Al Jolson Al Jolson (born Asa Yoelson [some sources cite Joelson] in Russia) was in the minds of most who saw him perform, and many who have only heard his many recordings or seen his films, the greatest entertainer of the early 20th century. He was certainly the most influential, and his picture easily appeared on more music covers than George M. Cohan, Nora Bayes, Anna Held or even Sophie Tucker, all contenders for in that category. Jolson was a stage performer in every way, and it shows in his films and records. He loved his adopted country as much as he did the stage, and set paradigms for performance that are still in place today. But despite his earnest talent, Jolie did not quite enjoy an immediate meteoric rise to the top from a young age, and much of his story came out of pain and misunderstanding. His beginnings as portrayed in the 1946 biographical pictures (biopic) The Jolson Story were actually a bit different than he and Hollywood brought to the screen, and some of the details actually mattered in terms of the formation of his famous broad personality. There have also been many books written about or at least mentioning facets of Jolson's life, as well as web biographies, however condensed the latter may be. While several of these sources have been well-researched, some of them have clearly depended on sketchy information at best, given what was found during the months that this essay was researched, and most on the web have significant gaps. This new account, which is compiled from government records, theatrical logs, recording logs, film archive records, hundreds of periodicals, and literally thousands of newspaper accounts checked for reliability and consistency, should be closer to the real Al Jolson story, which is a bit more dramatic. There is also some observation inserted, but it is collective based on a number of informed opinions both past and present. Love him or hate him, his is still a fascinating story, so please pull up a screen and read on.
From Russia With Love
Albert was originally named Eizer Asa Yoelson, Eizer being his Yiddish birth name according to research done by Marc Leavey and Bruce Wexler.
With increasing animosity toward the Jewish community in Lithuania and Russia as a whole in the 1890s, Rabbi Yoelson sought out a better life for his family, immigrating to the United States in 1890 to establish himself in Washington, DC, hoping to send for his wife and children at a later time. In early 1894, the rest of the family followed Moses to America, but Naomi died in 1895 soon after they had settled.
Having not adjusted well to the death of his mother, Albert shut down for several months. After his father's remarriage, and in spite of the affections of their new stepmother, Al and Harry, as they now called themselves, frequently left home looking for adventure and trouble. During one of his sojourns in his teens, Al made it to Baltimore, Maryland, where he was held for a while (Harry recounted it to be several days instead of weeks) at St. Mary's Industrial School for Orphaned Boys, selling papers on the streets and singing in local saloons, at least until they discovered he was less than an orphan, thanks to a private detective Moses had hired. Another story, hard to substantiate but included for completeness, is that in the late winter of 1898 the 11-year-old attempted to join in the Spanish-American war effort, signing on as a singing mascot, then being sent home within a few weeks. However, the true passion that both brothers acquired from having visited DC burlesque or legitimate vaudeville houses like the National Theater was a desire to be on stage or at least in a show. They had even taken to singing on street corners for change to pay for the theater admission.
From late 1899 and into 1901, both Al and Harry managed to get work in various burlesque, then vaudeville shows, including a juvenile act written by Israel Zangwill titled Children of the Ghetto, which was staged by Wilton Lackaye at the National Theatre in Washington. He also briefly worked for the circus of Walter L. Main in October of 1902 (1899 has been cited in some sources), starting as an usher, but soon becoming a barker as well as a singer in one of their segments involving a medicine show sketch. For one of his early positions, Al traveled with tenor Frederick Ernest Moore, singing for a new form of entertainment — the illustrated song, which showed both lyrics and vignettes on tinted slides. Part of the burlesque he was in for several seasons, Moore took care of the mechanical end with the equipment while Al had to literally sell the song on stage so that customers would purchase the sheet music in the lobby, thus providing a profit for the theater and his employer. In a bid to perhaps get a little of the take, Al developed some of his internalized passion to put the songs across, but still was not able to give it his all. In an interview at the time of Moore's death in late 1924, Jolson claimed they worked together for at least five years, but it may have only been around three. Then Moore married a girl from the burlesque and settled in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Al recalled that he felt like his world had come to an end when Moore left, but maintained a relationship with him over the next two decades.
Footlights and Spotlights
Doing what was necessary to succeed on American stages, the brothers altered their names from Yoelson to Joelson to the more Anglicized Jolson. They created a few unique acts, and actually managed to secure representation with the growing William Morris agency while working for the Dainty Duchess Burlesquers.
It should be noted that blackface was considered more business as usual than it was racially divisive at that time, and even though it is viewed historically with less than charitable opinions, it was also used by many blacks on stage, not just white actors. Jolson, who never showed overt signs of racism, and being of an oppressed race himself genuinely had direct sympathy for blacks, later noted that he did it because in large theaters it helped to emphasize his mouth, outlined in white, and his eyes, two important assets for an actor to convey in a large space. In most cases, such performers were simply playing themselves, not a Negro character, but on occasion, even Jolson would slip into that type of role when not singing. He often wore white gloves as well to give even more emphasis to his movements under a spotlight. A view of Jolson performing in blackface in with gloves in both The Jazz Singer (1927) and The Singing Fool (1928) helps to verify this, particularly from the more distant camera shots.
In late 1904, Al and Harry formed an act with the much older Joe Palmer who was a wheelchair bound entertainer. They stuck with Palmer from October of 1904 to early November of 1905. Originally playing a hotel bellboy for part of their routine, one facet that Al added to his singing shtick was whistling, often with his fingers used to great effect. It could be either melodic or shrill, and can be witnessed in many of his film appearances as well.
Now with nothing holding him back, Al went west to California, centering on the San Francisco Bay area as they were in recovery from the April 18, 1906, earthquake and subsequent fire that partially destroyed the city. They were in need of diversions and entertainment, and it was there that Jolson took vaudeville by storm, adding many tricks to his repertoire, most of them simply broadening every aspect of his performance, intended to draw the audience in to his heart and mind. Al quickly became a reliable sensation at the Globe and Wigwam Theaters in San Francisco, both three-a-day vaudeville houses. He quickly became highly regarded for both his wit and emotional singing delivery, garnering a reputation that soon spread eastward. On tours of the Western and Midwest states he was more often than not a headliner, but frequently billed as a comedian or blackface monologist. In summer of 1906 he ventured with his new company up to Spokane, Washington, where he was well-received and reviewed. Al was soon being advertised in The Billboard and Variety as the "Black Faced Comedian with the Operatic Voice. Never Idle." He would continue to thrive on the attention and energy he got from his audiences for many years to come. During the spring tour of 1907 to the Upper Midwest, Jolson was reviewed in the May 25 edition of the Duluth Evening Herald as "The Man With the Versatile Mouth:"
In next week's bill at the Bijou the patrons of the popular theater will see a bill of vaudeville stars such as are seldom seen in any one program. The show is headed by Al Jolson as the principal feature. Mr. Jolson has a pair of lips that are very versatile, capable of being manipulated to imitate music of the flute, a saxophone and many other musical instruments. Mr. Jolson works in cork make-up, and is one of the best and funniest comedians ever seen in vaudeville. His parodies are original, his stories new, and his imitations have no equal.
While working in San Francisco in late 1906, Al, who was somewhat of a ladies man with his wit and charm, even if only moderately handsome and less than tall at 5'7", made the acquaintance of dancer Henrietta Keller, a gentile lass who was two years his junior. He soon became earnest in wanting to marry her, but the eighteen-year-old was less than interested.
A Star is Made
Around the time of his marriage to Henrietta, and during a tour of the Midwest and Southern States, Jolson became a focus of minstrel show entrepreneur Lew Dockstader (a.k.a. George Alfred Clapp),
It does appear as though Mr. Dockstader has subordinated himself for the benefit of Jolson, a newcomer in the East, young, with a pleasing personality, good voice, some new "stuff" and the hit of the show, not even excepting Neil O'Brien, that great "end." … Jolson is the only olio act, passing over a singing monologue, with a whistling finale. He scored immediately and decidedly in it, although the talk rapidly delivered contained much dried-up matter. Jolson is a natural minstrel, however, and his stage magnetism can win out always.
Al quickly became the focus of the show, and there was much more to be said about his unique talents in the March 6, 1909, edition of Variety:
Al Jolson would be welcome to vaudeville in the specialty which he is using as a feature of Lew Dockstader's Minstrels. Dressing neatly in evening clothes of faultless cut and of the new color called "taupe," Jolson offers a quiet quarter of an hour of smooth entertainment. As a singer of "coon" songs Jolson has a method of his own by which lyrics and melody are given their full value. His talk moves along nicely and is kept within proper proportion to the rest of the act. Throughout the talk Jolson introduces little tricks of speech and for a finish has an odd, eccentric vocal performance in which he sings with a peculiar buzzing note. Of course, it's flagrant trick work, but it brings him back for a sure-fire encore. For this purpose he has a whistling solo that brings another recall… As it stands now Jolson's offering is capable of holding down a place in any vaudeville show.
During a forced break from the Dockstader show in the spring of 1909 due to booking issues, Jolson briefly went back to San Francisco for a stint with I.P. Wilkerson's "Minstrels of Today," then after that show fell apart in June, toured the Keith and Orpheum circuits as a solo act, further building up his fame and repertoire. Part of July was spent at Keith and Proctor's theater in New York sharing the same stage as Louise Dresser. He returned to Dockstader for the shortened 1909 season, but for a decidedly higher salary. Although he later lauded Lew for his generous spirit and the opportunity, Al was constrained by the format of the show in a way he had not been in vaudeville, doing the routines the way his boss set them out, with only a smattering of latitude to "improve" upon them, further being limited by having to use older music with little contemporary material. Jolson's desire to branch out,
At some point, perhaps during the minstrelsy tour, Jolson came to the attention of famed entrepreneur Florenz Ziegfeld, who was collecting talent for his upcoming third edition of the Ziegfeld Follies, already regarded as a top entertainment on Broadway. However, while working the New York City theaters in early 1910, he reportedly turned down an opportunity to audition for Ziegfeld, which was an attitude that was simply unheard of. Jolson evidently felt he did not need to entertain an audition, and believed he could snag something much better based on his reputation. Eventually, he did do quite well, but not without leaving a few bodies and gathering detractors in his wake.
Efforts to locate Jolson in the 1910 enumeration proved difficult. He was probably on performance travel at that time as a headliner, and could have easily missed the enumeration while staying at a hotel or taking a train to another town. There were a couple of stretches of shows in Washington, DC, in February and April, so it is likely that he made visits to his indifferent father and accepting stepmother while there. It is unclear if Henrietta traveled with him during this period. While in Manhattan he seemed to be favored by Hammerstein's Victoria, appearing alongside some very fine acts. The hard work on the road and the continued good reviews played in Jolson's favor. After a successful summer on the Orpheum circuit back in San Francisco and Los Angeles, he appeared in Ogden and Salt Lake City, Utah in October, then went down to Louisville, Kentucky. While there, Jolson fell ill and was unable to sing or speak for some weeks. It was during this period that Al got the offer for his first big Broadway show — evidently without having to audition. Even at that, he continued the last leg of the tour up to Omaha, Nebraska, before returning to Manhattan and a final stint at Hammerstein's Victoria in February.
The Winter Garden Theater was one of the more celebrated venues in New York City. In 1911, the three Shubert Brothers, Lee, Sam and Jacob (J.J.), who had been involved in theatrical production and presentation for several years, leased an older building that had been a horse car stable, and opened what was the fourth incarnation of the Winter Garden in Midtown Manhattan at 50th and Broadway, less than a mile north of the growing Broadway theater district around Times Square. To launch their new enterprise, they commissioned Jerome Kern, still in the beginning of his career, to write a musical with some interpolated material. As one of their principals they signed Al Jolson at a healthy $250 per week.
La Belle Paree, a loosely plotted show about a wealthy widow running about Paris, which was really more of a revue of vaudeville acts, started out as a lavish production that ran nearly four hours on opening night, March 20, 1911. While Al Jolson was only something more than a minor player when the show started, his character Erastus Sparkler drew a lot of attention. Jolson almost did not make opening night, being so unnerved by his debut that he later said he walked up to 95th street instead of his 53rd street home. It was largely a matter of his participation such an unwieldy show, one that also took its toll on the audience, at least according to initial reviews. The April 15 edition of Variety noted that there were eighteen acts billed, but nineteen showed up, and that "Rag" was the "high sign of the show." Jolson appeared well into the production, and "turned out the third big hit, with his specialty. With position considered, Jolson equaled anyone." The production was quickly trimmed and reworked within the month, giving Al more of a prominent presence. Within a few weeks, he was one of the de-facto stars of the show, even without receiving a top billing. Al ad-libbed different sections every night, frequently rewrote some of the verses to his songs, and changed the show up on a regular basis, prompting some people to attend multiple performances over time. The initial run closed in June since poor ventilation of the time in an older building created comfort issues for audiences and performers alike. However, Al Jolson was now a rising star, and when they reopened for a week in September he received very favorable reviews and multiple curtain calls and encores. He would spend the next fifteen years on top of Broadway, without ever having to audition or play in the Ziegfeld Follies to achieve his fame.
Nearly as soon as La Belle Paree ended its brief national tour and return to New York, Vera Violetta opened on November 20, 1911, a week after its out-of-town tryouts, and once again at the Winter Garden. Also a loosely plotted revue set in a Paris skating rink, one of the highlights of the show as it was reviewed was Jolson's singing. He performed That Haunting Melody by George M. Cohan, and Rum Tum Tiddle by Jean Schwartz and Edward Madden. These would be his initial records cut for Victor one month later at his first known successful recording session, and the beginning of a long run in that medium, continuing for 21 years with little in the way of pauses. Jolson would return to the Victor studios on three occasions in 1912 and 1913, resulting in some fascinating takes on ragtime era music. Up until that time, the most prominent comedic male singing star had been Billy Murray. They would both share the spotlight in the recording field as the decade progressed, but Jolson would pretty much own the stage, and reportedly was paid more for his dozen Victor discs than any artist up to that time.
This new success appeared to create stress in Al's marriage to Henrietta, who was interested in spending more time with her now-famous husband, in part so they could start a family. Jolson's family was now his adoring audiences, and one of his main challenges appeared to be converting those who did not yet seem to love him, so his wife's notion was set aside for the time being. There were other continents to conquer as well, and Jolson was up to the challenge. Vera Violetta went to the West End in London for a short but successful run in early 1912, then Al returned to Broadway to star in the next show in what was becoming a veritable assembly line of revues and musicals tailored to his particular talents.
Broadway Lights and Winter Garden Nights
At nearly the same time Charlie Chaplin was developing his iconic "Tramp" character, Al Jolson sought to take his blackface act a bit further and create a character of his own. Thus, it was in the Shubert's next Winter Garden extravaganza for March of 1912, encompassing no less than three different acts for the evening (later two),
As Jolson was in the last act of the evening, his growing fan base often asked him to remain after the encores and sing some of their favorite ragtime songs. To that end, he had the Winter Garden install a runway that went into the audience almost to the rear so he could connect with them on a more intimate basis, walking out into the middle of the theater or even further. He later explained that kidding with the audience and confiding with them about inside information that they think nobody else knew about created a better connection. This runway was utilized especially for his free Sunday evening concerts. Since laws in New York City prevented theatrical performances on Sunday at that time, several musicians would gather for planned ad-hoc concerts, but without makeup or costumes, precluding the theatrical element. These were often actors who could not hear each other in their respective shows, so gathered with a feeling of camaraderie. Jolson was usually last or second-to-last for such performances, and often spent more time on the runway than the stage. Even though it displaced several seats or part of the middle aisle, the fact that all of the remaining seats were occupied for eight or more shows a week was hardly lost on the Shuberts, so he got his way. Also, in the generation of musicals that preceded those filled with songs that were directly connected to the plot, bigger stars like Jolson could readily pick songs that they particularly liked, and the writers would somehow find a way to fit them into whatever meager plot that held the production together in a loosely cohesive manner. So if something wasn't working, he could pick another tune to replace it, and often got his way with that. The build-up of his repertoire also facilitated his post-show concerts.
Given how busy Tin Pan Alley was with turning out all variety of ragtime-driven songs and maudlin ballads at that time, there was plenty of material for Jolson to choose from. By the time of A Whirl of Society, the publishers and composers were coming to him. He might also hear something at another venue on one of his rare off nights, or perhaps at a dinner party, and decide to latch onto it. As was the growing tradition of the time, if a star liked a song, they were asked to endorse it, usually with their name and picture on the cover. In Jolson's case, unlike years past with the elaborate illustrated covers with a 3" circle showing the performer, he literally took over half or more of the cover in many cases. It was only in rare cases that Al would appear on sheet music in blackface, as most of them showed a more professional shot of his true likeness. A number of tunes of the 1910s and into the 1920s that he adopted would be released initially with a traditional illustrated cover, but once Jolson associated himself with the number, those covers were replaced with his likeness. As long as the music sold and the pieces were creating royalty revenue, most publishers could forgive this bit of vanity, and some of them may have actually been responsible for it.
One of the songs interpolated into A Whirl of Society, which had nothing to do with any plot, almost did not happen. Composer Lewis Muir already had a string of minor hits behind him, and had just composed When Ragtime Rosie Ragged the Rosary. L. Wolfe Gilbert, a writer for the New York Clipper, wrote a column attacking the song as sacrilege, and derided both the composer and the publisher. The two ran into each other a few days later, and Muir asked Gilbert about any hits he had written. Gilbert named some obscure publications that Muir had never heard of. Gilbert then challenged Muir to write a song with him if he was so talented. They went to Muir's home that evening and turned out a love ballad and a Dixie chorus. The very next morning, they took their songs to Muir's publisher, Frederick A. Mills. Mills told them the ballad stank, and that Dixie songs were now passé. He offered Gilbert a batch of songs to show him what Mills Music published. Gilbert left steaming, then realized he hadn't taken the packet songs offered him and that he had left his manuscript. He came back in and Mills asked him to play that Dixie tune again because he couldn't seem get it out of his head. A few weeks later, Jolson introduced Waiting for the Robert E. Lee in A Whirl of Society, and it has been a favorite ever since, perpetually in his repertoire. One other work, the parody song My Sumurun Girl, was the first to have Jolson a co-writing credit attached to it, Al having supplied some or even most of the clever lyrics.
In order to understand Al Jolson's complex personality and motivations, it is helpful to understand some of his back story, as told here. In spite of his ego and constant need to perform, which interfered with his marriage, as did dalliances with other women, Jolson really did have a big heart and a soft spot for those who had helped him along during the years, and many loyal friends who often fiercely defended him. One of the better examples of this unfailing streak of professional integrity played out during the late spring of 1912. Part of the way through the run of the A Whirl of Society run, Lew Dockstader opened with his latest show at the Broadway Theater. He had not been doing quite so well in the wake of many changes occurring on the American stage, and a step away from the now-outdated minstrelsy. The review from the New York Times of May 28, 1912, tells the story:
'MAMA'S BABY BOY' REALLY VERY BAD; Will Probably Bore Even That Supposedly Stupid Person — the Tired Business Man. … Well, a bad beginning sometime, promises a good ending. And this particular entertainment (word used by courtesy) is certainly a "bad baby." … At one point of the proceedings Lew Dockstader, somewhat uncertain of his lines, sang songs and told jokes, and was given the applause accorded to an old favorite. But the unexpected arrival of Al Jolson from the Winter Garden, to proclaim Mr. Dockstader as his real discoverer, created more enthusiasm than all the rest of the show together.
Jolson proclaimed, perhaps focused on the dignity of his benefactor, that his two years with Dockstader were among the happiest in his life, even if he "didn't eat regular." He then did an impromptu performance of Rum Tum Tiddle, then exited the building, having perhaps saved the evening from ruin.
After a brief summer break, no doubt filled with performances somewhere, Jolson went on the road with A Whirl of Society, complete with his runway. Returning in December, he was commissioned to write an article for Variety which appeared in their December 20, 1912, issue, some of which is excerpted here:
If the manager of the Springer Opera House, Columbus, Ga., had told me when I played this theatre with Lew Dockstader that I should be writing this for VARIETY, within a few years, I would have been compelled to tell him some things that would not have read well.
Then I had no idea that the star dressing room, with the bath attached, would be assigned to me. I was happy to use a bucket to wash up, and if I did not have to go into the next block above the theatre for the water I was pleased. Now, I am not allowed to do anything! There is the manager asking if everything is O-K and the house carpenter wants the property man to establish drayage records and make my room look like a reception parlor where my friends may watch me at my trade. Everyone is so solicitous, while I cannot see how I am any better than I was when I played forty weeks of "one-nighters."…
Maybe the question you are asking yourself is, is he happy after all? I can say this—that the fuss and fury that are lavished on a featured member of a musical show is something I cannot understand. I am not ashamed to say that I had as much fun out of life while playing the southern tier of towns in Alabama as I have had since. New York is the natural goal of every player and to be a favorite there is something every one hopes for, but when you analyze the facts, and get down to essentials, it is easy to see that you can be as happy with a group of real friends outside of New York as in it.
I know that there are many things you can get in the metropolis that you can not have elsewhere, but there are other factors that compensate in the hinterland, so its "six of one and half dozen of the other." We long for the unattainable and when we get half way there we start to realize that the game can be played in one community as well as another, and when all's said and done, it merely means that one has found one's place and made a few friends upon whom he can count through thick and thin. Then with good health and a loving wife, what more can anyone look for in this world?
I am a firm believer in Marcus Aurelius and his stoic attitude toward the world. That attitude makes one feel content with conditions as they appear, and while others may feel the need of lavish attention, I will continue on my histrionic way without any heart flutterings. Should conditions make it necessary for me to return to the bucket and sponge, with three fellow minstrels in the same dressing room, I will feel as light-hearted as I do today, with my name featured on the electric sign (for which the show shares with the house) and in all the "ads."
At the beginning of 1913, The Shuberts decided to reward their golden goose, the one who had turned the Winter Garden into a focal point. It was reported in Variety on February 28 that they paid him a bonus of $10,000 to sign a seven-year contract to appear under their management, with a sliding salary scale to boot. The terms were a minimum of $1,000 per week with a guarantee of at least 35 weeks of each year, eventually sliding up to $2,000 a week. This was far beyond his starting salary with the Shuberts that amounted had to $250 a week, which was still exceptional for 1911. Variety also noted that Jolson was able to command $1,500 for a single week on the vaudeville stage for two-a-day appearances. The Shubert contract was obviously more lucrative, since it assured him continuing work and income. At 28 years of age, Jolson had made it big, being one of the highest-paid entertainers in New York, if not the highest, given the terms. Given how little entertainers had been regarded and compensated just two decades before, this, along with the revenue pouring in to Tin Pan Alley publishers, could be regarded as a notable point in the rise of entertainment as an industry, not just a pastime.
