film had. Jolson's singing voice sounded sensational in sixteen numbers – fewer than the first film but still far more than the average musical. Jolson toured the country to promote the film and soak up the kind of audience acclaim he had always relished. Renewed stardom Offers poured in, and Jolson signed up for a new film and a series television specials. But he put everything on hold to go entertain soldiers fighting in Korea. When the Defense Department said it had no budget for entertainers, Jolson paid all expenses himself. During seven days in September 1950, he gave 42 concerts, carrying on despite a cold that would have silenced anyone else. The end On his return to California, Jolson looked tired and admitted to reporters that the trip had been difficult. On October 23, 1950, he was in San Francisco preparing for another appearance on Bing Crosby's radio show. While playing cards with friends in his hotel room, he complained of indigestion. When two doctors arrived, Jolson was in bed He joked with them and belittled his symptoms. Suddenly, he felt for his own pulse, said, "Oh, I'm going," and went limp. The "World's Greatest Entertainer" was dead. Hillside Cemetery Culver City, California About a year after his funeral, Jolson's widow reburied his remains in one of the most spectacular tombs Hollywood has ever seen. It still stands in Hillside Memorial Park, with a statue of Jolson on one knee amid marble columns and an illuminated waterfall. It is a fitting monument to a man who once enthralled the world with his larger-than-life talents. The legacy Al Jolson’s fame has dimmed with time, but no review of the popular culture of the 20th century can afford to overlook his presence. Who else could claim a career that spanned stardom in minstrelsy, vaudeville, Broadway, Hollywood and radio? He was one of the greatest stars show biz will ever know – and would have been the first to insist that history should remember him.