The Shubert crew went into rehearsals in early 1913 for Jolson's next big vehicle, The Honeymoon Express. Among other firsts, this production became the official debut of Jolson on film. There is a chase between a train, presumably the Express, and an automobile, that was portrayed on film projected in the front of the stage, and showing Jolson as "Gus" driving the car. The chase ended live on the stage when the screen was retracted and the real car and train revealed. This spectacular entertainment opened the first week of February, 1913, at the Winter Garden, starring French actress Gaby Deslys However, Jolson's name was also in large letters on the marquee. On opening night, with a level of seeming cavalier disregard for the production, part way into the show, which was apparently running long, he asked the audience, "Do you want to hear the rest of the story, or do you want to hear me?" The cheering crowd chose Jolson, and he literally stopped the show, calling on the cast to just relax and sit down. There was perhaps no other rising star that could get away with such shenanigans. Be assured that he likely did all of his numbers from the current show. In the case of The Honeymoon Express, one of those songs would be one of his primary signature pieces to the end of his life.
Joe McCarthy and James V. Monaco had written some songs together, and brought this particular piece as a ragtime one step to publisher Harry Von Tilzer, who subsequently rejected the tune. One of Von Tilzer's song pluggers, Nemo Roth, was a friend of the composers. While it was his job to promote Von Tilzer tunes at events like dance contests, he sometimes knew enough to take a chance on a rogue entry. Roth was at a Brooklyn dance event one evening prepared to sing Am I In Love published by his employer, but Monaco and McCarthy asked if he would try their tune instead. The singer had been downing large quantities of beer that evening, and by the time he got up to perform for the crowd his coherence had been considerably dimmed. Because of this temporary impediment, Roth had to sing the piece You Made Me Love You at a much slower pace, instantly (if accidentally) transforming a ragtime song into a tear-jerker of a ballad. Even though Harry, who was present, was clearly irritated by the substitution, by the end of the performance he acknowledged that it was a tune with great possibilities. The following week he presented it to his friend Jolson for interpolation into The Honeymoon Express, which was already running. As Gaby Deslys had departed from the show by that time, Jolson was the clear star, and was able to pull stunts like bringing in a new song. After its performance, the singer was called back to stage over a dozen times. It may have been a little trick he pulled, that of going down on one knee to deliver the closing "gimme, gimme, gimme, gimme, what I cry for..." While he frequently said it was due to an ingrown toenail causing him pain on that foot, it was actually an effective method of engaging the audience. Milton Berle later insisted that singer Blossom Seeley had originated the move prior to Jolson's dramatic use of it. Ironically, it was Harry's brother Will Von Tilzer who ended up publishing the piece under his Broadway Music imprint, with Jolson's name at the top.
The World According to Jolson
For all of his bravado and bigger-than-life stage presence, Al Jolson showed many signs of insecurity offstage and backstage. Opening nights - even if it was the same play in a different city - were horrific for him, and he sometimes needed to have a convenient bucket just behind the proscenium to lose his last meal, sent up by a case of excessive nerves. He also had insecurities that every new audience might not revere him as much as he would like, and he tried earnestly to win their fealty through every single performance. If other performers were getting equal applause to his, he would have them removed from the show he was in, or refuse to share the stage. Jolson reportedly had the habit of leaving the water running in his dressing room so he would not hear how much applause the other entertainers were getting! Offstage, however, Jolson was a competitive man when it came to perceptions of him. He performed for a great many charities, those in association with his Jewish faith being the most important. He was also somewhat of a misogynist when it came to women, including the ones he was married to. Many chorus girls who were in his shows may have exhibited a bit of a blush when they were around Jolson, with whom they very well may have had a liaison. Jolson also had a bit of a temper, but it was usually easily managed,
And what of Harry Jolson? He had remained active in vaudeville since his separation from Al in 1905, and fared well enough as a singer an actor that he was still getting favorable notices in the 1910s. However, as his younger brother became more famous, the approaching shadow grew longer. By 1914, many of the notices in the trade papers made it clear that Harry Jolson was Al Jolson's brother, either as a point of reference or of comparison. He appeared to not be destined for the bigger stages or houses that Al now commanded, and over time this built up a level of resentment in the man who felt partially responsible for his younger brother's career choice and subsequent success. As with Al, Harry worked quite often in blackface, and was said to have a clear speaking and singing voice, sometimes with the term "operatic" applied to it. Just the same, he likely seethed at such erroneous assertions as one found in the Albany [New York] Times Union of August 16, 1915, stating that "Harry Jolson is a brother of the famous Al Jolson, and this younger member of the family is recognized as a black faced comedian with few superiors." Al's rising star created a wall of animosity between the brothers, even if unfairly, and their relationship became tenuous at best throughout their remaining lives.
There remains some controversy among entertainment and music historians as to how much credit Jolie deserved for the collective of songs that bear his name as co-composer. Starting with My Sumurun Girl, and especially during the 1920s, Jolson would somehow infer himself not only onto the cover of a piece, but the composition credits as well. He might change a lyric or two, or perhaps play with a melody or syncopation that he felt improved the piece. While this did not go over well with some songwriters, there were many who knew that Jolson's name meant some additional sales and performances of their pieces, even if his angle was to derive some of the monetary benefits from royalties. There were a few cases in which Al made somewhat significant contributions to a song, and even a full verse in one important instance, but for the most part his input was arguably negligible. Would the composers have done as well without Jolie in their court? Many of them would confirm that, especially one young man who will be discussed later.
After just over a year with Victor Records, Al was courted by the Columbia Graphophone Company (later Columbia Records), and they signed him to a multi-year contract. He made records exclusively for them from June of 1913 until the end of 1923, numbering at least 75 sides culled from over 200 takes. Columbia quality was about as good as could be derived from the recording horn technology of the time, and even a century later when played back on a good Victrola or Columbia phonograph, there is an element of presence in Jolson's clear and succinct voice that was not as prominent in his later electronic recordings. It was a rare occasion when the house orchestra overwhelmed Al's voice, a hazard that many singers encountered in those early days when the ensembles were all crowded into a little space around the recording horn. Jolson also managed to convey much of his stage persona in the studio as well, sometimes breaking into his dialogues in the middle of a take, and engaging the audience at the consumer end of the phonograph. Many of the finest examples of ragtime era singing and interpretations were captured on these discs, of which virtually all are available in digital form on CDs or downloads.
The Honeymoon Express went on tour in late 1913 and played in a number of theaters for the next several months, including a run at the Garrick in Chicago in January of 1914. The show and other vaudeville engagements outside of the Shubert contract kept Al busy through much of the year. Then on October 10, his next production was launched. Dancing Around was the same type of loosely plotted show that he had now become used to, but Jolson needed a malleable vehicle in which he could interpolate whatever songs he wanted in addition to frequently breaking the fourth wall to connect directly with the audience. In addition to his now-expected "Gus" character, he also played "Monsieur Jean" for part of the show, requiring a bit of makeup magic to switch between the two. The plot was also more topical than his prior plays had been, focusing on the growing war between Germanic countries and the United Kingdom. To that end, it included the new British hit It's a Long, Long Way to Tipperary and several songs by Sigmund Romberg, Harry Carroll and Harold Atteridge. Yet the opening night lineup did not prevent Jolson from switching numbers out in the short term.
One of the first interpolations was Sister Susie's Sewing Shirts for Soldiers, another British tune that he quickly latched onto once he caught wind of it. It had been introduced by American singer Jack Norworth (former husband of the charismatic Nora Bayes) in England, but once Jolie appropriated the number it was pretty much his by proxy. He would do a couple of verses of this charming tongue twister, and then issue a challenge to the audience members. To any man who could properly navigate the tricky rapid-fire chorus at a decent speed without bobbling it, he offered a new hat or five dollars, and to any women who would meet his challenge she would get either a new hat or a ten-pound box of chocolate. Evidently, he rarely paid up, knowing that the combination of stage fright (with which he was all too familiar) and the intimidation of his mere presence would yield a fluffed performance. Except for one occasion in particular, that is. A week after he recorded this number for Columbia in December, complete with a reduction of the staged routine with an audience (which sounds like it was all men),
Dancing Around played for a solid run of 145 performances into February of 1915, after which it went on an extended national tour. Between fulfilling his obligation to the Shuberts and numerous other engagements along the way, Jolson did not make it into the Columbia studios for the entirety of 1915. In virtually every large and medium town in which he appeared, there was excitement and a flurry of press coverage, some of it often making it back into New York papers and Variety. Many of the accounts mentioned his now famous rose-tinted elevated runway installed in each of the theaters, and the fact that there were only four Jolson songs in the show, but another dozen or more would follow the final curtain. Al did, however, have to contend with some of the foibles of national fame, and not just from adoring female fans, of which there were many. It appears that opportunists were creating endorsements with Jolson's picture, not the least of which appeared on sheet music covers. To that end he fired a shot across the bow in a full-page warning published in Variety near the end of the year, which tried to sound amicable and menacing all at once:
Certain Music Publishers throughout the country have fallen into the habit of printing my photograph as the frontispiece of songs which I have never sung, or even rehearsed—and which I wouldn't sing. I raise no objection to the publication of my photograph on such songs as I have sung, and am singing. But I am impelled to warn publishers who print my picture on unauthorized music, that I shall hold them to strict accountability, unless they have my written permission.
After the tour ended near the end of 1915, Al took a breather, perhaps reconnecting with Henrietta, but in an increasingly discordant relationship, given his long absences and the dalliances about which she had heard many stories. His charm and pleading could only overcome so much, but she still remained in their home for the time being. Then it was back to work in early 1916, recording for Columbia in January, in addition to preparation for his next starring vehicle, the eclectic Robinson Crusoe, Jr., with a plot that seemed to have little to do with the famous Daniel Defoe novel. But even during the rehearsal phase there was new controversy with the sometimes-volatile star.
The Shuberts thought it wise, given Jolson's sometimes unpredictable nature, to have an understudy for their star's role(s). To that end, according to a story in the February 25, 1916 issue of Variety, they retained an actor from another show that had just left for the road to do so. J.J. Shubert instructed vaudevillian Lou Holtz, who also had experience with blackface entertainment, to learn the script and observe Jolson on the stage, albeit hidden away in the balcony, and without the star's knowledge. Holtz believed this move by Shubert to be on the level, and consented, albeit being careful to not be seen by Jolson. As it, ironically, predictably turned out, Al Jolson would simply not be understudied, at least for this show, and was professional enough to not walk out on the production despite the occasional displeasure with how it was progressing. Once the show opened successfully, Holtz approached J.J. and asked him what his role would be now. J.J. feigned ignorance, having no idea who Lou was, even though he had "hired" him. Holtz went to Lee Shubert, who also, perhaps honestly, had no idea of who the actor was. After enough back and forth between the brothers who had disavowed this understudy, much less the concept that he was needed, Holtz realized he had been had. He took his lesson learned story to Variety, which usually published any backstage gossip like this of interest to their readership that had some basis in reliabile truth, complying in this case as well. Holtz went on to his own moderately successful career.
Most of the primary actors in Robinson Crusoe, Jr. played multiple roles throughout the production, which took place in multiple historical time periods. Jolson played "Gus" again, the chauffer of another character, as well as "Good Friday," the equivalent of Crusoe's man Friday from the novel, and "Fatima," the beautiful slave girl. In all, there were 27 musical numbers in the original Romberg score, of which Al commanded four amidst a cast of nearly 200, including dancers and chorus. One of those was the first hit for composer and pianist Pete Wendling. Hawaiian songs had become quite popular by this time, and Yaaka Hula Hickey Dula as performed by Jolson inspired many more to be written. Another "Dixie" number was the beautiful Down Where the Swanee River Flows, which in some regards was a harbinger of the songs Mammy and Rock-a-bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody, both yet to be written. For a time, Jolson held tightly to that piece, insisting that he be the only performer with exclusive rights to it, but an announcement in Variety in November of 1916 showed that the performer had "granted us [Broadway Music] permission" to release the tune, noting that they had enjoyed "a deluge of requests for a copy of the song from performers all over the country." Such was his brand that Jolie actually managed to control some facets of the publishing business of Tin Pan Alley.
However, one of the pieces quickly interpolated into the show was either composed in response to it or perhaps just as a random afterthought that seemed like it should have been there on opening night. Where Did Robinson Crusoe Go with Friday and Saturday Night was perfect Jolson material, and brought the house down once he started performing it. Both this and Down Where the Swanee River Flows were also big hits when released on Columbia Records that April. Whether Romberg became even more discouraged by an actor overriding his musical vision for the show was something apparently kept out of the trade papers.
Jolson felt that once he had adopted a song it was his exclusively until he said otherwise, and in some cases, performers would institute lawsuits for such rights to a piece. In the case of Where did Robinson Crusoe Go, within two weeks of his recording it in February, it was already purloined by another star. On March 13, Belle Baker was on stage at the highly regard Palace vaudeville theater, one of the venues Jolson had inexplicably never officially been invited to play, and proceeded to sing Robinson Crusoe while Jolson was in one of the front row seats. When she encored the piece, Belle called out "Come on, Al, join in." This was too much for him to handle - playing second fiddle to a dame who had stolen his material. He bolted out of the theater immediately, and returned the next day with his friend, publisher Ted Snyder, who insisted upon the Palace manager that Miss Baker should no longer use that material. However, her husband Lou Leslie noted that they had bought it from a music store fair and square, and he had created his own arrangement, so Belle continued to perform it defiantly for some time. Jolie did not always get his way with women.
Robinson Crusoe, Jr. made it through 139 performances at the Winter Garden Theater through mid-June. It should be noted that this was one of the earliest instances, at least in the world of the Shuberts, where the star's name appeared above the title of the show on the marquee, casting no doubt on who the audience was going to see and hear that evening. The same practice continued as the show toured the country for the remainder of the year. Broadway shows had gone on tour before, but this was the most extensive enterprise to date, and one of the first that extended over a year with essentially the same cast. Such tours would become a standard practice for a Jolson show. During a couple of breaks, Al laid down a few more tracks for Columbia, but no major hits. When the production reached the Belasco Theatre in Washington, DC that October, where Al had played with Lew Dockstader a mere seven years prior, he extended an invitation to his family to attend the performance while President Woodrow Wilson was in the audience. He had hoped that his gestures of the past few years, including buying his parents a nice new home and coming for cordial visits, might have softened his father's stance a bit. His continuing quest for Moshe's approval was to no avail that evening, as it coincided with the Sabbath, and Rabbi Yoelson was singing in the temple. This was one of many such incidents in Jolson's personal life that would eventually culminate in a way that would change virtually the entire world of entertainment in just over a decade.
"America's Greatest Entertainer"
The tour of Robinson Crusoe, Jr. picked up again in 1917, hitting the Midwest and even westward from there. But a change was coming that would temporarily mute such activity. War had been waged in Europe over the past two years, and despite campaign promises to avoid American involvement, President Wilson found he had little recourse but to bring America's might to the battlefield and defend Britain and France from their Germanic aggressors. There had been a lot of anti-war protesting up to that point, so Wilson and his staff had recruited celebrities to not only try to change the tide of public opinion, but raise money to support the effort as well. Since the initial call in mid-1917 was to build up troops, but not yet send them to Europe, the primary focus was on morale and patriotism, and both songwriters and performers were on board to do just that, whether it be for the cause of the country or themselves. Even during the Robinson Crusoe, Jr. tour, Al made sure to show up at rallies and similar public events around the country. He even helped pen a couple of pieces in 1918 that would find their way to records, including his confrontational Tell That to The Marines.
As 1918 began, Jolson's marriage to Henrietta was more or less over, perhaps having died even a couple of years prior. He tried hard to woo her with gifts and promises, as well as all manner of reconciliation attempts, but to no avail. She simply wanted out, and wanted Al out as well. At the same time, Harry wanted back in to his brother's inner circle and life, at least in theory. His vaudeville career had been on the wane, and the shadow that his younger brother cast was considerable, and inescapable. Even if he despised the notion that he was being billed as "Al Jolson's Brother," at some point he started to count on that in his publicity as a ploy to draw in audiences. While Al would likely not have shared the stage with him, he did make Harry his manager in name, although there is little evidence that the older Jolson actually managed. It appears that the gesture was intended to warrant a payroll handout that helped them both save face.
Almost two years to the day after Robinson Crusoe, Jr. had premiered, and after its record-breaking tour, the next Shubert production starring Jolson made its debut on Valentine's Day, February 14, 1918 following a tryout in New Haven, Connecticut. Sinbad, or as it was listed in the copyright records, Sinbad with Al Jolson, was another tale that had only scant references to the original Sinbad the Sailor storyline, as well as Arabian Nights. As with its predecessor it also took place in multiple time periods, and the star again took on two parts - the inescapable "Gus" character, and another called "Inbad the Porter," both in his usual blackface. Sigmund Romberg and Harold Atteridge were responsible for most of the show's music, and Jolson saw to it that he was responsible for replacing some of it. Even though the Shuberts were now billing him as "America's Greatest Entertainer," on opening night, he had his vomit buckets at the ready on either side of the stage, wondering if the audience might love and accept him as the same character in a new setting. It really didn't matter to them, as long as they heard Jolie doing what he did best — sing his heart out.
Some of Al's best songs to date were debuted in Sinbad, or soon added to it. N'Everything had already been recorded in December for a Columbia disc, and although not part of the official score was interpolated now and then, given his alleged role in writing the lyrics. The same was true for the mildly risqué I'll Say She Does, put in later in 1918. The star also implicated himself into the songwriting process of the original score, both music and lyrics this time—it was "his" show as much or more than it was the Shuberts' or Romberg's—by not only insisting on the legal right to improvise new verses as he saw fit, even asking that they be included in the sheet music, but by also taking a share of the profits as well. In a twist of irony, none of the Sinbad tunes with his name attached in that regard went very far in terms of sheet music sales or adoption by other performers. However, the interpolated material provided some of his strongest numbers yet. In all fairness, it should be considered that many of his better songs were written with Bud G. De Sylva, who was primarily a lyricist. So even if he had assistance in creating the score from his original melody, so did his friend Irving Berlin, who always had an arranger at his side since he could not notate at all well. Therefore, it should be considered that Jolson actually did have enough musical acumen to have composed some of his music, as well as contributed to the lyric content of at least some of the pieces that share his name.
Three of the most prominent tunes were all Dixie-based songs. The first, part of the original score, was the lyrical and plaintive Rock-a-bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody by Jean Schwartz, Sam Lewis and Joe Young. It was a well-crafted and deftly performed song so deeply associated with Jolson throughout his life that even tribute performances by artists like Judy Garland were viewed as mere imitations. His performances of the piece on film, and later on radio and records of the 1940s, clearly seemed corny to many. However, when he clutched at his heart in broad gestures and started to cry out in earnest "Mammy, mammy, listen to what they're playin', Weep No More My Lady, sing it again for me. And remember Old Black Joe? I love you mammy, you had me on your knee," in front of a crowd of 1,500 or more on a theater stage, he was conveying all he had to the back row as much to the front, and it simply was not too much for them. In fact, it was often just enough to make them shed a tear or two. That was the essence of both the well-crafted verse and memorable chorus of Rock-a-bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody, and its impact on the musical and stage world should not be taken too lightly, given that it is still familiar a century later.
Even though it is hard to substantiate, there are several corroborating stories on another method that Jolson had of collecting "new" material for his act. From time to time, when he wasn't on stage, he would circulate through the vaudeville and burlesque houses of whatever city he was in, reportedly with a notepad. If he liked a song or a joke that seemed like it would work for him, it would be written down, then often incorporated into his own act within a day or two. Once he performed it and it proved successful, he felt he owned it, and that only Jolie should benefit from it. The performer who had unwittingly provided Al with the material would suddenly find himself with a legal injunction preventing him from using "Mr. Jolson's" material. There were a few instances that made it into the trade papers of those performers attempting to wrestle with Jolson's lawyers in court, but they were usually unsuccessful in their attempts, and had to develop different material, knowing there was a risk it may also be appropriated if Jolson was in the area.
One of the later interpolations into Sinbad, which ran off and on for well over three years, was the 1921 number My Mammy by Lewis and Young to music by Walter Donaldson. Another beautiful melody with a somewhat overdrawn but still genuine sentiment, it became Jolie's ultimate blackface and whiteface number. My Mammy was a later highlight of the show, and one of his more frequently recorded and performed numbers. It was also one of the most parodied when other entertainers did imitations of Jolson, flattering or otherwise. Warner Brothers, who had made a relative fortune on his movies of the late 1920s, occasionally had a black cartoon character deliver a "Mammy" line in Jolson style, usually with hands clasped and sometimes down on one knee, and even the Disney cartoon studio wasn't above trying that stunt a couple of times. Although it comes across as derisive in a more enlightened time, this was simply a product of the times, and a stereotype that Jolson and many of his black fans and colleagues had little or no issue with.
Then there was that song that Jolson adopted, a move that potentially made the composer famous, and may or may not have launched his career into the stratosphere, where it likely would have gone anyway. During the second season of Sinbad in New York, another show playing down the street was The Capitol Revue. It was co-written by a 20-year-old composer who had already been working in Tin Pan Alley publishing firms for four years, starting as a song plugger and moving up to the position of a show writer. In fact, Mose Gumble, the manager of Jerome H. Remick Music who had hired him to play the piano, sent him scuffling along when the lad brought him a song and had the nerve to ask if they would publish it. "You're here as a pianist, not a writer. We've got plenty of writers under contract." This did not deter the talented teen, and he persevered. One of the songs included in The Capitol Revue had been reportedly dashed off in just fifteen minutes with lyricist Irving Caesar, and it should have been a hit, but sales in both the lobby and the music stores during the first few weeks of the show were sparse. As later recounted by Caesar, George took it to a party (Caesar was not present), allegedly held in a high-priced brothel where Jolson was in attendance. Bud De Sylva knew of the piece and suggested that Al take a listen. Al was sufficiently convinced after hearing the compelling rendition at the piano with De Sylva singing the vocal. He turned to his current musical director, Al Goodman, and said "I'll bring that in Thursday night." So it was that Swanee was quickly interpolated into Sinbad, after which Al recorded it, and the song instantly took off. Not only that, it was quickly reprinted with Jolson's picture dominating the cover. Whether Jolson's adoption of Swanee was a launching point for the professional career of George Gershwin is debatable, but it likely didn't hurt him, as within ten days the song was in high demand. Swanee also became a big hit the following year in the British show Jig-Saw, likely helped along by Jolson's endorsement. That made Gershwin a viable commodity in the UK as well, and he spent quite a bit of the 1920s there.
There were several instances, starting with the bold stunt he pulled in The Honeymoon Express, in which Jolson would stop the show part way into the second act, quickly recount the obvious components of the remaining plot to the audience, then ask them whether wanted to see the rest of the show or hear him sing instead. Usually getting approval for the latter, Jolie dismissed the cast, then he would launch into an hour or more of songs with the orchestra, who were evidently seasoned enough by this time to expect such behavior from the star. However, there was one evening at the Winter Garden during his show Bombo that Jolie seemed distracted by something unexpected, at least to him. He kept staring at four vacant seats in one of the front rows. Finally, whether it was real or an act, he appeared unable to accept this anomaly, stopped the show, and insisted that the audience bow their heads in silence in the memory of those poor people who had evidently met their demise earlier in the day. That had to be it, because that was the only reason anybody would miss a Jolson performance. He would often continue his post-finale concerts well into the night, and when asked to vacate the theater, would take the remaining audience to a local eatery such as Lindy's to continue his show. George Burns, who attended many Jolson performances, quipped that Jolie never really ended his shows; he just wore out the audience.
Even though Jolson was now clearly a brand, and a force of nature in multiple worlds, that was not enough for Henrietta. In dealing with her discontent, Al sent her back to California and her family at one point in 1918 or early 1919, evidently without bothering to visit her often, albeit working a rigorous schedule on the road. When Al filled out his draft record on September 12, 1918, he noted that he was residing at the Hotel Biltmore, and was in the midst of the second run of Sinbad at the Century Theater, another Shubert venue. Harry Jolson listed his employer as the Palace Theater, the revered stage that had not yet asked Jolson to appear, and and which in some regards was his white whale. Neither brother served in the military given that they were more valuable on the home front, a bit old, and had registered near the end of the war. However, Al had been involved in bond drives, special benefits, and even entertainments at some stateside camps, something he would revisit a quarter century later with a different focus.
It was at an Army Tank Corps benefit, U.S. Tanks, held at the Century Theater (the Hippodrome has been cited but no matching event was found there), on Sunday, September 15, 1918, that Jolson came up with one of his most famous tag lines. The bill was daunting, even for Jolie. In addition to several prominent vaudeville stars, including Master of Ceremonies, seasoned comedian Ed Wynn, the three headliners were George M. Cohan, famous tenor Enrico Caruso, and Jolson himself. As the evening progressed the acts got bigger. Finally, more than three hours in, Cohan did his patriotic bit with Over There and other flag wavers like Yankee Doodle Boy. When Caruso came out, Wynn couldn't even introduce him properly, so vigorous was the audience reception once they heard his name. Enrico set forth with an Italian war song, then a set of tenor variations on Cohan's Over There, followed by an improvised aria. Caruso was called back to the stage for several bows and a couple of encores. The applause for the sensational and storied operatic performer was thunderous, and perhaps a bit much for Jolson to stomach. Al evidently had to be pushed on stage to follow Caruso (the old vaudeville saying being "That's a hard act to follow" applied here). Then gathering his confidence, he told the crowd, still wowed by Caruso, "Folks, folks, you ain't heard nothin' yet," followed by, "Now we'll have some music," before launching into a short Caruso imitation, all of which got a laugh from the crowd. It took an awful lot of chutzpah to be so bold, but Jolson was evidently up to the task. "You ain't heard nothin' yet" became legend, and within a year, the title of a peppy Jolson song.
From Ragtime to Jazz
Just prior to the United States' involvement in the European conflict, or the Great War as it was called until the next one came along, a new word was quickly sweeping into the lexicon. Jazz. What started out more or less as small ensemble improvised ragtime, blues and popular song quickly took over much of the music and entertainment world between 1916 and 1917, just about ending the 20-year dominance of ragtime, both in piano rags and songs. It was, however, not so much an invention but an evolution that finally found its mark, first on phonograph records through the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and similar groups, then quickly into sheet music, even if only the word "jazz" crept into an Irving Berlin song or two. It has since become much harder to define, since the music called jazz diverged into many sub-species since its origination. But at the time, it was one of those "If I hear it I'll know what it is" type of cultural changes.
While this was not lost on Broadway in general, that world was also sometimes separated from the rest of the ragtime and popular song world, even though such songs were often interpolated, at times haphazardly, into shows that already had a thin or non-existent plots. Jolson had been riding high on a wave of ragtime-themed or ragtime-styled songs for some time, and even had some hand in writing them. But he and his peers were given a reprise for one more year as the war kept Americans distracted. Ironically, in Europe, the jazz that was played by American musicians there after France was returned to the French caught on fire in that country much more quickly than at home, particularly under the baton of James Reese Europe and his 369th Infantry "Hell Fighters" Band. But when Europe and Willie "The Lion" Smith and their peers returned to America, it was like 1897 all over again - another wave of what was perceived as a black-originated music style (it was actually a bit more homogenous than that) taking the country.
Jolson and the Shuberts had been doing unprecedented business with Sinbad, which had played in four different New York City venues for five stretches during 1918 and 1919, totaling some 404 performances on Broadway alone. As such, the usual tour that followed the New York stint, which was likely extended in part because of the war, was not launched until the spring of 1919, some fourteen months after the opening curtain. The production had changed a bit over time, with new interpolations as mentioned previously, and some tweaking of the Harold Atteridge plot intended to try and make sense of the added material. Al spent much of 1919 and 1920 on the road with Sinbad, coming back to New York now and then to cut some records, do some vaudeville appearances and Sunday concerts, and perhaps rest up a bit. His valuable voice grew weary at times, oftentimes more from alcohol and smoking than from overuse. Yet once he was out on stage he persevered through all of his pain or insecurities in order to gain the love of yet another audience. He also had his imitators and detractors, but most big stars did; he just seemed to have more.
Al also had his troubles, which for celebrities by this time were usually made public, sometimes by the person causing the trouble. In this case, it was Henrietta, who in June of 1919 (some sources claim 1918) filed for divorce from Oakland, California.
… and that with success his tastes ran strongly to "wine, race horses and other women," Mrs. Henrietta Jolson has on file a suit for divorce. She alleged that Jolson sent her to California from New York last March, declaring "he loved her better 2,100 miles away." "He tells me I'm only a small-town kid, anyway," she said.
Mrs. Jolson asks $2,000 a month alimony, declaring the comedian's income is over $3,400 a week. …
News of his wife's divorce suit today failed to jar Al Jolson from his usual good humor. "Indeed… it's a surprise to me. Why, I'd intended leaving in a day or so to spend the Summer in California with my wife." As to the "wine, race horses, etc." Jolson denied he drank, but said he was fond of race horses.
Jolson was not likely headed for Oakland where she was surrounded by her family, and instead spent his summer break resting up in Atlantic City. There were several public efforts by Jolson to reconcile with his wife on trips to Oakland, and even a report as late as June 2, 1920, that they were going to spend the summer together in Hawaii. But Jolson's workload and Henrietta's better senses ended up breaking the deal within a month. The story that she met Al at the Oakland train depot with her new boyfriend might have some validity, and could explain his quick retreat back to New York. George Burns, citing inside information likely heard from Jolson himself, relates that Henrietta actually just wanted to be rid of her husband and was not interested in any financial settlement. According to Burns, it was hard for Al to fathom why a woman would not want to be with him, and demanded she fight for a large settlement. In the end, Henrietta ended up accepting a smaller undisclosed settlement than she might have been able to get, and was granted her divorce in California on July 8, 1920. (Note that the date of June 26, 1919, which is often given, was the initial filing date, not the final date of settlement.)
Even though Jolson was at the top of his game and still riding a crest of nearly untouchable fame, he likely knew, or at least those closest to him did, that he would have to adapt to coming trends to keep relevant. Two of his future rivals, whom he would become friends with—a strained friendship at times—were rising stars with similar life stories. First was Eddie Cantor (1892), who was part of the Ziegfeld family, and capitalizing on Jewish humor as much as he was blackface on the stage. In addition to his sly delivery and clever wry singing style, he had a way with his bulging eyes. In fact, he soon earned the moniker of "banjo eyes." By the 1930s, Eddie would be associated with Jolson in a number of ways. Then there was the upstart, George Jessel (1898), almost 12 years Al's junior, yet becoming better known as an actor each year, having been on stage since he was just a few years old. While he was not quite the singer that Al was, nor did he have as ebullient a personality—Jessel was a bit more dour and serious in his comic roles—he still represented a coming threat to Broadway's reigning comedian. They ran in the same circles, so some interaction and friendly conflict was inevitable. Jolson simply needed to be bigger, and better, and more relevant; more in step with the coming jazz age; at least in theory.
In front of a crowd, Jolson could be more personable than he was one-to-one. Even when on the road, he kindly acknowledged the tumultuous applause he received each night, having been quoted as saying, "I am very pleased and flattered with your generosity. It is good to realize that here, though I have not been with you for several years, you remember me and are glad to see me again." He also had it in his contract that a percentage of the profits went to other stars in the show, albeit in smaller quantities. But in smaller groups the impression was that Al needed to "be a man," and drink and smoke and swear just as good as any man in the room. He also played a lot of golf and frequented the race tracks, using code with the boys who placed the bets, making sure they knew that whatever amount he asked them to place was actually inflated by 1,000 percent. A $5,000 bet was intended as $50, and so on. This made him sound like he had bravado and money to spare, yet was an apparent overcompensation. But for what? Jolie was on top of the world, and despite his recent divorce, he had everything. Except, perhaps, the youth of Cantor and Jessel. Each of them would literally have the last word in this regard in their own way.
During the 1920 political season, Al made a very public choice on who he wanted for president. It was Warren G. Harding or else… or else it was Warren G. Harding. To that end, he wrote a rousing march extolling whatever he could say about Harding, and when Harding, You're the Man for Us was published, the cover claimed it to be "The Official Republican Campaign Song." The lyrics referred to other famous Republicans: "We think the country's ready for a man like Teddy… We need another Lincoln to do the Nation's Thinking." He was also active in making sure that others in his profession voted Republican in November as well. Al even formed the Harding and Coolidge Theatrical League, serving as its president, and running full page ads in the New York Clipper and other papers in order to recruit his peers and underlings. Few could find ridicule in that, and many, even those in opposition, often claimed to admire his bravado in the affair. Harding did win, of course, but Jolson was only a minor factor in the decision. What happened in the Harding administration after that was… well, not Jolson's fault.
Al had otherwise spent much of the year oscillating between Sinbad and vaudeville houses, always keeping busy, cutting only five released sides for Columbia. Three of them were done on separate dates, which was not a common practice for artists who might have done four to eight sides in a matter of one or two days. Perhaps it was the perfectionist streak in him, or just his current focus on a particular tune. This may have been frustrating to Columbia, as it was easier to release a record once two sides had been recorded for it, but he was Jolson, so they managed. Three of them were standouts. In Sweet September had a bit of a Spanish vibe to it, and did well on stage as well. O-Hi-O was a short-term hit for the singer, and he would later hand it off to other artists without having recorded it.
Then there was Avalon, one of Al's favorite songs, interpolated into Sinbad before 1920 was out, but one that ended up making virtually no money for Jolson or his one-time co-writer, Vincent Rose. It remains the most famous song about that mystical island that was owned by gum magnate William Wrigley Jr., and the town that sits on its bay. The original reference was most likely to the mythical island from Le Morte D'Arthur, the first successful novel about the life of the legendary King Arthur. It soon became associated with California's Avalon, which is located on the eastern side of Santa Catalina island, and was quite a hot spot back in the 1920s and 1930s.
The star was getting tired, and as 1920 progressed he had reportedly missed many performances of his shows, although these were often kept from the press. As the main character was in blackface, this was easier to mask the fact that an understudy was doing the role. However, the lack of the usual Jolson concert after the show's final curtain was an obvious tell. So, at the end of the year he got some solid rest in Palm Beach, Florida. Sinbad opened its fourth unprecedented year in Providence, Rhode Island, in February of 1921 with its star back at the helm. It continued throughout the winter and spring, with long stays in San Francisco, Oakland, Chicago and Detroit along the way. Then the company took a break during the summer, with Al dividing time between the varieties, vaudeville, golf and sporting events. By September, it was clear that something new was coming, and even though Sinbad was quite different from when it started, it was becoming hackneyed. The Shuberts knew this, and raised the stakes a bit as their empire grew. Rehearsals for the new property started in September, and the finishing touches were put on another viable Shubert property that would open with the show.
On October 6, following tryouts in Atlantic City and a couple of other spots, Bombo came to New York's latest entertainment venue, the Al Jolson 59th Street Theater, located upon the site of a former riding academy. The Shuberts thought enough to honor, or perhaps placate, or even motivate, their highest revenue asset, by giving him his own named theater just north of Broadway. He was just far enough off that he did not have to run into crowds from other shows either going or coming, perhaps a way of making his status as a star might shine more brightly. It also gave the Shuberts their own valuable theater back, having freed up the now famous Winter Garden for other purposes, which in this case was to host the last few years of vaudeville in style. There were flowers and accolades and singing, and there was a show, and it did have "Gus" as the main foil and wit of the story. The plot was the usual string of dialog intended to wrap around whatever songs were there opening night, soon altered to complement whatever songs Jolson brought in, which were many over the next three years. Arthur Pollock, reviewer for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, gave a spot-on sardonic but encouraging take on the opening:
The new theater is a large and gorgeous affair and "Bombo," the show with which it was christened, will very likely keep Jolson stamping around in it for a long time. The new show, like the theater, is gorgeous, and two or three of its scenes are also beautiful. There are any number of people in it, but the one who really counts is the blackfaced Al. This lively and lusty fellow has a pungent, robust and virile humor that no one else on the American stage can quite equal. He has an exceedingly keen mind for a joke, any amount of the ability and vitality necessary for putting over his sort of songs, and several other accomplishments. He was the backbone of the show last night and nothing else mattered. He has never been funnier and he is never dull save when he takes it into his head to sing sentimental songs with an attempt to achieve David Warfield's pathos. He is not the exception to the rule that all funny fellows aspire to bring tears to the eyes. Nobody quite knew last night whether his song about April and violets and daffodils [April Showers] was intended to be comic or touching. At any rate, it was neither. But otherwise, Al Jolson was enormously amusing. He has enough vitality and verve to supply motive power for two such entertainments.
"Bombo" is much like its predecessors. Harold Atteridge has written the mediocre book and lyrics, while Sigmund Romberg has remembered the music… The show takes its name from that of the blackamoor who acts as servant to no less a person than Christopher Columbus and tells the story of the discovery of America and the incidents that preceded it. It is Bombo, in the person of Jolson, who makes the voyage of discovery possible by putting Queen Isabella and everybody else, including the audience, in good humor… [Jolson] makes it one of the best shows of the Winter Garden type that the Shuberts have presented.
A week later an announcement was made that Harry Jolson had just signed a two-year contract with the B.F. Keith Circuit, starting in Cleveland, Ohio. The article made it clear that being Al Jolson's brother was no picnic and it continued to do him no favors. "Wherever Harry went it was a case of, 'Well, your brother Al is great,' the inference being that there could be but one great artist in one family." It also mentioned, perhaps unkindly, that "This will place a Jolson on both sides of the present vaudeville fence." Other than the ongoing animosity of this type between the siblings, there was virtually no mention of them being in the same place at the same moment.
Despite of the "mediocre book" of Bombo, likely a necessary construct to make sure the star could use the songs he wanted, the music—mostly the interpolated material—was right in Jolson's sweet spot. There was one piece in there that spoke of jazz, albeit sung by different characters than "Gus," but much of Jolson's material displayed either his sentimental side, or his bombastic show tune abilities. In short, while it was still fresh material, it was not as fresh of a format for the 1920s. In an effort to combat this, and also to offer room for improvement, Jolson responded to the calls of many aspiring songwriters in November of 1921 by having the occasional amateur night, also noting that he intended to keep a spot open in the show for the occasional new number.
Of the standout pieces found in the original version of Bombo, April Showers is the most memorable, and one that has since been tied directly to Jolie. Composed by Bud De Sylva and Jolson's orchestra leader Louis Silvers, and recorded a couple of weeks after the premiere, this was one of the few pieces in which Jolson used his rich baritone "cantors voice," particularly on the intentionally rubato verse. There is a possibility that he contributed at least some to that verse, without receiving his usual credit. Looking at the original score, and listening to the Columbia recording, one hears a very light and poignant sound applied to the performance. It is also the first time a two-syllable word was stretched to four: "Whenever April Showers come a-lon-on-ong." Nothing else from the original show appears to have been recorded by Al, but a couple of future interpolations became enduring hits. The first was Toot, Toot, Tootsie, Goo'bye, another Jolie gem that was interpolated in 1922, to which he applied a hand-whistle chorus, famously captured in The Jazz Singer in 1927. It remained one of his go-to numbers up until his death. The other one, with a similar bent, was California Here I Come, inserted in the fourth season of Bombo. It was both exciting and prophetic, and other than having been famously sung on an episode of I Love Lucy by the cast on their way to the Golden State, it also retained a direct association to Jolie who would soon make California his home. What any of these had to do with the explorations of Christopher Columbus and his faithful servant is unclear, but if Jolson could make it work, and he usually did, then no harm was done.
Then there was the case of at least a couple of songs from that time which were initially endorsed by Jolson by proxy, as his picture was on the cover of the sheet music, but neither recorded or interpolated for any length of time into his shows. Down Yonder was a retread of Waiting for the Robert E. Lee, composed and published by L. Wolfe Gilbert who had written the lyrics for the prior work. The cover claimed it could "be had on all records and rolls," yet disc recordings of this in the early 1920s were rare, and a recording by Jolson was non-existent. Perhaps it had been attempted, then rejected, but Columbia matrix numbers do not reflect this. To be fair, advertising showed Jolson at the top of a list which included Eddie Cantor, Margaret Young, Ruth Roye and many others. Another such work with Jolson's visage was My Buddy by Gus Kahn and Walter Donaldson. A beautiful if schmaltzy waltz tune, it may have been performed by Al a few times, but never committed to disc. The piece became a sentimental favorite in any event, despite the absence of his continuing endorsement.
Even while he was still working through his alleged reconciliation and eventual divorce with Henrietta, Al became acquainted with yet another chorus girl (there had been many). Scranton, Pennsylvania native Alma Osborne was known professionally as Ethel Delmar, a true Broadway beauty, who had previously been a principal in George White's Scandals for both the 1919 and 1920 editions, and who had even enjoyed a run as a Ziegfeld Follies girl before that. Their relationship continued to grow over the next two years. Bombo ended its initial run in New York on April 8, 1922, after which his theater was taken over by The Passing Show of 1922.
In the fall, it was back to traveling, as Bombo went on its national tour, starting at the Apollo Theater in Chicago in October. The goal was to bring Jolie to the people since they could not all make the journey to New York to see Jolie. Just before leaving, he recorded a couple of new tracks for Columbia, including Toot, Toot, Tootsie, with an energetic and slightly overbearing orchestra. It would soon be a best seller. Ethel tagged along for the tour, but almost immediately she learned that while there may have been a lot of Al to go around, not a lot of it was available to his new wife. It was reportedly not too far into the marriage where the former star who had a potential career was now starting to drown her sorrows with alcohol on many lonely nights. This was a bit more of a challenge in some places during National Prohibition, but it was clear that those running in theater circles had access, especially in Chicago. During his run of Bombo in the Windy City, it was reported that Jolson was pulling in as much as $35,000 per week. Some of the imitators of his style, usually not playing in the same city if they had any sense, were also doing pretty good business, but nowhere near that amount.
Jolson was approached in 1922 by playwright and screenwriter Anthony Paul Kelly, who wanted the star to be in a film scenario he was writing, one that was to be brought to the screen director and producer David Wark Griffith. It was planned to involve both synchronized and unsynchronized sound in a recorded track, which Griffith had done with the expensive and failed project Dream Street in 1921. The tentative title was reported as either Black and White or The Clown [while the title Mammy's Boy has been cited, no period sources were found with that reference].
After a heavy season of travel interrupted by a few trips home and some recording, and no doubt a few rounds of golf and other diversions, Jolson ended the second season of Bombo following the tour with a short run at the Winter Garden starting May 14. Then after closing two weeks later, and with only a couple of days of rest, he immediately reported to the Griffith studios to learn how to be a film actor. Kelly, who had evidently done some of the legwork, also had a stake in the project, reportedly in for a piece of Jolson's contract. There was conflict from the start of the production. Jolson did not take well to being taught how to act again, this time without his voice, a precious asset. He also did not enjoy the restrictions, supervisions, or working outside with heavy makeup on in the warm June sun. It is not entirely clear what happened at the end of two weeks of rehearsal and a few takes in front of the camera, as both sides put spin on what happened next, but there are two valid theories. First, here is an excerpt of the report in the June 23, 1923, issue of Variety, printed six days after the incident of June 17:
Al Jolson and his "walk out" on D.W. Griffith were the sole talk of Broadway film circles this week. Jolson's sailing on the Majestic for Europe last Saturday in company with J.J. Shubert threw the monkey wrench into the works as far as the picture the blackface star was to make under the direction of the "master of the films."
Griffith's loss represented $100,000. Griffith and Jolson had no written agreement; there was, however, according to Griffith, "a gentlemen's agreement" between them regarding the picture… The director's business associates will look to the comedian to defray the expense up to the time he walked out…
… He was at the studio on Friday of last week and a number of other [screen] tests of him were made at that time and also a number of scenes for the picture were rehearsed while the "rushes" from the laboratory of the tests were awaited. Perhaps the fact that Jolson did not look like a [Rudolph] Valentino or a [Richard] Barthelmess was his reason for the "walk out" on Saturday morning, but those who saw the "rush prints" said that the comedian in white face screened very well…
"Up until the minute of Mr. Jolson's surprising retirement," said Griffith, "I was delighted with his work. We had taken a number of preliminary shots, first in white face to study costuming schemes and then in black face to get Mr. Jolson set as to character mood—to settle whether he would be a flashy, sporty, 'cullud pusson or just a shabby darky. Mr. Jolson appeared discouraged when the test prints were screened, but I was delighted with his progress."
"I was convinced then and still am that Jolson would achieve an artistic sensation as a screen actor. In the experimental work we did I was tremendously impressed with his knack of getting over via the camera a remarkable unctuous and subtle quality of genuine sentiment in a degree unmatched by any other screen personality I know. I know it must have been trying for him to change his methods, but I never saw an artist more apt to learn the difference between stage and studio technique…
While Griffith was relatively charitable in his assessment of the situation a week out, he still did not appreciate this expensive, inconvenient and seemingly petulant move by the famous star. They reportedly had settled their differences amicably by early July through Al's agent and little was heard for some time. However, in April of 1924, Griffith filed a suit for $560,000 for breach of contract and damages. It is unclear if any settlement was ever made in the unfortunate affair.
In the meantime, while Al and his boss J.J. were still out at sea, Mrs. Jolson was also spinning the press. Some at the studio insist that Jolson was perfectly fine with the work schedule and how he came across on film, while others involved in the project said he was visibly shaken. Alma was probably closest to the mark to some degree, noting that he was just overly tired and "on the verge of a mental breakdown," so he sailed (without his wife) for his health more than any other reason.
While it has been lost to history exactly why Jolson executed such a drastic escape, it was probably a combination of two factors. It had been a hot June, and the outdoor work required for rehearsals in such situations was much more than the 37-year-old actor was used to, particularly after his long run with Bombo. The factor that is more often overlooked and misunderstood is how he was motivated. On stage, Jolson, often afraid to go out, derived his courage and endless energy from the response of his adoring audiences. None of them were there on a film set to give him that encouragement. Also, his voice was one of his biggest assets, and even though Black and White was slated to be a sound film, there was nothing involved with it that displayed that side of his talent. No vocal joy or the famous cry in his voice could make it to the filmgoers through the camera. His broad gestures that worked in the back row of a theater needed to be reined in when his visage was amplified on the cinema screen. It was just not his time to be a film actor.
Al spent the rest of June and much of July in England and France, returning to his increasingly lonely and probably suspicious bride on the Leviathan late in the month. In the interim, his ten-year contract with the Shuberts had expired. In mid-1923, Al met with Flo Ziegfeld, which may have been a negotiation ploy, since the type of shows that Ziegfeld produced would not have fully been in line with Al's style or met his usual demands, and Jolson would certainly not have been just another player in the producer's famous Follies. He finally managed to negotiate a new contract for at least three years at a favorable rate, as the Shuberts, who were not doing all that poorly elsewhere, knew that Jolson was still a draw despite his act being a bit stuck in the ragtime era mode. In September, The "New" Bombo, with much of the original material replaced, shuffled off to Buffalo to launch another arduous tour that lasted through December. Al managed to sneak away now and then to make his last few records for Columbia. In January, with a new recording contract in hand from the growing firm of Brunswick Records, Jolson teamed with the popular bandleader Isham Jones to record six tracks in Chicago, including his first take on California, Here I Come, recently added to Bombo. He would team up with a few more orchestras during the year, seeming to favor that of Carl Fenton, with whom he recorded several fine tracks through 1926. He does not appear to have recorded any tracks with his regular orchestra leader for his shows, Louis Silvers.
It was no secret, especially by late 1923, that Al Jolson had his legion of supporters and a host of detractors. There were also many who imitated his stage mannerisms and unique voice in their acts, largely for a laugh, and often not with the sincerest form of flattery in mind. However, there were also those who were neither detractors or supporters—just observers who would comment now and then on all things Jolson. One of those was Leonard Hall, an actor and sometimes contributor to theatrical magazines. He delivered a curious full-page belated "seasons greetings" message in Variety on January 3, 1924. The top half of the page was the attention-getter, with "Al Jolson" in a typeface of over 200 points, and the following message, an observation that was simply to-the-point:
Generally speaking, there are two kinds of people—those who interest me and those who are left completely clammy by the work of Mr. Al Jolson. Al is either here or there.
The writer is as cynical as anyone about the amount of tosh that Al Jolson sells to his customers. I sneer sourly with the most sensitive at the spurious appeals to sentimentality, the oozing drool that often issues from the arch-plugger of popular songs. And yet, while the corners of the mouth are drawn down and the left eyelid is lowered, denoting wise wink, the mind realizes that here is a somebody, here is a mob-moving force to be reckoned with, here is a really great entertainer. When a man can do what Jolson can do to 2,000 chunks of the run-of-the-mine human clay, he must be listened to with respect and studied as an interesting exhibit in the human museum.
Jolson at his very best is a little above himself—inspired if you like. Often, in his comedy scenes, you catch the self-consciousness of the canny showman, the feeling that it is all just a bag of silly tricks being traded for our new, shiny quarters. But when he plants his feet firmly, raises his eyes to the spotlight moon and whips over a genuine Jolson number, such sardonic thoughts are blotted out in the face of a storm of song. There is no use struggling—it is best to go along quiet-like, for he has you. He is a man seized by a demon—possessed by a spirit.
If you watched Jolson's face closely this week during the singing of "I'm Going South"—a real Jolson bang, by the way—you were not looking at the countenance of a happy singing man, I'll dare swear. You were seeing a blackened face distorted by the spell of the tom-tom business, a man trying with every ounce of steam to jam the number down the throats of 1,500 people and caught up in the whirl of his own making. He was, for the moment, transported and a little balmy. At such times, if you will surrender to the appeal of an entertainer, there is nothing to do but grab the seat-arms and hang on. Al, at his hottest, is a little man obsessed—raised above the boiling point. I can conceive of his saying, as the storm of cheers breaks over him, "Gosh, how did I get that way?"
Hall's message seemed to capture the polarizing atmosphere that was often found in the wake of Jolson wherever he appeared. There were many in show business who looked up to him, and many who despised his continuing success,
A great deal of 1924 was spent with the third season of Bombo on tour. It was still getting good reviews around the country, and raking in between $20,000 to $35,000 per week, depending on the venue. At least $5,000 of that was committed to the star under his new contract. Alma would emerge from the shadows now and then, seemingly when Al needed "arm candy" to add to his successful appearance. Later accounts would show that she was increasingly disillusioned with her errant husband, who often preferred golf, racetracks, or other female companions over her in his free time. During a trip to Hollywood in June he was seen with a few starlets, but also admitted that he had no inclination toward being in motion pictures, having previously failed in that regard.
In an interview with Joe Mitchell Chapple syndicated in August, Jolson confirmed why he felt at home on stage, and not in front of the camera, stating:
There is nothing like a little song to reach the hearts of people. Audiences enjoy the fun with me, but I cannot reach them altogether until I begin singing… When I feel that the audience is all with me, ready to laugh or cry, to shout or do anything that the impulse of the moment inspires—it thrills me. Often after a strenuous two or three hours on the stage I am loathe to say good night—for people are 'just folks' after all.
Jolson finally did have to say "good night" to Bombo in San Francisco in April, 1924, although in short order the Shuberts would have at least one more show in the queue for him. During the break, Al continued his friendly acquaintance with the new president, Calvin Coolidge, who had ascended to the office following the death of Harding in August of 1923. As he had done for Harding in 1920, Jolson pledged the support of himself and much of the theatrical community for Coolidge and the Republican party in the 1924 election. At one rally event breakfast in October, Al even managed to get a rare laugh out of "Silent Cal," and allegedly brought the first ever jazz band to the White House, as well as another "official" campaign song, Keep Coolidge, which appears to have been unpublished. Around the same time, he made some of his first appearances on the growing medium of radio, including programs on WJZ and WGY, with several other entertainers in support of Coolidge and the upcoming election.
December saw the sold-out Buffalo preview of the new Jolson/Shubert extravaganza, Big Boy, yet another revue with a thin and predictable plot. In this show, Gus was a race horse jockey with a somewhat tragic background, allowing Jolson to emote deeply in several different scenes, including one full of pathos where he notes that he was undernourished as a baby and handicapped in his struggle with life. One of the highlights was an actual four horse race with the trained stage horses running on treadmills on the stage. The early reviews were both ebullient and mixed, noting that Jolson brought down the house with everything he did, including some Negro spirituals, and yet another "Mammy" tune, a genre he more or less had invented and now owned. In trying to keep up with the jazz age ethos, there were also timely references to radio, golf, the game of bridge, and a new American obsession, crossword puzzles. The Buffalo Courier reviewer curiously lauded the fact that Jolson appeared in the last scene with the burnt cork washed off, appearing as a good looking white man in well-fitting clothes. He felt that it spoiled the evening to have the star step out of character like that. He was also a bit put off by the usual post-show concert, as Jolson did not perform the latest hit by noted Buffalo composer Jack Yellen, I Wonder What's Become of Sally.
Big Boy opened at the Winter Garden on January 7, 1925, complete with one of Jolson's costars, the composer and pianist Edythe Baker, who would eventually build a bigger reputation in Europe while hanging out with the British monarchy; so he was in good company. However, in this initial iteration of the show Baker did not have a speaking part, merely some on-stage piano performances. One of the first reviews to appear in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle noted that:
Musical comedies don't need plots. That fact has often been demonstrated. It was demonstrated once more at the Winter Garden Wednesday evening when Al Jolson arrived in "Big Boy." "Big Boy" has a plot, but Jolson knocks it in the head every time he steps on the stage. Which is wise. If ever it were allowed to interfere with him it would become tragic… Jolson's voice, his eyes, his whole person and personality are play and plot enough for him. He needs no author. No other actor on our stage has so great a vitality nor the ability to make of it so big an asset.
The music was handed off this time to James F. Hanley and Joseph Meyer, while his old friend De Sylva provided lyrics, and Atteridge still handled the book. Just the same, Jolie tried to change things up by interpolating whatever caught his fancy any particular week, and Silvers did what he could to provide quick orchestrations to support his boss. Al's involvement with the racing horse story spilled into his real life as he started to, according to several newspaper notices, purchase race horses, and had even acquired his own stable to house them. Results were mixed, and he was soon in for a reported $40,000 in investments and losses, or around one month of his salary. This may have contributed to him working ever harder on the stage, and finally over-extending himself. For the second time in five years, Jolson had to stop the show, the result of over-exertion and laryngitis due to severe bronchitis, which was likely exacerbated by smoking. The initial run of Big Boy lasted for an unremarkable 56 performances. There is a story that Jolie would not retreat in spite of his maladies, in part because Eddie Cantor was doing so well in a competing show. However, Cantor was also ill from exhaustion, and the day he finally conceded and halted his show, Jolson made the decision to do the same. In reality, that was also a joint decision made by Al's primary physician and the Shuberts, not just Jolson. This was apparently an unprecedented move, but given Jolson's direct association with the entertainment, the Shuberts admitted they had little choice but to close the show and refund ticket holders.
Al and Alma retreated to Bermuda for recuperation in early April, returning on the 16th. The passenger list showed them residing at this time in Hartsdale, New York, although Al also claimed an apartment in the city on 59th Street near his theater. By the end of the month he was partially recovered, and stopping the show at the annual Spring Gambol held by the Lambs Club at the Metropolitan Opera House. That he reportedly outshone his pal, composer Irving Berlin, as well as World War I hero General Pershing, spoke to his continuing relevance, despite reports to the contrary. Then it was off to California via the Panama Canal on the S.S. President Adams for a 19-day cruise, although Mrs. Jolson was not found on the passenger list, either staying at home or traveling west separately. Upon his return to New York in June, Al was feeling much better, but other than the occasional benefit appearance or Sunday night concert he still held back from performing. He also spent time tending to his racing stable, as well as taking some considerable losses at the track. He did not spend much time at home, where Alma started to find more solace in whatever alcohol was available to her despite the Volstead Act.
Then, it took a while for a slot to be freed up, but late in the summer, Big Boy opened again with its two primary stars on August 24, 1925. It played a good run this time, lasting through December at the Shubert's 44th Street Theatre. Jolson remained in the cast for the entire run of 120 performances. This time, Edythe Baker was given lines, but reviewers seemed to think she should stick to her brilliant musical skillset. Among the new pieces he attempted to wedge into the story were It All Depends on You, Keep Smiling and Trouble, and one that Al just couldn't seem to get a handle on. The first edition of the mildly suggestive If You Knew Susie had Jolson's newest picture adorning it, but it only lasted in Big Boy for a few weeks until the star decided to hand it off to somebody else. In doing so, he did Eddie Cantor one of the greatest favors ever, since the comedian immediately took hold of it and made it one of his biggest hits, right alongside Makin' Whoopee. Jolie later commented that had he known it had such potential that he would have maintained a tighter grip on the song. A new edition was soon released where Jolson's picture was included alongside Cantor's and several others, an indication and subtle reminder that he wasn't the only act in town. At the same time his show was resurrected, another show opened at the Fulton Theater just two blocks off. It was called The Jazz Singer, and the familiar story would soon play a pivotal role in Jolie's life.
Near the end of the year, Jolson had what some might consider a close call in court. He was called as a witness in the trial of Leonard Kip Rhinelander's marriage annulment suit against his wife, Alice. It had come to light that she had Negro blood in her, which suggested a case of miscegenation, which while not legal in many places was acceptable in New York. It was due to the suppression of this fact that Rhinelander sought the divorce. Based on a letter that Leonard had received from his then-fiancée, she had been at a summer resort in the Adirondack Mountains in 1922 when she allegedly met Jolson, stating that he had been flirting with the girls, creating some doubt as to the character of both Alice and Al. Al testified that he had never seen either the defendant or plaintiff at any point in his life, and could prove he was in Atlantic City during that period. He also noted that "My wife doesn't talk with me. Now maybe I'll be able to eat breakfast at home tomorrow." Alice's attorney, who could have saved Jolson the grief and the court appearance, stood up and noted that her reference was to another man who had been nicknamed "Al Jolson" because of his wit. Irving Berlin was called to the stand the next day for the same reason, quickly proving that he was in Europe at the time. The credibility of Alice Rhinelander steadily declined after that time, making it clear that she was baiting Leonard to marry her amidst the artificial competition. The public soon lost interest.
Still, there was some truth in Al's words regarding relationship of the Jolsons by this time. Alma's drinking, according to later accounts, had increased quite a bit, as had her confidence in her often-absentee husband. He often talked about quitting show business, and may have been serious about it after the stress of the opening run of Big Boy, even suggesting that they adopt a child. These were promises he was unable to back up, given his need to be adored by throngs, not just one or two people. Big Boy closed in December, and advertising for the last few weeks suggested it was going on tour for the next two years. Whether that would be with its star was a hanging question as 1925 came to a close.
In the late winter of 1926, Jolson briefly joined the Shubert production of Artists and Models as a replacement for one of the starring roles, playing in it for five weeks, and not making much of a splash at that. When the production left for Chicago in April, Al stayed behind to contemplate his next move. Alma had already made hers, sailing for France in early April. She had not only seen but perhaps initiated the writing on the wall, and filed for divorce in Paris on April 19, 1926. Over the next couple of months Al would try to broker peace. He even sailed with her to France in early July, but to no avail. The suit by Alma Osborne Yoelson against Asa Yoelson was decided in her favor in early August, granting her a divorce. Al returned to New York on the Leviathan alone. (Alma would eventually require rehabilitation in the 1930s, and was in and out of sanatoriums and nursing facilities. She survived until 1976, and most of her expenses were funded by Jolson, then later, his estate.)
Prior to that, although perhaps not quite the last straw for Jolson in the city he had called him for nearly two decades, was one incident that obviously caused him some personal grief as well as for the race he represented. In late May, 1926, Al resigned from the exclusive Westchester-Biltmore Country Club, which was patronized by some of the richest and most elite people in town. One of the managers of the club (names are named, including Roy Jackson, but nothing was definitive in the end) made an offhand statement while rejecting a potential member, saying "we don't want Jews," causing Al to react with a very public announcement in Variety, soon to be spread to papers all around the world. According to their May 26, 1926, issue, many of the 700,000 members of the "exclusive" venue were from show business, or the garment business, or banking, and many of them were either fully Jewish, like Al, or at least partially. Although the club was originally built for businessmen, they did exactly not flock to the Westchester-Biltmore. So, in an effort to stay afloat, the club started recruiting show business people, a move that came with built-in publicity. Each member still had to go through an interview process, but most were approved. Once it started turning a tidy profit, there was inside talk of filtering out the Jewish membership. As a result of this policy, they started declining those of the faith, and as soon as word got out, over 100 of them walked out. Jolson was just the most public about it, which caused a furor, and an eventual change in the rules, albeit years too late.
For some time, Jolson had been battling illness, critics, imitators, producers, songwriters, slow horses and a dissatisfied wife, among other stresses. Now Jolson was 40, single again, and potentially concerned about staying relevant in the rapidly-changing jazz age. The vomit buckets had not gone away, nor his concern that somebody might get more applause than he did. Al Jolson may have been slipping into a mid-life crisis, and something needed to change. This may have been a sign that there was something better around the corner, or perhaps across the country. As it turned out…
The Transition from Stage to Film
The concept of film with synchronized sound was hardly new in 1926, and had often been attempted over the prior thirty years, usually thwarted by one or all of the elements of available technology involved.
While there several sound shorts produced in 1926, as many as 150 would be produced by late 1927, most of them were seen in only two theaters — one in New York and one in Los Angeles — that were equipped to play back the records. There were also problems with keeping synchronization and wear and tear on the discs. Still, the fidelity and frequency range of the 16" 331⁄3 Vitaphone disc system was far superior at that time to the noisy and distorted optical sound on film, some of which was being developed in tandem at the same time by De Forest and Fox Movietone. When Theodore Case pulled his innovative optical light from the project, De Forest was not able to fully realize his potential success, and Fox took him into the fold. However, they were still behind the curve, so the Warner Brothers Studio was winning the race to viable synchronized sound feature length films.
Following the debacle with D.W. Griffith in 1923, it might have been a challenge to get Jolson back in front of a movie camera, if it were not for something different about the stakes involved this time. So, when asked in September of 1926 by Warner Brothers to come out to Hollywood to be in one of their early short synchronized sound Vitaphone subjects, possibly in anticipation of a bigger project, he quickly complied. Jolson was soon in production for Vitaphone #359, A Plantation Act,
A Plantation Act was premiered to an overflowing audience at the recently sound-equipped Colony Theater in New York on October 7, 1926, along with other shorts by Elsie Janis, Reinald Werrenrath, Willie and Eugene Howard, and Al's friendly competition, George Jessel, performing with the Four Aristocrats. This second Vitaphone system premiere screened the shorts, Jolson's last, in advance of the main feature of the evening, The Better Ole, essentially a silent production with synchronized music and sound effects starring Sydney Chaplin, brother of Charlie Chaplin. That Sydney was in one of the earliest sound features and his younger brother held out for another thirteen years before he finally broke his silence in The Great Dictator is an unusual twist of irony. The reviews focused largely on the comical Chaplin feature and Jolson's contribution. While some were clear that the system was still a mechanical version of something that would be preferable if done live, they were still complimentary to the lighting director of the short for good shadowing, the sound engineers for making Jolson neither too loud or too soft (the Werrenrath short failed these two tests), and for Jolson's heartfelt and genial performance despite the lack of audience on the day. It was overall considered a technical success, if not artistic. He claimed to have been thrilled to hear the result, and even more so to enjoy the applause that followed.
There are a few points of view on how the next big project came about. Suffice it to say that Warner Brothers had been invested in the sound films long enough that they hoped to make a profit from a full feature film, and were encouraged by the New York premiere of Don Juan in August of 1926 as well as The Better Ole. One of the hot properties of that time was a play that had been on Broadway and was now touring the country. While it was a good story overall, and a familiar one in some regards, it was also an obvious choice for a sound feature, given the content. Even when they shot Jolson's sound short in the fall of 1926,
The saga of The Jazz Singer arguably starts when young Asa Joelson defied his father's wishes when he wanted to go into show business, continuing to his being stood up by his rabbi father at one of his Washington, DC, performances in 1916. We will pick up the thread on April 25, 1917, when a student from the University of Illinois in Champaign, Illinois, attended Robinson Crusoe, Jr. when it came to town. He was, as most were, immediately captivated by Jolson's stage presence and handling of the audience.
I shall never foget the first five minutes of Jolson — his velocity, the amazing fluidity with which he shifted from tremendous absorption in his audience to a tremendous absorption in his song… When he finished I turned to the girl beside me, dazed with memories of my childhood on the East Side… I said to the girl, "My God, this isn't a jazz singer, this is a cantor!"… The words didn't matter, the melody didn't matter. It was the emotion — the emotions of a Cantor.
Samson Raphaelson later recalled that the only time he had remembered experiencing such emotional intensity was listening to cantors in synagogue growing up in New York City. Not only did the evening stay with Samson, but he spent some time learning about Jolson's past, which was reprinted in the papers now and then. In 1922, now a graduate hoping for a career in writing literature, he wrote the story The Day of Atonement, which was based in part on Jolson's life experience. It follows young Jakie Rabinowitz whose father is a cantor. The lad has different ideas of how he wants to use his voice, singing for the public on stage, and after running away from home is disavowed by his father. Years later as Jack Robin, a great success, he returns to the same rebuff by his father, but still has the heart of his mother. When the cantor takes an ill turn just before the High Holy Days of Yom Kippur, Jack has a choice between opening on a big stage or singing the all-important Kol Nidre in his father's place. Pathos, drama, and respectful handling of religious material made for a compelling story. There were others in show business who laid claim to a similar background, and some claimed it was about them, but Jolson was the original inspiration. It was published in the January, 1922, edition of Everybody's Magazine.
Jolson caught wind of the story and became excited at the prospect of turning it into a photoplay. He shopped it to a few studios, but was turned down wholesale, perhaps wondering how they could make a silent film about a not-so-silent singer.
In 1925, Raphaelson adapted his script into a play with some necessary music and shopped it around Broadway. Thankfully changing it from his original title of Prayboy to The Jazz Singer, it was finally tapped for production by Albert Lewis. George Jessel, one of those with that similar background, was cast as Jakie/Jack. While the 27-year-old was already known to some audiences, The Jazz Singer and his plaintive rendition of Kol Nidre was a true star turn for Jessel from the preview opening on September 7 forward. The show enjoyed strong reviews and recognition on Broadway, and a highly successful national tour afterwards. It also caught the attention of the Warner Brothers. According to George Burns, it is possible Jessel had more in common with Jolson than either would like to admit. After having seen the show during its first month or so, Burns managed to name-drop his way backstage in order to convey his appreciation to Jessel. He was met at the dressing room door by Jessel's cousin Bob Milford who insisted that Mr. Jessel was not available, and had his clothes off. Burns quipped "I've seen a naked Jew before. I just want to tell him how much I enjoyed his performance." Bob lowered his voice and said "You really can't go in. He's got a girl in there." Burns response: "Until that moment I'd believe that there was nothing that could follow 'Kol Nidre.'"
The initial interest from Warner Brothers was in Jessel as a comic actor, and as they had with Jolson and others, engaged him in 1926 even before the end of the 38-week run of the play, which had seen an impressive 303 performances in its first run. Banking on this success, the studio signed Jessel to make a film version of The Jazz Singer. In fact, this announcement was in the theater booklet for The Better Ole. While they were developing the project, the studio had George make some short sound subjects with thin plots. He was a bit wary of the process, but went ahead and shot three of them, Private Izzy Murphy, A Theatrical Booking Office and Sailor Izzy Murphy. They were evidently done on credit as he was not immediately paid.
There are two primary accounts about Jessel's exit from the project, and either or both have some credibility, having been confirmed by multiple sources. One has to do with a major change in the plot. On the stage, Jakie leaves his quest for show business to become a cantor in his father's place. Jack Warner would have none of that in the motion picture world, and insisted that the Jack continue his life as a jazz singer while still honoring his heritage, supported by his doting mother. Jessel, who had an affinity for the part he had created on stage, reportedly shunned this notion. Jessel also allegedly objected to non-Jewish actors Warner Oland and Eugenie Besserer playing Jakie's Jewish parents. When Warner wouldn't budge on the former, and possibly the latter if the objection is true, George left the project. That, at least, was Jessel's side of the story.
George Burns related what is perhaps a more reliable version of the incident, and having been verified by other accounts, it is likely on the nose, even if infused with some comedy. Jessel's contract had been for the shorts and for a silent film version of The Jazz Singer. At that time in April of 1927, he was staying at the Biltmore Hotel in Hollywood as was Jolson, reportedly in suites on the same floor. Jolson, still on the West Coast portion of his Big Boy tour, caught wind of Jessel's troubles with the studios, and decided on some sage advice. Since it was now going to be a Vitaphone instead of a silent film, the terms of George's contract had changed, and he should insist on more money. Besides, they hadn't paid him for the work he had already done. Between Jolson and Jessel, they concluded that doing a sound film was a risky endeavor that, if it failed, could really do harm to an actor's career. There was also that notion that he would paid only once for his performance, rather than on a nightly basis.
The two men spent an evening discussing the travails of show business and likely unsavory things about the Warner Brothers, then Jolie insisted that Jessel was doing the right thing by holding out, and that he should sleep on his decision, conveniently right there in the suite. The next morning Al told George he was going out to play a game of golf and that Jessel should catch up on his sleep. The next day, Jessel learned from Variety that Zanuck was right. Jolson had been signed to do The Jazz Singer, starting a quasi-friendly feud that lasted for the next 23 years—even after Jolson's death. As a side note, Eddie Cantor was also offered the role after Jessel's outlandish demand was rebuffed, but he refused it based on their solid friendship, and even offered to help negotiate on George's behalf, albeit too late to have any impact.
Even though Warner was fully aware that Jessel knew the role well and wanted to play it on screen, how did Jolson nab it? First, Al had George question his faith in the untested medium of sound films, perhaps noting that live entertainment would always be better with more pay. Secondly, he knew how to cut a deal. There have been unsubstantiated reports that he granted the studio, which according to some had been experiencing financial issues, a $180,000 loan. However, other than a couple of accounts, including by Burns, and possibly relayed by Jolson himself, there is no extant proof of that. He did, however, invest in the Vitaphone system before the year was out, and Warner Brothers was a bit more solvent than has often been conveyed. Third, and most importantly, the 40-year-old was a superstar, he was Jolson, while the 28-year-old Jessel, despite his talent and Broadway successes, was not nearly as well known to potential movie-going audiences. The Warners may have been looking for a reason to replace Jessel with Jolson, and when they got it, the rest was just tying up loose ends. Their publicity department created the spin, noting that Al had "consented to take George Jessel's place" in the picture.
Warner Brothers had already turned out two sound feature films, starting in 1926 with Don Juan and The Better Ole, but these only had an instrumental score with synchronized sound effects, replicating what would have been done in a road show production of a silent film with a house orchestra. The Jazz Singer would add live synchronized speech as well as vocal performances, in essence making it the first "talking" picture. In addition to eight musical numbers, one of them performed by famous Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt, there were only around two minutes of actual dialogue in two scenes, the rest supplemented with intertitles continuing the trend used for silent films. A few scenes were shot on silent film stock without regard to the accelerated speed when mixed with the sound portions. Even at that, the talking portion was revolutionary at that time, and some of it even spontaneous. Jolson had to finish the current 1927 tour of Big Boy while the crews were in pre-production. Then filming began in New York City for some of the exteriors in late June, including the Jewish ghettos and the Winter Garden Theater, followed by some silent shots of Jolson singing at the Manhattan Opera House. They continued with the silent and synchronized scenes of young Jakie, played by Bobby Gordon, in the saloon and at home, pending Jolson's further availability. Then director Alan Crosland returned to the West Coast on July 7 to prepare for the Vitaphone sequences in Hollywood.
In mid-July, the production and its star relocated out to the Sunset Blvd. studio in Los Angeles to capture most of the remaining silent portions and interiors, followed by the live sound segments and musical numbers shot between August 17 and August 25. (Subsequent sound films would be shot at their Burbank studio, formerly First National.) When shooting a cabaret sequence, after Jolson finished Dirty Hands, Dirty Face, he launched into his famous "Folks, folks, you ain't heard nothin' yet!" line and some unplanned dialogue as the crews kept the cameras and sound equipment running. Then Al instructed the orchestra leader, Lou Silvers at the piano, to play Toot, Toot, Tootsie, Goo'Bye, and immediately launched into the song, complete with a whistling chorus. This reportedly, and disputedly, led either Zanuck, Jolson, or most likely, Sam Warner to come up with the idea to similarly capture the scene of Jakie singing Irving Berlin's Blue Skies (replacing It All Depends on You) to his mother using live dialog and a barely off screen piano played by noted musician Bert Fisk. Al's musical director, Lou Silvers, also underscored the film, and would soon work full time in the Hollywood studio world.
For all of the work that Jolson and the crew put into the film, including cameramen locked in the soundproof "iceboxes" that had to endure stifling heat, and sound engineers under pressure to push the technology forward on a daily basis,
The Jazz Singer premiere was perhaps not quite the big event that the studio and its star had hoped, and there were still tickets available at show time. It was likely muted by Sam Warner's death. However, once the reviews started to come in, so did the audiences. In March of 1927, as many as 50 Vitaphone systems were in place around the country, but frustrations with either the mechanism or the material they were being sent caused a reduction in that number as theater owners started to remove them over the summer. The Fox Movietone system outnumbered Warner's installations. When The Jazz Singer first opened in October, only the two initial Warner Brothers Vitaphone-equipped theaters in Manhattan and Hollywood were showing it. It was made clear by word of mouth to the public that to hear Jolson speak and sing to his mother on screen was well worth the admission, and by the second week most of the showings were sold out in both venues. By November it was clear to most of the other studios and theater owners that this phenomenon was not going away, so they had to start looking to Western Electric or Case to help them develop their own sound recording systems.
One of the important factors in this success was the engineering of the Vitaphone discs. Until 1925, virtually all recordings had been captured and played back through an acoustic horn with a limited frequency range. The Audion tube that was initially developed by De Forest, riding on top of other inventor's designs, made not only electronic recording through a microphone with an expanded frequency range possible, but the amplification of those recordings through a loudspeaker entirely viable. Sam Warner further helped to push this technology so that several microphones were used at one time during live scenes, including two or more for the orchestra, and at least one or two hung on ropes or wires above Jolson just out of camera range. The 331⁄3 discs, which more than 20 years later would be adopted by the record industry as a whole, were able to hold up to 12 minutes of audio per side, with a wide enough bandwidth to capture a great deal of low frequency information. The result at the consumer end of the equation is that they heard the sonorous tone of Jolson's voice in a way they never had at home, and through adequate amplification through two or more speakers, it could fill even large theaters with rich sound.
By March of 1928, a mere five months after The Jazz Singer premiered, some 230 theaters in the country were equipped for either Vitaphone or Fox Movietone sound, and the installation business would be booming for many contractors over the next two years. The Brooklyn, New York, Vitagraph studio, which had been instrumental in making one-reelers of mostly vaudeville acts for two years,
The songs used in the film were mostly retreads from Jolson's prior days, some of them played from the original stock orchestrations. However, there was one new piece, the highly emotional Mother of Mine, I Still Have You sung near the end of the story. Al laid down the song for Brunswick in November, amazingly requiring only two takes. Brunswick Records would be purchased by Warner Brothers in 1930 to fill their need for a distribution network for music featured in their films, and likely to obtain the Jolson catalog. Given the waves his motion picture feature debut had been making around the country, and soon, the world, Jolie started weighing his options. The public wanted more, and Warner Brothers was willing to oblige. So was Al. As far as he was concerned, "they ain't heard nothin' yet!"
The Rise and Fall of Jolson the Movie Star
Having taken some time off after his eight weeks with The Jazz Singer, and following the publicity for the picture and some Sunday night concerts, Jolson resumed rehearsals for the Big Boy tour in November, opening on December 2, 1927, in Syracuse, New York, the home town of the Shubert brothers' father, Sam Shubert. Al referred to the show as a party, more than a production. The Syracuse American of November 27, in advance of the show, noted that:
It makes little difference what he does or says, whether he sings or talks or clowns, he gratifies the public, and if anyone should ask him to give a reason for his drawing power, it is doubtful if could give an adequate reply.
The entire production was, as expected, brilliantly received, and the tour was off and running for another successful season. In a note of irony, the production that followed Big Boy at Shubert's Wieting Theatre in Syracuse was none other than The Jazz Singer, complete with Jessel at the helm. Opening soon after that was the film version at the first Vitaphone-equipped theater in town.
The Big Boy tour went back to the greater New York City area, and on rare nights when Jolson was not engaged on the stage, he did the occasional radio appearance. Almost the same week that Big Boy wrapped in late January, a film adaptation of the core story, In Old Kentucky, was introduced on screens around the country.
It is unclear if Al was "itching" to get back in front of a camera again, but after a short winter break when the studio moved most of its facilities from Hollywood over the hill to Burbank, the Warner Brothers, realizing a profit that not only staved off bankruptcy but actually made them an industry force, were certainly interested in bringing Jolson back. They offered him a multi-film contract, but it appears he may have signed on for only one more at that point. Jolie's tacit approval of Vitaphone made it easy for Warner Brothers to immediately entice many other big stars, including actor John Barrymore, comedienne Fanny Brice, singer Sophie Tucker and bandleader Ted Lewis. As for his next project, one of the first properties that Jack Warner reportedly put forward was the Italian opera Pagliacci. This would have put Jolson in clown face rather than blackface, and competing with his old foil, Enrico Caruso. Within a couple of weeks of the announcement in February, he wisely declined the role. Jack Warner soon came upon The Singing Fool, a play by Leslie S. Barrow. By March he had the story in development and within a couple of weeks had snagged Al Jolson as its star.
Between January and March, Jolson had recorded several more sides for Brunswick, including Dirty Hands! Dirty Face! from his film. He spent most of March relaxing in the desert of Palm Springs, California. Then after a brief sojourn to New York, Jolie arrived in Hollywood in late April for a June shooting schedule. Rumors that Jolson was quitting the stage for a career in motion pictures were only partially true, but for the moment, as he settled down in Los Angeles, this story grew legs quickly. Indeed, the singer found Southern California to be quite hospitable. Not only that, many of his New York friends were following him out there, some of them also having abandoned the Broadway stage for the silver screen.
It appears that Jolson was also working as an ad-hoc casting director. There was a need for a speaking toddler in the film. One day before shooting was to begin, Jolson happened upon 3½-year-old Davey Lee with his mother who was waiting for an appointment in an effort to get her son an acting job. Jolson said, "Hello," and the tyke instantly ran up and gave him a big hug. It took only a couple of minutes of interfacing before Al knew he had found "Sonny Boy," and successfully lobbied for the role on the boy's behalf. Davey's turn in The Singing Fool would assure him a contract for at least three future films, including one with dog star Rin Tin Tin.
Principal shooting lasted from June through late July. While there were still a few silent segments with intertitles, a full 66 minutes of the movie had live or dubbed synchronized sound, which was of a greater benefit to the story. To Jolson, the song choices were equally important, and he had a great deal of say in this department. To that end, he needed a song that he could sing to and associate with his screen son. Having had success with other De Sylva, Brown and Henderson tunes, he called the composers who were in Atlantic City that summer, asking if they could provide such a number. According to multiple accounts, after having heard the description of what was needed, the famous trio kicked it into high gear, purposely going over the top with a level of schmaltz and sentiment that was somewhat of an intentional joke, perhaps just to see how Jolson would respond. They were not as formidable as they believed, since once Jolie received the manuscript, he worked it just a bit, made a few tweaks with the lyrics, and ended up turning the joke on the writers. Not only did he create the weepy smash hit of the film, but his changes earned him songwriting credit, and all of them took it to the bank. Whether it was rendered on screen, or sung on record, or performed on a stage, if an audience member did not have tears welling up in their eyes, much less streaming down their cheeks, at the end of Sonny Boy, it was likely because they did not have a pulse either.
One other song shot for the movie but later pulled after the premiere was Al's 1913 hit, The Spaniard that Blighted My Life. However, British composer and performer Billy Merson, who was fearful even in the 1910s that the piece would become associated with Jolson instead of him, was virtually terrified by this time. In a move that likely would not stand up as well in modern day moviemaking and music, when the film debuted in London, Merson went after Warner Brothers and Jolson, claiming he had never been paid a royalty for Al's performances of the piece (actually the responsibility of The Shuberts and Columbia Records). Merson asked for an injunction against the film's exhibition until his fiscal demands were met. He got the injunction, and his payment was in the form of excision of the piece from the film, given that Warner Brothers would not negotiate with a musical terrorist who felt his piece was worth three or more times its actual value. He won the case but lost an appeal, having to pay court costs. The press reported that a more reasonable amount would have yielded him much more than what he ended up receiving — which was nothing.
Other notable facets of the movie include a scene in which Jolson is shown applying the burnt cork makeup for his usual turn in blackface, characteristic for his shows. It was also clear that his cinematic acting had improved, and he was open to direction. Some of the long shots in his nightclub showed the usual broad gestures, and the death scene of Davey Lee's character is also a bit overly-dramatic. However, that is saved in part by Lee's own ability, even at his young age, to follow direction. For many of the critics, he stole the show just as much as the star did, one of the reasons Warner extended his contract. (Lee's parents eventually pulled him from films in 1930 in an effort to normalize his life.)
The Singing Fool premiered in an unusual location. Rather than one of the Warner cinemas, they retrofitted a location closely associated with Jolson; the Winter Garden Theater. The gala affair, held on September 19, was attended by those who could afford the extravagant $11 ticket price, and some paid even more, the result of scalpers who had anticipated the need. The response from the public and the critics was nearly immediate. They all flocked to the mere handful of theaters that were able to display the film. Warner Brothers did not immediately issue a silent version of The Singing Fool. This meant that any house that wanted to exhibit it and rake in the profits - some of which went to Warners at a higher rate for sound films - had to be fitted for sound, and therefore ready for the flow of "talkies" that would soon follow. Some theaters had to run it from early in the morning to after midnight just to meet the demand. By the end of the year it was clearly the highest grossing and most popular film ever made. In fact, The Singing Fool would hold its position as the number one money maker for more than a decade, with an estimated $5 million in receipts by 1934, requiring an event as big as Gone with the Wind in 1939 to topple it, a feat that, albeit helped along by the Great Depression, has not been surpassed since.
By the end of the shoot, Jolson had sufficient faith in the filmmaking process that he possibly decided at this point that he was going to relocate permanently to California to be in motion pictures. He signed a three-film contract with the Warners for $500,000 per appearance, and it was reported that they also gave him a Rolls Royce automobile for his effort. Al then implemented his future plans, one of them involving a new leading lady. In The Singing Fool, Al had one principle and one secondary leading lady in the person of Josephine Dunn as the spiteful cheating wife and Betty Bronson as the more sincere romantic interest.
When Sidewalks of New York played in Chicago in early April of 1928, Al was in the audience, and this time was somehow enraptured by the young ingénue. When the show closed later in the month, and after she had returned to New York, Ruby was called to Los Angeles in mid-June to appear in some of the local theaters, including Sid Grauman's Egyptian, with her tap dancing specialties. Jolson, who was at Union Station with some of the Warner folks to greet Fanny Brice when she got off the train, saw Ruby exit right after her, and greeted her with his usual vigor. Knowing she was now in town, he set out to woo her even further, even promising her a better salary, which his friend Sid Grauman would pay if asked. She was a bit wary of the attention, but accepted the offer of better compensation with gratitude. However, there was one strong complication in all of this. That was Ruby's current boyfriend, Johnny "Irish" Costello. That such a name sounds a bit nefarious is not a coincidence. He was a bootlegger and gangster known to many of the Broadway district speakeasies in New York as a supplier and protector, working for Owney Madden, who was even more notorious. Being a gangster's moll might have potentially put on a little more of a sheen for the entertainer, who was often up for a challenge that involved a little risk. In any case, Al was quite persistent in his interest.
Jolson pursued the relationship throughout Ruby's time in Los Angeles, sending her roses nightly at Grauman's, and frequently inviting her to dinner. She was a bit put off, then actually frightened of Jolson's interest, asking for a release for her contract so she could return home. Costello, now aware of Jolson's attention, made the arrangements, and she was soon back east.
Jolson, through Warner management, arranged for an engagement for Ruby at their new Hollywood theater in July. Being told that Jolson was out of town, she ventured back, only to find he was still on the hunt. Knowing he would not stop until she acceded to his wishes, she finally accepted a dinner invitation.
The stories of the actual meeting had likely been embellished a bit in later accounts by those who knew one or more of the parties, and some press accounts. However, the general narrative is that the gangster insisted that since Ruby now loved Al, he better make her an honest woman in a hurry, or he might not be around to sing on a stage ever again. Jolson drew back at this, since nobody could ever treat him in such a way. However, he assessed the situation and made sure Johnny knew that as soon as The Singing Fool had premiered he would tie the knot with Ruby. Johnny then noted that Al had not done all that well in marriage before and had been accused of some level of mental or physical abuse, whether such allegations were true. As a matter of assurance, Costello "suggested" that a monetary show of faith would ease his mind. It appears that Ruby was worth a cool $1,000,000 to Al, and he paid up in order to prevent future skirmishes and guarantee their safety. While Costello called them even, news of the payout somehow made it into the newspapers. Other "associates" of Costello in a similar business thought about touching Jolson, including Jack "Legs" Diamond. However, with the help of Al's well-connected friend, newspaper columnist Mark Hellinger, a couple of other sinister characters "put the squeeze" on Diamond, and he apologized for his "joke."
Costello was true to his word, and did what he could to keep his henchmen and others who took umbrage at Jolson's actions from acting on their anger in an overly aggressive manner. It is said, although the incident is hard to confirm, that three of his men came to Jolson's hotel to threaten him, and perhaps do some damage. When informed that they were downstairs, Al allegedly came right down and boldly faced off with the trio on the street, making it clear that they weren't going to change the situation. Then the men simply left, and Jolson continued with his plans. The pair were married on September 21, 1928, two days after the big premiere of The Singing Fool, in Port Chester, New York, at the home of state Surrogate George A. Slater. Intended to stay a secret for a while, word got out rather quickly through Hellinger, who was given the scoop for his intervention, and it was on the front pages all around the country the following Tuesday. Their split-age relationship was compared, not always kindly, with that of John Barrymore and his young bride, Dolores Costello, who were married soon after. The entertainment gossip columns were full of the usual "old enough to be her father" quips for both men. It did not deter Jolson, who had fairly quickly jumped on The Olympic bound for Europe with his young wife, full of hope for the future. Hellinger and his photographer were also along for the ride, as Jolson felt he owed him the honeymoon exclusive as well.
After a month abroad, the newlyweds arrived back in New York on October 22. Jolson almost immediately had to deflect questions from the press concerning his agreement and payout to Costello.
Not long after Ruby got to Los Angeles, Al, perhaps in an effort to escape the relentless onslaught of press attention, boarded the City of Honolulu in mid-December with his wife and sailed to Hawaii. They returned around three weeks later in early January, and the gossip columns were already suggesting that there were marital issues in the Jolson household, including a claim that he had "hopped into his car and sped off" as soon as they got back. He did, in fact, retreat back to New York City for unspecified reasons. While there near the end of January, Al not only affirmed that the couple was quite happy, but inadvertently started a rumor, suggesting that there would soon be a little Jolson wandering around their home. This was not in the cards, however. Returning west in February, and perhaps hoping to escape the daily rigors of Hollywood and the intrusive reporters, the Jolsons settled into a home in Palm Springs, some three hours east of Hollywood and Burbank.
Soon after Al's return west, it appears that all had been settled with Ziegfeld, perhaps as a result of his intervention, as it was rumored as early as February 1 that Ruby would be starring as "Dixie Dugan" in the musical Show Girl later in the year. This was finally confirmed in May. Even though it was already committed to film, the Ziegfeld production would be livelier and clearly more colorful, yet carry fewer of the dark elements of the original book. George Gershwin was brought in to provide the music, which included the introduction of his ballet, An American in Paris. Also signed on were bandleader Edward "Duke" Ellington and his orchestra, as well as comedian Jimmy Durante. Unbeknownst to the production team and the designated cast, there would be one more entry before opening night.
While the speculation was being circulated as to Keeler's future much less the state of marital affairs between the Jolsons, Al was busy in the spring making Say It with Songs, reportedly shot in a mere 28 days. It was a darker role for him, playing a radio entertainer who during a fist fight accidentally kills a producer who had designs on his screen wife, Marian Nixon, and is sent to prison for an extraordinarily short sentence, given the second-degree manslaughter implications. Davey Lee was back as his son, this time named "Little Pal," complete with his own self-named song, instantly drawing comparisons to Sonny Boy. Once his dad is released, the boy follows him into traffic and is hit by a truck, paralyzing the lad and leaving him speechless. The song Little Pal was heard quite often throughout the story. It was Jolson's first full-length talkie without silent sequences, and the first time he appeared in a show without a blackface scene. In early April, he traveled to New York to record some of the film's songs for Brunswick. (As with his prior film, there was a later legal dispute over the songs I'm Ka-razy for you and Back in Your Own Back Yard, composed with Billy Rose and Dave Dreyer. Even though they involved a plot point, both scenes including the songs were cut, from later versions of the film in the early days of television, and the visual elements have not been recovered to date.)
As the out-of-town tryouts for Show Girl in Boston approached, Al started showing up at the theater for rehearsals, evidently to help encourage his wife, who was either unsure of herself in the role, or perceived that way by her husband. During one of the final dress rehearsals, Ruby was to sing Liza (All the Clouds'll Roll Away) while walking down a large stairway of platforms to the stage. While the legend that is perpetuated suggests that she had stage fright or a case of the heebies, informed sources indicate that she may have tripped at the start of the long descent, hesitating for a moment. Not one to hesitate himself, Al quickly stood up from the orchestra seats and, having been working on the number for an upcoming recording, blared out the number from the floor.
A week later the show was moved to the Ziegfeld Theater in New York, and Al again showed up to sing "his" part in the show. During the second week, and just a couple of days after Jolson had laid down the track for Brunswick, Ruby collapsed in her dressing room after the first act. An understudy completed the show as she was taken to Lenox Hill Hospital for evaluation. They determined she might need surgery of some kind. Ziegfeld called on Dorothy Stone, daughter of actor Fred Stone, to take over. Stone, who had been out of touch at Will Rogers' California ranch, was finally located came quickly from the West Coast through every available means of transport, both air and ground. In the interim, Ruby left the hospital bed to play the part for another four days, returning to her sickbed each evening. Around July 30, she allegedly underwent surgery, but the reason appears to have never been disclosed. It could have been anything from appendicitis to a potential abortion. One report, which seems unlikely given her brief return to the show, suggested a broken ankle. Al and the hospital remained vague on this point concerning the mysterious surgery.
Without the now-famous Mrs. Jolson on the stage, or her husband in the orchestra section, Show Girl soon floundered, then in early October it died. The reviews from the beginning had noted that other than An American in Paris, most of Gershwin's music was bland and forgettable, and the story had had its grit removed from it. Ziegfeld, showing his age, had even bragged that young daughters could come to this show, and even bring their mothers to it, so wholesome it was. These elements contributed to it being one of the first major Ziegfeld flops that, combined with the coming stock market crash, would soon bankrupt the producer. As a side note, Eddie Cantor was also severely hurt by the Wall Street debacle. Jolson lost quite a bit, around $4 million, but not nearly so much percentage-wise as many of his peers.
Ziegfeld wasn't the only one unable to keep up with the changing tastes of the public. A day or so after Ruby was released from Lenox Hill Hospital, the Jolsons attended the opening of Say It With Songs on August 6, 1929, at the Warners' Theatre in New York. It was the third anniversary of the public introduction of Vitaphone, so they reprised three older shorts before the main show. The reviews were tepid at best, largely focusing on the performance of Lee as a natural, and Jolson as nuanced, but reprising a variation on his character from The Singing Fool. The songs were also less than well-received. Some critics accused Jolson of overacting in the context of the film, while many were dismissive of the overall plot. Although it took a while for some of these opinions to spread, the film eventually brought in a gross of around $1.7 million overall. At that, in terms of the success of other sound films coming out of studios now positioned to compete against Fox and Warner Brothers, it was considered a minor flop. Just the same, Jolson had already announced that his next film, one that was predicted by many even before he spoke, would be titled Mammy. The other speculation was that Jolie may have lost some faith in Warner Brothers, as he had evidently already signed a deal earlier in the year with United Artists, on an envelope no less, to make films for them as soon as his Warner Brothers obligation was completed.
In September Al went back to work on the Warner Brothers lot for Mammy. Ruby's Broadway career was all but over now, and she would not come back to the live stage for over 41 years. However, she returned to New York in late October to stay with her family, returning in mid-November, three weeks after the market crash. There were persistent rumors about rifts in the Jolson marriage, but Al, perhaps trying to overcompensate for his having neglected his prior spouses, made sure she was on his arm almost everywhere he went, be it dinner, or a prize fight, or the racetrack. He also mentioned her often in interviews, calling her "Heaven's harmony," and confirming that he put her "before my singing, and singing is pretty sweet to me." Before the year was out, Al and Ruby had even purchased a new home for Mrs. Keeler, an event that was carefully publicized as Al paying homage to his beloved mother-in-law.
Mammy was a period piece about minstrelsy, and largely concocted by Irving Berlin from his original story and stage play, Mr. Bones. In regards to story, it was partially autobiographical to its star, playing an endman to his interlocutor boss. Perhaps looking to recapture what had worked in his first two films, Al once again put on the burnt cork, including for a pair of two-color Technicolor™ sequences. One of them involved a song that would become a theme of sorts for him, Berlin's Let Me Sing and I'm Happy. It would eventually be used for the opening of The Jolson Story, and remained a part of his repertoire to the end. A few of the pieces, such as Pretty Baby and Who Paid the Rent for Mrs. Rip Van Winkle were interpolated, casting this film closely in some ways to the shows he had done for over a decade at the Winter Garden Theatre. Director Michael Curtiz, who would eventually take on Casablanca, got fine performances out of the entire cast, including veteran Louise Dresser as Jolson's "mammy," and knew how to get cinematic results from innovative staging of the shots. The placement of songs throughout, despite some lengthy sequences on the minstrel stage, was also effective.
There were some issues to overcome, however. With the quick advance of technology in sound on film, the Vitaphone system was proving to be unpopular, and some theaters were removing it by 1930. Optical tracks on film were now capable of just as wide a frequency range, and sounded only a little worse than a fresh Vitaphone disc. It was also less expensive, not requiring the replacement of the soundtrack discs every 20 plays. As the major studios had smartly banded together to adopt a single standard for sound film in 1929, the writing was on the wall for Warner Brothers, so they had to adapt to survive. The disc system would be abandoned by 1931, but even the 1930 features like Mammy still had the 16" records, which in hindsight helped to retain a portion of film history that could have been edited out. Also, the orange/red and aqua/green Technicolor sequences were hard to balance properly, and were expensive to process, so some later prints were made from monochrome negatives.
The other aspect of black and white that was difficult to rectify was the amount of blackface in the production, which was considerable. Minstrelsy and its blackface aspect was already quite dated when The Jazz Singer was introduced.
The 1930 enumeration showed Al and Ruby residing at 63 Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles. Having been born in Canada, Ruby was still listed as an alien resident, having not obtained citizenship. She showed no occupation while Al was considered to be an actor in both motion pictures and the legitimate stage. But his current status in both fields was in question. Mammy, despite its strengths, had a short shelf life in the theaters. Even at the Warner's main theater in Los Angeles, it was replaced after just two days of exhibition, and after a week in New York. Given that it was considered just short of a flop in short order, there was talk that Jolson's career was on the bubble, and perhaps it was time he went into another field, some even suggesting that it be retirement. But he fought back by taking on yet another project, his final obligation under the Warner Brothers contract.
Since Big Boy had done so well on the stage—albeit several years prior—there was little reason to believe it would not also make a good motion picture, especially since the horse racing sequences would be more realistic on the screen. Warner went back to Alan Crosland as the director of this adaptation, and production started in April right after the Mammy premiere. Crosland's approach was decidedly different this time. Instead of trying to perfectly replicate the original story, Crosland's version is more or less a lampoon of Big Boy, complete with some inside jokes and clever moments. Even Jolson pokes a bit of fun at himself, at one point breaking into Sonny Boy as the rest of the casts breaks out of the frame. Many of the quips and asides by Jolson were reportedly extemporaneous as they were filming, but in reality, they may have been just well-rehearsed the evening before each scene was shot. The exciting final race sequence at the Kentucky Derby was well-shot for that time. However, Jolson as "Gus" did his usual appearance in blackface, this time for the entirety of the production, which was both an expected and perhaps disappointing move to some, especially when he was surrounded by several actual Negro actors.
The film, his last for Warner Brothers at that time, was debuted at the Winter Garden at the end of August, 1930. He also gave a series of concerts at the Capitol Theatre while he was back in town, most of them well-attended. As for the film, reviews were mostly focused on the star, agreeing that he was very funny and in his element, but perhaps chewing up too much scenery for his co-stars, including the horse the story was name after, to really shine as well. Another negative was the lack of memorable songs. As it was, Jolson did not commit any of the Big Boy songs written for the film to disc. In fact, his last recording session for Brunswick had been in January, focused more on songs from Mammy. As with several such films of that time with either dated musical ideas or stories, the first week was usually fair, followed by a steep drop-off in attendance. For all of its merits, Big Boy was yet another relative failure at the box office. Perhaps the parting of ways between Jolson and Warner Brothers was mutually advantageous to them both. However, the studio would soon find its footing in gangster films and similar dramas during the early 1930s, in addition to their innovative cartoons, while their newly-released star would find a considerably difficult road ahead.
In between his work for Warner Brothers and the film premiere, the press did what they could to keep Jolson, still a hot topic for good or bad, in the news. In June, he donated sufficient funds. reportedly at Ruby's behest, to Native Americans in the Palm Springs area so that they would be able to construct their own brand new Catholic church. This was an unusual move for a man of Jewish heritage, but it provided one of many examples of just how generous Al was with any good cause, something he would later be remembered for. A syndicated article by Martin Dickstein of the Brooklyn Eagle in the spring of 1930 also revealed a few more interesting tidbits about the actor, most of them likely true:
Dislikes cold weather… refuses to stay alone… plays "Hearts" for hours at a time… loves horses and horse racing. Once he bet $75,000 on a horse race and lost [questionable]. He writes lyrics for songs and gives the royalties to charity [difficult to confirm]… Has a "mean" left hook and can hold his own in a free for all.
… He never tells a joke the same way twice. He has spotters all over the country listening for new jokes. These are wired to him the night they are first heard. But he never laughs at a joke that is told him. If he thinks a joke funny he will say, "That is funny. That is very funny."
… He hates second rate hotels above all things and he keeps his personal employes [sic] years at a time without change. He personally dictates an answer to every fan letter he receives, but he never writes when he can telephone or telegraph. Irving Berlin is one of his best friends. He never shaves himself. He has made "Mammy" the most talked about woman in the world.
It was not that Jolson was not loved or relevant. It was simply that his style of entertainment was going out of vogue as the Great Depression was creeping in. He had been imitated widely for nearly two decades, but now such imitations were often done in ridicule. While he made attempts to be cheerful and spread cheer through his work, it was not in tune with the new generation that was inheriting the end result of the excesses of the jazz age.
So, what had happened to Al Jolson that put him in the position of appearing to be a caricature of himself? He was among the first to discover the power of mass media (records, sound film, and even some radio), but intially did not know how to adjust his broad stage persona so as to not overwhelm people in their living rooms or in front of the big screen where his head might be 15 feet high. Overstatement worked well on a stage where the performer was unamplified both visually and aurally, but not so much when an entertainer was more directly in the face of the audience. As Jolson's star was starting to fade, the next big wave was coming in, led in part by Harry Lillis "Bing" Crosby and Fred Astaire. Both of them understood subtlety, and the difference it made depending on how far from the camera lens or the microphone one was. Bing in particular was able to woo the listener through the most intimate singing style yet to be heard both on radio and record, quickly cast as crooning. Fred represented grace through lithe movements and romantic gestures.
Hoping for a fresh start, Jolson reported for work at United Artists studios in early November, only to find that there was no work, contract or not. Earlier in the year in February, there were reports that UA had engaged George M. Cohan to write and direct a Jolson vehicle. Cohan backed out of that project in March, choosing to remain on Broadway in New York, his first love. Then there were stories that Jolson would sail to Germany to star in a German language film under the UA label. That also resulted in a failure to launch. Now he was in Hollywood to start work on the musical adaptation of the play Sons o' Guns, which had been reported on since at least March, to be followed by a film adaptation of Sinbad. Jolson was already considered part of the United Artists family, having been involved with the signing of a petition on November 6 with several other stars and owners to boycott Fox Theaters on the West Coast for unfair distribution and exhibition practices. He also appeared with Eddie Cantor at the opening of the film Whoopee in an independent theater two weeks later.
However, as early as September there had been public speculation as to whether Jolie's asking price of $500,000 per film was something beyond steep, given the quick decline of his popularity in movie houses, as well as the American economy a year after the stock market crash. There were also reports of studios excising songs from films, citing the public in saying they were "fed up" with songs on the screen that don't sound as good as they did on their second-rate home phonograph, which had also enjoyed the same technology advances as screen audio. Among the casualties were several Irving Berlin tunes deleted from Reaching for the Moon in December, also by UA. Given that Jolson was a musical star more than anything, he appeared to be facing a formidable foe: those who could afford to buy tickets. Thus the head of United Artists, Joseph M. Schenck, put a halt to Sons o' Guns and a few other musicals in the pipeline for at least two years. The trick now was to find the proper vehicle for their expensive star, a trick that would take some time to execute.
As 1931 opened, the man who had led the way in reviving blackface entertainment, had been successful in taking large Broadway productions throughout the country, had heralded in the age of motion pictures with sound, and who had landed a young beautiful wife, was now facing the same prospect as many Americans were already experiencing — unemployment. Given the poor reception to some of the songs from his last two films, Jolson hadn't even made a record in nearly a year, and would not for almost another two. Radio had not quite come knocking on his door like it had for other acts more in tune with the current jazz and blues. Before long, it would even be hard for him to get his name in the newspaper in the context of entertainment. Despite of his wealth and prior fame, the prospects seemed bleak.
And then, his old friends, the Shuberts, came to his rescue. It had been three years since he was in a stage musical, and five since he had been featured on Broadway. So rather than go to something trite and familiar, the producers chose an interesting new property with a contemporary theme. The Wonder Bar, a German play adapted for the Broadway stage by Irving Caesar and Aben Kandel, took place on a curtainless stage, set in a French cabaret restaurant in Paris, populated by the stars as customers, and with extras as the staff moving freely around the stage and even beyond the proscenium and orchestra throughout the production. Jolson played Monsieur Al Wonder, American proprietor of the Wonder Bar, a take on "wunderbar," the German word for "wonderful." He was even there to welcome guests to his place an hour before the drama started to unfold. In reality, he had been called in to replace performer Harry Richman who was ironically more interested in motion pictures at that time, so refused the Shubert's offer, questionably to Al's benefit. In order to fully capitalize on the expected revenue from The Wonder Bar, Jolson bought a half-interest in the show, something that would come in handy at a later time.
Produced by Morris Gest, with whom Al had crossed paths before, The Wonder Bar has been compared by some critics to the 1969 John Kander and Fred Ebb musical Cabaret, perhaps as even an influence for the latter. The role called for Al to not only act as the master of ceremonies and primary singer in his nightclub, but to also sing in German, Yiddish, Spanish, Russian and French at times.
Reviews of The Wonder Bar were positive for Jolson, but less than enthusiastic for the production itself. Attendance beyond the relatively good opening week was even worse. The New York Times critic noted that "although the cast is long the talent is thin." With over 120 people involved with the production moving about the theater, the staging was thought to be a distraction to some, and an elaborate expense to others. The country was in the midst of the first of two economic dips during the Great Depression, and even among regular theater-goers income was sparse. It didn't help that the $6.60 admission was among the highest in the country. Gershwin and Cole Porter shows fared only a bit better during this period. The decline in filled seats over the next several weeks was in direct correlation to Jolson's oncoming "cold" and bout with "laryngitis," both probable excuses for not wanting to perform to a half-empty house. By mid-May the production had to shut down as their star had done the same.
The star's insouciant attitude about the production, which involved simply not showing up one day, causing the shutdown, reportedly created a little friction between Jolson and the Shuberts. However, it was announced in August during the usual summer break that The Wonder Bar would resume, albeit in the guise of a national tour. They spent from September of 1931 through at least February of 1932 moving from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Washington and Chicago. In an unusual move for Jolson, and perhaps due to a strict agreement with management, the show remained more or less as written throughout,
It is unclear where Ruby was during at least some this period, although she evidently went on at least part of The Wonder Bar tour, based on occasional sightings in the press. In February, 1931, as Al was preparing for The Wonder Bar, she had been in the out-of-town cast of The Gang's All Here in Philadelphia, but walked out on the show due to dissatisfaction with her role, only to be quickly replaced. Ruby immediately went off to Bermuda for three weeks with a lady friend, rather than to Washington with her husband. During a visit to relatives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, her Canadian roots, Mrs. Jolson, who was often seen without her husband, had to deny any reports of an "impending divorce", a frequent topic of interest during their entire marriage. By July, however, it was reported that Jolson was looking for a permanent, or at least summer, home for the couple in the Los Angeles area, particularly the beach town of Santa Monica. Their recently established home was in Jackson Heights in the Queens borough of New York City.
Soon after The Wonder Bar closed, during the late spring of 1932, United Artists finally came through with Jolson's next film project, but it started out quite differently than the final product suggests. The initial title was Living High, and it was to the first feature film to include veteran stage actor Frank Morgan in the cast, replacing Roland Young who had fallen quite ill. Morgan would later become most famous for his multiple roles in The Wizard of Oz. Instead of the usual romantic lead, blackface, or actor in a quandary lead,
Then Jolson happened. On the first day of shooting during the summer of 1932, French director Harry d'Abbadie d'Arrast discovered rather quickly that he could not handle Jolson, and called for his friend Fred Astaire, who had not yet been in a film, to take the part instead. Producer Lewis Milestone had to eject d'Arrast, and hired Chester Erskine to take his place. Keeler was also offered a role in the film, but she turned it down, asserting that a film debut with her husband would be unwise, and possibly feeling that something better might be coming. (She was correct.) Then after the songs had been recorded and assessed, it was decided to change the film title to Hallelujah, I'm a Bum. When Joe Schenck saw the first draft in October, he was dissatisfied with Erskine's handling of the material and Jolson, and told Milestone to redo quite a bit of the film, altering the storyline substantially along the way. Then when they thought they were done, the British censor board found the title to be unacceptable, given the tawdry connotations of the word "bum" in the UK. So all references to that word had to be replaced with "tramp" for the British release, including the title song, which was re-recorded and reshot.
Despite these setbacks, Jolie felt he might be on track to take the reins in Hollywood once again. Then the tables turned. After more than three years of marriage, Ruby had been relegated to the role of Mrs. Al Jolson. Offered the right opportunity, she decided to become Ruby Keeler once again. In spite of Mr. Jolson's exit from the studio, Warner Brothers saw fit to give Ruby a screen test, then in early September, 1932, they signed her to a five-year contract as a star in their upcoming projects. The first of those was a true star vehicle, and a backstage story she was familiar with, 42nd Street. Her role was that of the ambitious dancer Peggy Sawyer, the girl who gets her big chance when the show's star, played by Bebe Daniels, breaks an ankle, a classic story echoed many times since. When queried as to whether her famous husband might be involved, she noted that starring a husband and wife in romantic roles in the same film did not feel genuine. "Many fans find it difficult to believe that a hero and heroine are facing obstacles to happiness when they know that in real life the two already are married." For Al's part, he initially objected to Ruby going into pictures, having "created her career," but when he was assured that a female tap dancer was no threat to a male singer, he relented. A $2,000 per week guarantee probably sweetened the deal.
Shooting started in October in Hollywood, but Al had decided to stay in New York, reportedly not wanting to watch other guys kissing his young wife. Without the previously sure-fire pre-depression venues of the stage or film, he had decided to try and make his way in radio. Chevrolet made the offer and sponsored his NBC Red Network show originating from WEAF in New York on November 18, 1932, and relayed throughout the country. Some of the initial shows were done from Hollywood where he was visiting the 42nd Street set, but by December Jolie was back in New York. He continued his Friday night show for three months into 1933, reprising his old hits of the past from records, stage and film, and even incorporating newer songs, like the Great Depression anthem, Brother, Can You Spare a Dime. According to a later recollection by George Burns in All My Best Friends:
When Al sang 'Brother Can You Spare A Dime' and turned his coat collar up and the brim of his hat down, you believed him so much that you wanted to empty your pockets to give him a dime for a cup of coffee. Yet everyone knew Jolson was worth $20 million.
Some of these tunes, including a piece from his upcoming film, were recorded in late December at his last session for Brunswick Records. As for his on-the-air venture, there was friction at times between Jolson and the guys in the booth and those that provided him with a script, one he rarely liked. They had the show planned down to within 30 seconds or less, but Al would sometimes—as in nearly always—go off script and run things the way he felt they should go. Also, used to the freedom of the stage, and even the film set, he liked to move about to sing to his audience, so sometimes went out of microphone range. Engineers compensated with another microphone, providing a field in which he could effectively travel and not create so many variances of volume. Even with several other radio and stage stars appearing on the show, his name was the main one, so he dominated most of the weekly half hour (one hour on select weeks). By late December, Al was polling only moderately well among radio personalities, well below the top two, Eddie Cantor and Ed Wynn, and even George Burns and Gracie Allen. He was also taken down briefly by a bout with the flu, but still went on with the show in spite of the malady. The publicity for his sickness included a posed picture of Ruby administering his medicine. His first affair with the airwaves ended in late February when he walked away from the microphone, declaring in dramatic fashion that he might never sing on the radio again, a sentiment that was fortunately not followed through. Perhaps he was frustrated with what was transpiring elsewhere in his life. Again, George Burns echoed these experiences in All My Best Friends
Jolie had a tough time adjusting to radio. What could he do, black up the microphone and get on one knee… Jolie just never had the kind of success on radio that he had on the stage; of course, that's like saying Columbus didn't do much after discovering America. I mean, he did okay… he [ultimately] had four different shows of his own, starred on a lot of specials and made guest appearances on most of the big shows, but he never dominated the airwaves like he had the stage.
Radio didn't know how to use Jolson. On his first show he was billed as the "The Blackface Comedian." The blackface comedian? On radio?… I don't think he ever felt comfortable on the radio either. "It's a strange thing," he used to say, "that while the radio audience is the only audience that gets in on a free show, it is the most critical audience in the world… Change and diversity is the watchword in radio, and for this reason I don't believe it's a good idea to dally too long in front of a microphone." On two of his shows he didn't even sign a contract [difficult to verify], the sponsor just agreed that he'd stay on the show as long as he wanted to, then he could just walk away. I know he hated doing live radio, and at the time there wasn't anything else.
… Gracie [Allen] and I had him on our show three times. He played the world's greatest singer—well, one of us had to do it. And he was his usual humble self in that role, too. On one show, as he arrived at our house our announcer, Bill Goodwin, said, "I was just telling George and Gracie that you're the greatest singer in the world." "Ah, now, Bill," Jolie said, "you shouldn't tell them that… 'cause they already know it."
When Hallelujah, I'm a Bum hit the theaters with some fanfare in early February of 1933, it was the depth of the Great Depression, and a month short of the inauguration of New Deal president Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The reviews were kind for this innovative and prescient film, especially lauding Jolson for his vocal restraint in most of the movie, and likability throughout. However, the public wanted to be distracted with entertainment that did not remind them of their current or potential situation, and watching a group of rich actors trying to dismiss extreme financial woes with songs, casting poverty as an enjoyable lifestyle, was not something they were so interested in experiencing. Historically the film is now looked upon as one of Jolson's best,
Then five weeks later, on March 11, 42nd Street made its debut on the screens of the United States. It was exactly the distraction that people with a hard-earned quarter to spare were looking for. The film made Ruby Keeler an instant movie starlet, and it would gross some $2.3 million during its initial run, around five times the overall production costs. Needless to say, Warner Brothers was thrilled with their new acquisition. United Artists was not. Despite the critical acclaim that Hallelujah, I'm a Bum received, it would be the only opus for Jolie with the studio. They either broke or paid out a percentage of his contract, and he was now back out on the street, faced with the reality that his wife might now be a bigger star than he was, and in his late forties feeling less relevant than Al Jolson should feel. But Jolie always had a plan, and he would soon be fighting his way back into the public's heart.
In a real-life drama drawn from a dramatic play, Jolson was put in the position of a bully defending his wife in mid-July, 1933. He was under the impression that writer and former actor Walter Winchell, whom he had known for nearly two decades, had written a scenario titled Through the Keyhole based on Al's romance with Ruby. Winchell later denied this and tried to defend his story as having parallels, but no direct correlation. But in the heat of one moment, Al lost his composure in public. The Jolsons attended a prizefight at a Hollywood arena, and Al spotted Winchell, who had sold the property to Twentieth Century Fox just days before, entering the arena. Incensed about what he had heard about the story from some of his peers, he excused himself, then quickly approached the columnist, exchanged a few words in a tone too low for anybody else to hear, then turned pugilist, landing two blows on Winchell's neck, knocking him down. Then each man returned to his seat. There were many motion picture celebrities nearby, and perhaps having a bit of disdain for Winchell's gossip column, just stared for a moment, then broke out in cheers and applause for Jolson. The men eventually reconciled amicably.
Ruby was immediately engaged for more films to follow up her 42nd Street, including Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade, singing and dancing her way through both of them. This was reportedly despite objections from her husband, who was now floundering, trying to find the right property to put him back on top. It was widely reported in early 1934, as she was starting work on Dames, that Al had offered Ruby $50,000 to give up making movies and just stay at home or by his side. "Ruby still hasn't said 'yes.' In fact, her activities shout a loud 'No.'" In the meantime, despite his prior threat, Al returned to the airwaves, this time as a regular guest on Paul Whiteman's Kraft Music Hall. Signed to a 40-week contract, his first run on the show was from late 1933 into March of 1934 on NBC Red from WEAF in New York. During this stint, Jolson engaged in a couple dramas with interpolated songs. One was Pancho Villa, which received raves from some critics. Then there was an adaption of Dubose Heyward's play Porgy. There was speculation that he might do a film version of the famous story in blackface, but George Gershwin soon came out with his opera Porgy and Bess, effectively thwarting that possibility. Still, his shift from comedian to dramatic voice actor, initially resisted by some columnists who were dismayed by his addition to the show, was eventually lauded by many. Having esteemed classical music critic Deems Taylor as a host on the show added to the overall credibility.
There is no evidence either way that Warner Brother's new starlet pulled any strings to have her husband brought back into the fold of the studio that he, after all, had put on the map of Hollywood. Perhaps it was a move to placate and distract him from trying to derail her career track. Regardless, Jolson was given another chance, and with a familiar and tested property, for which he just happened to own the screen rights. Wonder Bar was slated for release under their associated label, First National, responsible for some of the lesser films of the Warner Brothers conglomerate, often called B-movies.
Given the quality and scope of the material, Wonder Bar should have translated rather well onto film, even though the audience would now be more of an observer than a participant, as the Broadway theater-goers had been. It should have worked. But then changes were made, some of them inexplicable and out of step with the original source material.
Director Lloyd Bacon, who had also worked on 42nd Street and Footlights, brought on the now-famous Busby Berkeley as the creative force behind the overall staging and the dance numbers of the film. As extra insurance, popular actors Dick Powell (who had also been in 42nd Street), Dolores Del Rio, Kay Francis and Ricardo Cortez were put in other leading roles, balancing out Jolson's role in terms of the level of talent, more so than had been done on stage. While the love quadrangle, on-stage murder and a suicide were still in the plot, there were interesting added elements. One of them, which was possibly questioned by the Breen Office, involved a scene where a man approaches a couple to cut in for a dance, only to take that dance with the other man. Jolson's response was "Boys will be boys, woooo!" In spite of the connotations of homosexuality, which Jolson had frequently included in portions of his stage plays for titillation, Warner Brothers stood solid on the scene, and it was included in the released film. Another one involved Cortez whipping Del Rio during a number, clearly conveying some kinky S&M imagery. These and the dance of showgirls in scanty negligees winding through a maze of pillars and mirrors clearly shows that the Breen did not yet have full control over the studios.
Then there is the number derived for the movie by Berkeley, Jolson, and composers Al Dubin and Harry Warren. For nearly 13 minutes, the "stage" is taken over by the horrific and splendiferous Art Deco tour de force, Goin' to Heaven on a Mule, which by 21st century standards, and even to some degree those of the 1930s, defies description and bypasses good taste in many ways, while still retaining that Berkeley magic in others. As Al's character, in blackface, finds himself a new resident of Heaven—the black neighborhood, of course—he encounters almost every possible hackneyed Negro stereotype they could cram into the number, including a pickaninny white child in blackface, the firey chute to hell, pork chop trees, possum pies, Old Black Joe, banjos, gratuitous watermelon sightings, a fried chicken machine, little black cherubs flying about making deliveries, tap dancing by the talented Hal LeRoy blacked up and wearing tunic, a street car to Lenox Ave - the Harlem of Heaven, and an arm-waving gospel chorus serenading him as he ascends on his beloved mule.
Wonder Bar received largely favorable reviews, some of them contrasting it with Hallelujah, I'm a Bum, considered by that time to be a flop. However, unlike Keeler's three musicals to date, Jolson's film failed to sustain and engage audiences at the same level, and a few reviewers did make the point that a couple of the Berkeley numbers were a bit overdone. Emphasis by the studio was on the host of stars, not just Jolson. One side story involved Berkeley's "Ten Commandments" for his dancing girls, which, among other rules, insisted that they get eight hours of sleep starting before midnight, and that they don't go on dates prior to shooting days, which evidently caused some dissension among the ladies. In any event, the film had moderate box office success, yielding some $2 million for a nearly $700,000 investment, much better than United Artists had done. The Keeler films had fared a bit better overall, so the studio found her more stories to tackle. After Dames came Flirtation Walk. For Al, nothing was immediately in the pipeline, so he went fishing for marlin out in the Pacific and spent time at the races.
Even before the film was premiered, he had announced that he was "through with motion pictures." "Too much work," he said, the interpretation in the press being that it was too much effort considering how his work had been recently panned. While the reception of Wonder Bar itself may not have changed his mind, the combination of the press calling it a "comeback" for him in addition to the ongoing success that his wife was enjoying may have done the trick.
In June of 1934, the Jolsons took a cruise through the Panama Canal on the Santa Elena from Los Angeles to New York. Ruby relinquished a role in the film Let's Pretend in favor of vacationing with her husband. They were seen together at a few events over the next two weeks, then Ruby went back to Hollywood to attend to her part in the film Flirtation Walk, again with Powell. Jolson made additional guest appearances on the air with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra in August in New York, following the brief run he had enjoyed on their show earlier in the year and finishing out his contract. Among his shows was a comedic opera travesty in which he took the part of six distinct opera singers. The gossip columnists had stated that they—"and thousands of others are sick and tired of hearing Al Jolson tell the whole NBC Red network how much he loves his wife." But they also noted that when Ruby was in Hollywood and Al was back east, he was generally in a state of "deep melancholia" and was selectively reclusive, playing hearts continuously with his closest friends, and spending more each month on long distance calls to his wife than most families earned in a year.
Then it was announced by Warner Brothers publicity in late September, that the picture Casino de Paree was in development, and would star Keeler and Jolson, a couple "sincerely in love," as the romantic leads, despite prior comments from both as recently as June that they could not appear in a film together. Jolson had already been slated in June to star in the story, then Keeler was added in September, although somewhat reluctantly according to some accounts, hedging on what had been her husband's decision until the last moment. The working title was soon shifted to Go Into Your Dance. This move was suggested by some as a remedy to the rumor-fueled feud between Jolson and Powell during the filming of Wonder Bar, given that he had also been a frequent co-star opposite Keeler over the past year, possibly inciting a bit of jealousy on Al's part, although this was the columnists point of view for the fans. (Actually, their tiffs were over who got how much screen time while singing.) All three had appeared together on network radio broadcasts during 1934. There was also the underlying element that after a quarter century as the star, Jolson was not sure how to be second or third place, especially to his significant other, no matter how much he adored her.
Production of the new film started in October, 1934. Jolson's involvement was reportedly ubiquitous, and even in scenes that he was not slated to appear in, he was on the set advising both his wife and director on how he thought certain dances should be executed or songs sung. He eventually was promoted to a producer on the project by Jack Warner, perhaps to give him different duties to focus on. Audiences of extras were brought in for concert sequences, giving Jolson the energy he so enjoyed when playing off a group of admirers, who in turn got a free concert and lunch. Much of the action took place at a recreation of the actual Casino de Paree at 54th and Broadway in New York City. At least one memorable piece was included in the Harry Warren and Al Dubin score, About a Quarter to Nine, although Jolson did not commit it to a disc, having not recorded for at least two years. The plot itself may have been a bit close to home, Jolson playing Broadway star "Al Howard," down on his luck due to his propensity to walk out on shows, and Ruby as rising star dancer "Dorothy Wayne," who helps him to regain his footing and become famous again. The cast also included Helen Morgan and Patsy Kelly in strong roles, and composers Warren and Dubin even make an appearance.
The production lasted into February with scattered reports of varying degrees of difficulty, some likely exaggerated given the subject. There were also many retakes of unsatisfactory scenes done near the end of shooting. However, despite the conflicts, Jolson was likely hoping that the film would give him some new traction. In April, around the time of the premiere, Al and Ruby attended an event at the actual Club de Paree in celebration of the eighth anniversary of his having signed the contract for The Jazz Singer. Jimmy Durante was one of the regular performers at the club, but admitted to feeling a bit overwhelmed that particular evening, given the Hollywood and Broadway star power that showed up.
The highly-anticipated April 20 premiere of Go Into Your Dance yielded overall good comments from reviewers, but other than enjoying good box office revenue during the first few days wherever it played, did not do admirable business overall. In spite of the evident quality of the film, particularly from a historical perspective, the competition from the team of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire was daunting by 1935, particularly in Roberta, which had been shot and released around the same time. It may have been that Astaire did not feel the need to black up, but Jolson still did so for the finale. The plot of the Jolson and Keeler film was also a bit thin at best, largely a vehicle for songs, as many of his stage shows had been. In the depths of the depression, the public wanted to escape through story and be entertained by contemporary stars, so even as Ruby going into her dance was welcomed, Jolson going into his mammy songs in blackface again was a reminder of a different time.
While the fallout from Go Into Your Dance was not fatal to Jolson's career or his marriage, it did some damage to both all around. Ruby completed one more movie that year, Shipmates Forever, appropriately teamed again with Dick Powell. They were also engaged again for Colleen, shot late in the year, and premiered in the spring of 1936. Both of the pictures received adequate reviews but tepid box office reception, possibly due to the formulaic plots that the duo had been relegated to. It was clear that Ruby had peaked in popularity before Go Into Your Dance. Her husband had also been floundering a bit. Jolson returned to New York during the spring and summer to work as the host of his own Saturday night radio variety show on WEAF, the Shell Chateau hour. This time, NBC insisted on a clause in his contract that he keep to the scripts they gave him, rather than going into his ad-libs. It may have helped with the show's relative success.
The big news of the year, however, was an addition to the family. George Burns and Gracie Allen had adopted a baby girl in late 1934, a move that made waves throughout the entertainment world. (In September of 1935 they adopted a baby boy as well.) A few weeks after the Go Into Your Dance premiere there were already rumors that Al and Ruby were "shopping" for a baby in Chicago, and might even perhaps go for fraternal twins since they could not agree on the sex. They settled on a seven-week-old half-Jewish, half-Irish boy from an Evanston, Illinois, orphanage, and Ruby quickly returned to Hollywood with him in mid-May while Al went back to New York owing to his radio contract. Legally named Albert Jolson, Jr., his new papa took immediately to calling him "Sonny Boy." This move was considered by many part of Jolson's tacit promise to finally settle down and build a nice home for his wife and child, something he had mused on for many years. He would actually follow through on that, building a large but simple colonial-style casa in Encino at the south end of the San Fernando Valley. It had an additional isolated living quarters with a kitchen on the upper floor so they could have guests there yet retain their privacy. Their mere presence in Encino automatically raised prices dramatically on adjoining lots in the area.
Once Al was back in California and had enjoyed a taste of fatherhood and new home ownership, Warner Brothers worked to fulfill their obligation to him and found another film project. As a producer once again, he had a bit more say on how it would come together, including his cast. Ruby had her own troubles, balancing motherhood with her ongoing film projects. Jolson instead selected British night club singer Beverly Roberts as his romantic lead. She was a bit younger than Ruby, but appeared and sounded somewhat older. The shopworn plot centered around "Al Jackson," an egotistic star of stage and radio who is engaged but does not act like it. His fiancée, Dana Lawrence (Claire Dodd), is a gold digger who leaves him for his business manager, incurring a great deal of debt in her wake. Al quits show business and retreats to the woods of Maine where he finds Ruth Haines (Roberts) as an attractive landlady, and seven-year-old Sybil (Sybil Jason) who has spunk and talent. Situations transpire and he finds happiness and fame once again. Also in the cast was the reliably confused Edward Everett Horton, who had also been a part of the Astaire and Rogers films.
The title of The Singing Kid was misleading and confusing as Jolson was hardly a kid, and the only child in the film performed but one song. The set was apparently an unhappy one for many of the workers who were trying to please the sometimes-volatile star and producer. Jolson tread heavily on the project, and in trying to recapture his glory days, decided to open the film with a medley of his ragtime-era stage hits, some of them two-decades old. Then in order to stay current, he did a swingin' number, I Love to Sing-A, with the popular Cotton Club recording star Cabell "Cab" Calloway and his orchestra. Appearing in his outdated blackface makeup, Jolson appeared much darker than his Negro counterpart.
Although there was plenty of good music by Harold Arlen and E. "Yip" Harburg, as well as interesting staging by both Busby Berkeley (uncredited) and Bobby Connolly, all who would eventually work at MGM for The Wizard of Oz, the filmgoing public was evidently losing interest in the aging star. A considerable portion of the press for the film went to the inclusion of the black Calloway and his "Negro Artists," who received a collective $65,000 for their appearance. Jolson spoke highly of all the black artists in the film, saying that Hollywood had to do more to keep them employed, which meant writing more stories for them. In the end, the film did not damage Calloway's career, did nothing to forward that of Miss Roberts who soon went back to Broadway, and reinforced to Warner Brothers and public at large that Jolson's film career had perhaps stayed at the party a bit too long. He did not accept this too kindly, but his contract with the studio was either terminated or bought out. Jolson was no longer a shining star on either coast. At 50-years-old it was time to consider the unthinkable for a dedicated performer who craved adoration from his fans: retirement.
Retirement and Unrest
Al Jolson still had much to be thankful for. More money than he could spend in a hurry, much less a year; a career that had lasted over a quarter of a century; a beautiful wife and a newly adopted son; and a lovely home in the highly desirable San Fernando Valley. He did not, however, have daily or even weekly direct contact with adoring audiences.
Even before this transpired, Al was experiencing an imbalance in his life as his wife had retained her popularity a bit longer than he had his own. He tried to engage her and taught Ruby golf, and she quickly proved to be a natural at the sport. However, when she started playing better than her husband, at a level that some considered championship, Al decided to attend the races instead, occasionally buying and selling horses for his own stable. In mid-1936, in celebration of his father's 40th anniversary with Hessi, he arranged for them travel to the place where Moshe had long wanted to visit, the Holy Land of Palestine, with his younger sister Gertrude in tow. Al also made sure they were protected in the volatile region by an armed escort, courtesy of the Department of State. But such moments of feeling useful were fleeting, and the forced retirement, outside of radio appearances, was not sitting well with the singer.
In some regards Al Jolson was clearly not forgotten. His former employer, Warner Brothers, got good use out of Jolie in their Merrie Melodies cartoon series, making cameos now and then in various guises or references through their characters.
The Jolson radio engagements during 1937 and 1938 oscillated between dramatic presentations and singing of both old and current hits. He also had some of the A-listers of stage and screen drop by for many of his shows to either chat, sing or act. According to George Burns, even on radio Jolson suffered the same stage butterflies, but there was no mention of his vomit buckets. He noted that Al would pace in the hallway humming some of the upcoming tunes for the broadcast. Just before air time he would come into the studio through the audience, shaking hands with some of them, likely hoping to win their sympathy. Al even carried pictures of his recently adopted son to show to them, saying "This is my little baby, this is my little baby." Burns continues:
Well, one night he had Groucho [Marx] on his show, and when Jolie ran into the studio, Groucho ran right behind him, and when Jolson started shaking hands with people, Groucho was right behind him shaking hands with the same people, and when Jolson showed them the photograph of his son, Groucho showed the photograph of a partially dressed beautiful woman, and when Jolson told them "This is my little baby, this is my little baby," Groucho told them, "This is really his little baby, this is really his little baby."
As some of his broadcasts originated from New York a few weeks at a time, Al took the occasional leave of absence from his Encino home to fulfill his obligations, which while providing some relief for Ruby may have also helped to build more of a wedge between the discontented pair.
One of Al's great escapes since the early 1930s was the Hillcrest Golf and Country Club in the Cheviot Hills area of Los Angeles bordering Beverly Hills, across the street from Fox Studios. Unlike the Westchester-Biltmore Country Club in New York, Hillcrest, founded in 1920, not only accepted those of the Jewish faith into their membership, but did so exclusively. In fact, one of the first non-Jews to famously be allowed in, based on sponsorship from other members, was radio personality and Lebanese Catholic Danny Thomas, but he was a true exception at that time. Jolson frequented the club when he was in Los Angeles, sitting at the twelve-seat "Comedians Round Table" in the Men's Grill. Others who frequently joined each other during the early-to-mid-afternoon were Eddie Cantor, George Jessel, Jack Benny, George Burns, the Marx Brothers (Julius/Groucho, Leonard/Chico, and Arthur/Harpo), Danny Kaye, Milton Berle, Lou Holtz, Irving Brecher, the lesser-known Ritz Brothers, and eventually Danny Thomas. Most were there because of the camaraderie, and the food.
While at times adversaries, the round table members were also all friends. Burns notes that they came up with a set of rules for inclusion at the table: Membership in the club needed to be current (joining at the time was anywhere from $300 to $1000, depending on when they joined); they needed to be a working professional comedian; and have at least a 20-handicap on the golf course. They also agreed, when possible, to listen to each other's shows or go to their films. In the 1930s, oil was discovered on the property, and the members soon started receiving dividends from the profits earned by the find. Those who were already members were now being paid for their stake, a rarity for a country club. New memberships became considerably more expensive after that time.
Per George Burns, Al enjoyed eating sturgeon a great deal, but it was an East Coast product, and disallowed in California due to the difficulties in transporting it with adequate refrigeration. Jolson found a provider who would ship it to him now and then, keeping a supply of the fish at the Hillcrest kitchen, which they prepared for him when asked. George, who was also a fan of the fish, would see Al sitting alone in a corner with his sturgeon, then he would come over and compliment him on his latest movie, or radio show, or the like, and was usually offered some of the delicacy for himself.
In early 1938, Ruby was engaged by RKO Radio Pictures for a small feature, Mother Carey's Chickens, a dramatic period piece from the time of the Spanish-American war. In an interview during shooting, Ruby admitted that she was both glad to be working again, but also a bit intimidated and insecure. "Every time I see the director going into a huddle with somebody, I'm sure they're trying to think of a nice way to tell me I'm terrible and get rid of me." There was no music in the film, so no dancing either, and it was to be the first of two features she would appear in for the company. However, after that, other than a couple of bit parts in shorts in the 1940s, Ruby Keeler would never again appear in a film. Both of the Jolsons were offered positions in a vaudeville-like series of shows staged by Billy Rose in the summer of 1938, but he was decidedly turned down.
Some of Ruby's insecurity may have come from her increasingly unhappy home life. Jolson spent quite a bit of time out of the house, but when he was there he reportedly berated her and became increasingly antagonistic toward and dismissive of his wife, even in the presence of friends. At other times, he was deeply apologetic for his behavior, and attempted to make things up to Ruby through gifts, flowers, dinners or other actions. It was clear that Al needed a positive distraction again.
There may have been hope when he was offered a short-term contract in late 1938 with 20th Century Fox, and a significant part in the film Rose of Washington Square. The predictable plot was close enough to the story of Fanny Brice and her gambler husband Nicky Arnstein (Jules Arndt Stein) that Brice sued the studio for a reported $750,000. After being elevated to the Federal level, the suit was soon settled out of court in her favor for an undisclosed amount. Arnstein was reported to have stayed out of the fray. While Jolson's part was not the lead, it did allow him some good screen time as a vaudeville singer partnered with Alice Faye playing the main role of Rose Sargent. But Jolson was notably older than the film's Arnstein-like star, Tyrone Power. Being a period piece, it allowed Al to sing some of his old hits, but it only emphasized that he had also introduced many of them in that time period as well. The reviews were very positive, especially for Jolson, but the box office receipts did not register all that much satisfaction for Fox. Still, they found him to be a perfect fit for their next two projects.
The first was shot in the summer of 1939, and even though it was a small role it was significant. Darryl F. Zanuck's Hollywood Cavalcade, starring Alice Faye with Don Ameche, both recently featured in Alexander's Ragtime Band, followed the film industry from the early days of silent cinema and the Keystone Kops through the transition to sound and more romantic and complex stories. Jolson essentially played himself, recreating the moving Kol Nidre scene from The Jazz Singer. The presence of other stars recreating their glory days helped the production along, including Mack Sennett, Buster Keaton, Ben Turpin, Chester Conklin and Rin-Tin-Tin. Despite his pivotal role in the real story as well as the film, Jolson's name was far down on the cast list. Debuted in October, Al got good notices and recognition for his recreation, but the film was overall only mildly successful, and considered a valiant but mixed effort overall, though steeped in nostalgia.
During a brief break between the films, Al sailed to Honolulu in late July, although Ruby was not found on the same ship. She was either already there or joined him shortly after, as in early August they arrived back in Los Angeles on the S.S. Matsonia together. Then it was back to the Fox studios, where Jolson was tapped for a very loose and largely fictional biopic of songwriter Stephen Foster titled Swanee River. Al was again billed third to Don Ameche as Foster, and his costar Andrea Leeds as the contrived romantic interest. Playing the part of the famed mid-19th century minstrel E.P. Christy, his most dynamic scenes were saved for the end of the film, with performances of Foster's songs rendered the night that he died (also a highly fictional event as Christy had been dead nearly two years in 1864). Again, although nicely reviewed, particularly for Ameche, it was less a boost to Jolson's sagging career, and actually more of a reminder of his advancing age.
The animosity between the Jolsons only increased through the first part of 1939 before Ruby could endure no more. In October, just four weeks after they celebrated their 11th anniversary with an elaborate party, and on the final day of shooting for Swanee River, Al came home to an empty house. Ruby had vacated the premises. The separation of the Jolsons was announced in short order, and it was clear that Ruby was taking their son with her. Jolson admitted that family troubles which he had not considered important enough to predicate a divorce were part of the cause of the separation. His initial offer of $400 per week for life, with a settlement of $50,000 if she married again, and a $100,000 trust for their adopted son was initially considered insufficient by her lawyers. Among Ruby's complaints of "extreme cruelty," which were publicly aired in the divorce proceedings:
He called me stupid. … He would sit at the table and refuse to talk, and make me keep up the conversation. Then he would go upstairs to bed and leave me to entertain our friends. He would never agree with me on anything. When I said anything he would fly into a rage. Sometimes he would keep me up all night calling me names.
He also had the habit of asking Ruby to join him on the road, then after a few days would get tired of her and ask her to return home. Not present in the complaint were any indications of adultery, nor of drinking. Al had maintained for decades that he would not let liquor "pass his lips," so there was likely some credence to his ongoing claim. Still, Jolson's public image was undoubtedly damaged by this testimony, as the sympathy would be directed toward his disenchanted young bride. She was finally granted her divorce on December 26, 1939, albeit with the original deal that was offered to her, including full primary custody of Al "Sonny Boy" Jr.
As 1940 opened, Swanee River premiered to some acclaim for Jolson before it disappeared. His stellar performance did not override the concerns many had of Stephen Foster portrayed as a failed drunkard, much less the other historical inaccuracies. Jolson's contract with Fox was finished. Al was allowed Saturday visitation with his son, and had taken him to the premiere. However, he had no immediate prospects and was now very much alone, with his personal reputation in limbo. He felt compelled to leave his Hollywood troubles behind and move back east to pursue radio and other opportunities. His dream home was sold in February to his Fox costar Ameche, and then Al Jolson all but abandoned the Golden State he had come to a dozen years prior.
The 1940 enumeration taken in April showed Al residing at the Sherry-Netherland hotel at 781 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, divorced, and listed as a radio and screen actor. A stockbroker friend knew that he was still carrying a torch for Ruby and needed a project to distract and engage the singer.
However, once Jolson was in New York, he had reservations about that show, and soon switched gears. In June, it was announced that he would now not only star in, but produce, and own most of, to the tune of $100,000, Hold on to Your Hats, written by Guy Bolton, Matt Brooks, and a taxi driver friend Eddie Davis, with tunes by Burton Lane and E. "Yip" Harburg. In an interview published June 9, Al made it clear that his large investment assured that no outside manager could dictate to him the details of how the show would be staged. Surprisingly, the cast was the same, including Martha and Ruby, who he had somehow cajoled into joining despite her reservations. This obviously fueled public rumors about a possible reconciliation, although both claimed they were now just friends. She would later suspect his motives were leaning toward getting back together.
The plot of Hold on to Your Hats featured Jolson as a Manhattan cowboy radio personality known as "The Lone Rider," but a man who was more Madison Avenue than Chisolm Trail in real life. Martha Raye's character, a stagecoach driver for a dude ranch on Route 66, has a deep interest in this mystery radio man, and leaves her New Mexico home to pursue him, believing he has the power to save her ranch and the town nearby. Al's radio sponsor sees advertising potential in this, and sends the tenderfoot out west for a wild adventure involving Mexican bandits, cattle rustlers and Nazi spies. The story involved many costume changes and disguises, including a turn in drag, but this time around, none in blackface. Ruby's role was as a dancer in a few scenes.
During rehearsals in advance of a Detroit opening on June 30, Jolson was perhaps a bit harder on Ruby than the rest of the cast, dressing her down if she did not execute her performances to his high standard. These incidents were followed by regrets and apologies in the form of gifts, mostly rejected. Then during the Detroit previews, Al would deliver remarks to the audience concerning his former wife and others. After a mere three weeks of rehearsal and two more of performances, Ruby begged to be released.
Now focused on his show more than Ruby, but still hurting, Jolson opened Hold on to Your Hats at the Shubert Theater on September 11, 1940. The reviews were clear. After a decade of absence, Jolson was once again the king of Broadway. He was able to break the fourth wall effortlessly and directly engage the audience, even humorously chiding those who got to their seats late, making sure they were comfortable before he continued. During an improvised radio broadcast from the ranch in the second act finale, Jolson had a built-in segment that allowed him to take requests for any of his songs, old and new, and deliver them with his usual warmth and charm, creating a different experience every show. For Jolson, it was a homecoming. "Yes sir, nothing like picking up where you leave off."
The production made it nearly five months, closing on February 1, 1941, after 158 performances. Jolson had overworked himself, and the winter weather and rigorous schedule had contributed to a bout of pneumonia which put him in the hospital for a few days. There were cries in the press that he was having a bout of ego instead, and had unfairly put actors and stagehands out of work, perhaps even suffering due to his inability to win back Ruby. However it played out, the 54-year-old was simply tired, and the closing had been planned more than a week in advance, so was not a sudden event.
During the run of Hold on to Your Hats, Jolson had sent money to several of his friends around the country so that they may in turn see to it that some of the poor would have a better Christmas. One of those was Hollywood columnist Jimmie Fidler, who in January publicly betrayed Al's request for confidence in the matter by exposing his generosity and big heart to his readers, noting how he had used the funds for toys which were hand-delivered to needy children around Los Angeles. There were other stories about how Jolson was actually less about himself by this time, and more about making sure others were comfortable, including members of his extended family. He also acknowledged some of his peers, even taking out the occasional full-page ad in Variety to praise their work in a film or show.
During his rest period, Al was seen out and about in Palm Beach, briefly dating actress Adele Jurgens in New York in June, and even back in Hollywood again, including two consecutive date nights with dancer Eleanor Powell in July, all of which raised some eyebrows among the columnists. In August, he was back in New York, and returned to the airwaves with a dramatization of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Then a couple of weeks later he resumed Hold on to Your Hats in a road show edition that started in Atlantic City, and proceeded through the Northeast through October. It was during that tour that Jolson's dream of reconciliation was dealt a fatal blow, as Ruby Keeler was married to Pasadena, California business man John Lowe on October 29, 1941. Then in November, the show went into negative returns, and he finally closed it for good in Columbus, Ohio.
There were rumors of another possible Broadway show in development, but for now, Al Jolson needed rest again. Little was heard from him over the next month or so. However, that would all change on one fateful December day.
A New War and New Life
December 7, 1941, was an eventful day in the history of the entire planet, following the Japanese Navy's attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, Oahu, Hawaii. It was also a turning point in the life of "The World's Greatest Entertainer," who would soon become one of the most beloved and important icons to a new generation as well. Jolson knew that what was coming would involve no small effort on the part of the United States military, and that a declaration of war with both Japan and the German Axis was inevitable. In short order, he started contacting several individuals in or connected to the War Department (now the Department of Defense), noting that since there were many soldiers who were already in training camps that would soon be deployed into a difficult situation, and more would be on the way within days, they would need to be entertained for purposes of morale. His calls paid off, and were possibly echoed to president Franklin Delano Roosevelt himself. Earlier in the year, the United Services Organizations (USO), made up of six existing civilian organizations, had been founded by Mary Ingraham as a direct request from Roosevelt for the very purpose of morale. Now they went to work to find top performers, and Jolson was the first major star to sign up.
Just over six weeks after the bombs had dropped on Pearl Harbor, Jolson found himself at the Jacksonville [Florida] Naval Station with his frequent accompanist Martin Fried. Starting with one of his old standards, Swanee,
To accommodate the travel without too many backaches or other pains, and noting that not all venues had an acceptable instrument, Martin brought along a 65-note upright piano that was more lightweight and compact than even the average console. That piano, and perhaps its siblings, traveled extensively in 1942 into 1943. Not feeling as effective in the safety of the home front, and lacking any real roots at the time, Jolie lobbied to take the show on the road. He had been scheduled to appear on Broadway again, this time with Mae West, but canceled that in favor of doing his patriotic duty. By June, they were on their way to Juneau, Nome and Anchorage, Alaska, the first of Al's USO trips outside of the continental United States. However, they were forced to stop in Seattle, Washington, due to the bombing of Dutch Harbor by the Japanese Navy on June 3. After a two day layover, Jolson and Fried took a succession of military transports and small planes to their multiple destinations. Some of the conditions of that first important excursion were relayed in Variety in July:
Al Jolson is going to entertain our overseas troops, as he did in Alaska for three and a half weeks, but where and when must remain a military secret. However, so intent is the star on doing his bit, under General Frederic H. Osborne (morale boss in Washington) that he turned down a summer commercial,
Jolson, in all his career as a stage, screen and radio star, says he has never experienced anything like Alaska, where he flew constantly where no army pilot flies without a backdoor being open, i.e., a return landing route, because the ceilings are always so low; where he took off and returned to some bases four times before being able to proceed further; where anti-tetanus and typhoid inoculations sent, his and his pianist's, Martin Freed [sic], temperatures up to 103; where he did as many as nine shows in one day for groups of from five to 500, depending on the character of the post.
The experience of himself, Freed [sic] and their piano being transported on a Jeep to the edge of a No Man's Land, then finding themselves suddenly in an underground plane field, where some seven or 10 soldiers haven't seen daylight for days, and doing a show for them, the first entertainment they've had in months—is something that, says Jolson, transcends any big-time booking at the Palace or Winter Garden.
The need and the hunger of our service men for divertissement in these outposts is almost unbelievable, if Alaska—Anchorage, Juneau, Fairbanks, Nome, etc.—are any criterions. They have, no shortwave radios, no phonograph records (and how they could use both!), inadequate reading matter. There's one USO center in Fairbanks, but that's all. No 16 mm. films. In Fairbanks Jolson paid $1.25 in a creep joint to see 'Broadway Melody' (of 1936)…
Pianist Freed [sic], who just returned to New York with Jolson, admits that he won't be himself for another two months after their Alaska barnstorming experiences, but both also add that, while they might not fancy being booked back for a 'return engagement' under those trying circumstances, they would never have wanted to miss their memorable junket.
Months later in January of 1943, Jolson recalled some facets of the trip:
The General had seen me perform in many of the camps in the south and decided those boys up north needed a rest and that I needed a change of climate. So. for a few weeks. I became a one-man morale division for audiences consisting of soldiers, sailors, marines, Government workers, Eskimos, three polar bears and an occasional seal.…
… Our takeoff [from Seattle] was delayed because during the night a storm had cut loose 44 barrage balloons which were menacing the air lanes. After a few hours, we were off. The trip was uneventful until we were a few miles out of Prince George, British Columbia, where the tail-end of an Arctic storm made further flying hazardous. We returned to Prince George where we spent the night. We found a room with only one single bed in it. I wanted to be fair with Martin, so we tossed a coin, the winner to occupy the lone bed. we had to toss 15 times before I won…
… At Fairbanks, believe it or not, they haven't been informed that the gold-rush days are over. In a stale restaurant we had to pay $1 for two eggs which were fried in something akin to Sloan's Liniment. A glass of orange juice cost $1. An order of sliced tomatoes also cost $1. It seemed that no matter what we-ordered the cost was $1. The proprietor had a one-track mind. He was in a rut—a dollar rut.
We gave a performance in an open field, at 10 o'clock in the evening with the sun almost blinding us. We went to bed at midnight and it still was daylight. Because in this part of Alaska they have 24 hours of daylight in the summer—not to mention Mountain time, Pacific time, Daylight Saving time. Wartime, etc.—the poor cuckoo in the clock at the hotel became so confused that every hour on the hour he stuck his head out of the clock and just shrugged…
… The Commanding Officer told me he expected me to do five shows. This was necessary because of the continual alert and the fact that there was no time when the entire personnel of the Camp was allowed to congregate in a body—except at meal times. When I heard this, I suggested making a floor show out of dinner that evening. The mess hall wasn't exactly the Stork Club and the men in the audience were not dressed in tails, but it was by far the most appreciative audience I have ever played to.…
We arrived in Anchorage at 9:10 p.m., Anchorage time, and stayed at the Westward hotel. When they told me to observe the blackout regulations and put my lights out I had to laugh, for in this part of Alaska at midnight it is so light that you can thread a needle on Main Street. We gave two performances in Anchorage, each to an audience of 1,500 soldiers. Each show lasted an hour and I almost wore the knees out of my pants singing 'Mammy.' But 'Mammy' really got a workout the next day when Fried and I gave nine shows – each of an hour's duration.
Until now the transporting of our small piano had been an overture to an aspirin tablet, but from here on it became a major headache. In order to entertain all the boys detailed in the vicinity of Anchorage it became necessary for us to give shows in foxholes, gun emplacements, dugouts, to construction groups on military roads; in fact, any place where two or more soldiers were gathered together it automatically became a Winter Garden for me, and I gave a show. Imagine carting the piano to those locations. Sometimes it was by truck, once on a side-car and once on a mule-pack…
… One poignant incident compensated me for all the hardships of the trip. While entertaining a small group of boys in an isolated outpost on the shores of the Arctic, I was going through my routine of jokes and songs when Fred went into the vamp of George Gershwin's 'Swanee,' a song I introduced many years ago and, to this day, one of my favorites. When I reached the line. 'D-I-X-I-E, I Love You,' an audible sob came from the rear of the small group of soldiers which made up my audience. When I finished singing 'Swanee,' the boys gathered around me with the exception of a tall, lanky youngster who could not have been over 20 years old. He didn't join the group. He was crying. Naturally I went to him.
'What's the matter, son?' I asked. 'Was my singing as bad as all that?
In a rich Southern drawl I wish I could copy, he replied: 'No, suh, Mista Jolson. No suh.'
'Don't you feel well?' I inquired.
'Oh, yessuh, Mista Jolson,' he volunteered between sobs. 'It was on'y when you got to singin' about Dixie. Well, Mista Jolson, it jest kinda got me - thass all."
"Well, come and join us,' I suggested.
'Not yet,' he replied, brushing away a tear. 'I could never let my buddies see me this a'way. They'd swear I'm a sissy.'
Although I was touched, I couldn't help but smile. Brightening up—a smile also crept over his face—he said: 'Guess I was homesick. You know, Mista Jolson. dis heah Arctic Ocean is an awful long way f'm thu'ty miles t'other side of Bummin'ham, Alabamy.'
On my way South I made an important stop 30 miles the other side of Birmingham, Alabama. You see, I promised that kid…
After doing close to 70 shows in 14 days, we were headed for home with a great feeling of satisfaction. In our own small way we felt that we had contributed to the morale-buildup of those boys who are stationed so far away from any form of amusement or entertainment. The USO is doing a grand job in furnishing these boys with books, magazines and 16 m.m. motion pictures, but, after all. let's not kid ourselves. There is no place to go in Alaska or in many of the other isolated locations on our far-flung battle line. Those boys appreciate the human contact of the in-the-flesh entertainment and I say to any and all performers: if you can possibly arrange to make one of these trips, by all means do so. For my part, I had requested the Morale Division to send me any place—and I mean any place. And they took me up on it.
When some of the soldiers asked if Jolson could relay messages to their wives or loved ones back home, he gladly offered to do so, taking down addresses and numbers. In virtually every case, Al generously complied with their requests, creating an essential and unforgettable link that stayed with these families for years, even transcending death if it came. As for the other entertainers, by late 1942 several of them were making their way to base camps not far from enemy lines in order to carry forward the trend that Jolson had started, the most prominent of them being his colleague Bob Hope, who continued making such important journeys with many other celebrities in his show well into the 1980s.
From Alaska, Jolson and Fried proceeded to the Caribbean and toured the bases spread throughout the Leeward Islands and other defensive locations such as Panama. The next leg of the journey was to England and Northern Ireland, Jolson's first time there as a solo performer. He was joined there by Merle Oberon, Ben Lyon and Bebe Daniels, as part of a troupe assembled by the USO.
It was back to the airwaves for Jolie in October, broadcasting from New York, then later from Hollywood, over the CBS network, and at a reportedly high salary for that time. He had a number of prominent guest stars on the loosely formatted show sponsored by Colgate toothpaste, which continued into June of 1943. Given how many male personalities without their own shows were overseas by this time, most of his guests were female, and included such diverse people as singer Carol Bruce, author Robert Benchley, actress Diana Barrymore, and strip-tease dancer Gypsy Rose Lee. His in-house female vocalist was Jo Stafford, who would soon launch a successful career of her own on Capitol Records. Al also made guest appearances on shows by his peers, including Jack Benny, Bing Crosby, Milton Berle and Burns and Allen. In the spring of 1943, Jolson teamed with actor Monty Woolley, recently having starred in The Man Who Came to Dinner, for several weeks on his show, and for a brief time it was the Jolson-Woolley Program, allegedly at Al's insistence. Hollywood called again as well, reporting that Al would be singing a duet with Al Dubin in the film Stage Door Canteen. This and many other announced performances were either never shot or did not make the final edit of the film.
Even though Jolson had done some performances for soldiers on leave or in hospitals stateside, the desire to be back on the front lines and directly contributing to the war effort had him pushing to do another tour in the thick of things. USO finally cleared him to travel to selected spots starting in July, 1943. However, Martin Fried had been inducted since their return from England, so he found another accompanist, composer and performer Harry Akst. Harry would be a frequent companion of Jolson's to the end. He started in British Guiana, and while there, Al reportedly found himself struggling to produce his big endings on long high notes. Now in his late fifties, Jolie's voice had mellowed and his lung capacity had diminished. Akst help him modify endings and even lower some keys, placing him now more in the category of crooner than Mammy singer, a change which would serve him well over the next several years.
The next stop was Dakar in West Africa, followed by appearances in Casablanca, Algiers and Tunisia. Some of the conditions under which Jolson and Akst traveled and performed were recounted in a letter he penned to Variety (albeit run through the Army censors), published in August:
Akst and I sure have seen some hell-holes. Our first stop out of New York was Georgetown, British Guiana. We arrived at 4 p.m., did two shows and left by plane for Belem, Brazil. We had some powdered eggs and powdered milk for breakfast, then clowned around and did a few songs for the boys till show time. At our regular show, we performed before 3,000 GIs. Right after that, we did another show for the Navy and a third, for the local population. The mosquitoes gave us rough time all night but we had to get up at 5 a.m. in order to make the plane to Recife. After our show there, we flew back to Natal, did a number of hospital shows and got up at four the next morning to fly the South Atlantic. It was raining cats and dogs at four so we waited around till the weather cleared up and in the meantime, did another hospital show.
We finally made the nine-hour flight across the ocean and arrived at Dakar at 9 p.m. What a hole that is! We had a dinner of Spam and atabrine tablets, then raced by jeep over dusty, rocky roads for 20 miles to a GI camp. We had to do a big outdoor show in darkness because the lights went blooey, but luckily there was an Army truck that put the spotlight on me so the boys could see me. Would you believe it, it began to rain just as I sang 'April Showers'! On the way back to Dakar, the jeep overturned in the mud, but some engineers pulled us out. In between slapping insects, we did a number of shows the next few days for the Air Corps, Signal Corps and Engineers. Then we took a bumpy plane ride over the Atlas Mountains, arrived in French Morocco, and got our first good night's sleep in weeks. We did a few shows there and flew here to Marrakesh. We're eating Spam today and we've got three shows to do tonight and then we'll be off again, but after all, who are we to complain?
Al also personally entertained General Dwight D. Eisenhower and his troops during his time there. Jolson delivered a message from Eisenhower's wife Mamie, asking her husband to write more often, and Dwight sent Jolson back with a message of his own, which was eventually delivered in person.
Once he was back in New York in early October, Al became increasingly sick, then collapsed in a hotel lobby. He was confined to his suite at the Sherry-Netherland on October 5. Jolson was considered critical for at least a week, according to reports from his physician, Dr. Julius J. Hertz. Even at that, he made an impassioned plea to the public that the boys overseas wanted "less Shakespeare and more girls." He also advocated for an increase in letters to boost their morale, noting that many of the soldiers felt forgotten by their family or their sweethearts. After a couple of weeks of recovery, Jolson relapsed in late October, with a temperature reported as high as 105 degrees. Even after his eventual but slow recovery, it was clear that the singer's overseas stint with the USO was over. His commitment to those serving in the war, however, was not.
After a gradual recovery, Jolson got back into his rhythm, this time entertaining the troops at Army bases, and especially at hospitals around the country throughout most of 1944. For the most part he kept his activities low-key, but his name still landed in the press now and then. In one instance, Jolson was asked to see a soldier who had lost all bodily movement except for his head, and ended up giving him a personal show with a tear in his eye and a lump in his throat. He also made appearances on radio shows during his travels, some of them with big bands singing fresh arrangements of old and new tunes, and some with other celebrities. His schedule, however, precluded his own regular broadcasts.
While on a swing of his tour in Hot Springs, Arkansas, Al met and was quickly taken with a very attractive 21-year-old x-ray technician from Kentucky named Erle Chenault Galbraith. [Locations in Georgia and Corpus Christi, TX, have also been cited.] She had evidently asked for his autograph, and he evidently wanted hers as well in a manner of speaking.
Jolson spent much of the fall touring Army hospitals with Harry from Florida through the East, then again across the country to Los Angeles. By December, it was clear that he had been weakened again. The malaria that was now embedded in his system resurfaced and struck the entertainer down once again. A second wave in January of 1945 required drastic action. The Army brought their crack surgeons to Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles, and two ribs plus part of his left lung were removed. Jolson was convinced at the time that he would never sing again, and knew that he was in store for a long recovery. Erle was notified and she came to Los Angeles to help nurse Al back to health. In the process, she found herself caring for Al as more than just a nurse. Although he was just short of sixty and Erle was barely twenty-two, Al asked Erle's father for her hand in marriage. Mr. Galbraith was hardly in favor of the union, and her mother insisted it must be a publicity stunt. However, Erle soon convinced them that Al was on the level and that she wanted him. They were married by a justice of the peace on March 24, 1945, in the old mining town of Quartzite, Arizona.
During his recovery, and with Erle's encouragement, Al found his voice once again, although a bit more mellow and restrained in many ways. He was soon able to belt out Mammy and Swanee with the old enthusiasm, and proved that he was still viable. Two years prior, in the summer of 1943 during his break from touring, Jolson had filmed a segment recreating his introduction of Swanee for the Warner Brothers biopic of George Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue. His appearance, along with those by Paul Whiteman, George White, and particularly the acerbic Oscar Levant, all playing themselves, added some credence to the relatively fictionalized biography of the composer, which was not released until September of 1945, two years after production. Jolson again frequented radio shows and sang at benefits and a few more Army hospitals, but also had to curtail his schedule overall while making a full recovery from the surgery, and preventing a relapse from the Malaria. Erle was instrumental in this, helping him when necessary, but also refusing to deal with his unproductive behaviors. This caused Jolson to respect and regard her all that much more, and their union remained solid to the end. However, at an age when many entertainers were considering retirement, Jolson was looking toward a new phase in his life, one that resulted in a comeback that surprised even him.
An Unexpected Rebirth
As the end of the war approached, Jolson was still physically depleted, missing most of one lung, and singing in a baritone range that was a minor third lower than when he was at his peak in the 1920s. It seemed that his only escape from the grim reality of the time outside of his scant appearances was his usual meetings with his colleagues at Hillcrest.
While accounts vary of how this project started, the truth is that there were many forces at work. One of the main pivot points concerned that great show business institution, the West Coast branch of The Friars Club. Originally founded in 1904 in New York, their main function was both the support and ridicule of show business peers through both fundraising and regular roasts of an individual. The West Coast branch had been founded by the Hillcrest regulars in the early 1930s, and was going strong as the war wound down. They held a postwar benefit performance in late 1945 that had a very, very, very long lineup of top entertainment planned for around a three-hour evening. At the last minute, Jolson, perhaps through his agent or some of his sympathetic peers, was added to the roster of performers. Management was clear that he would be saved for the end of the evening, just in case things went long, and to prevent them from ending too soon in case he flopped due to his new physical limitations. The night did go long. Jolson was reportedly irritated when Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Fred Astaire and others went to the microphone to do their five to ten-minute set, then were regaled with calls for encores, which they readily fulfilled. Three hours became four, then five. At around 1:00 AM, Jolson, who some in the room had never heard perform, and perhaps only knew his name because of their parents talking about the "old days," was finally called to the microphone. He took the stage to scattered applause, and making do with the small pit orchestra, launched tirelessly into his great hits of the past. If the diminished breathing capacity was affecting his energy level, he did not show it.
More than two years prior to this event, newspaper columnist and screenplay writer Sidney Skolsky, who had long been a Jolson fan and friend, saw how biopics in Hollywood, starting with Yankee Doodle Dandy starring James Cagney as George M. Cohan, had become increasingly popular, if also fictional. The biopics on composer Jerome Kern and singer Blossom Seeley had outrageously veered from the facts, and the one on dancers Vernon and Irene Castle with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, although better, had suffered from something the others had been victim of. This was, of course, interference or "advice" from the person about whom the picture was made. Cohan died just before the premiere of his film, so could not comment on some of his spinning of the facts, and Seeley just let criticisms slide right off her. Still, these pictures did big business, and given the wave of nostalgia that was starting to appear on records and in other films, primarily the MGM period pieces, Skolsky believed that The World's Greatest Entertainer also deserved his own film.
Skolsky, described as both comically short and as a known hypochondriac carrying a veritable prescription counter with him everywhere, formulated the idea and the basic outline, and had been mentioned as working on it as early as March of 1943. At that time, it was described as a typical Horatio Alger story, "the immigrant boy who became a famous American." He started shopping The Life of Al Jolson around to Hollywood studios in the winter of 1943. Even after noting that Jolson would not be playing himself in the film, most of the studio bosses seemed to refer to The Jazz Singer as an existing biopic of sorts, and to the spotty performance of his films of the 1930s. A couple of them were reportedly even surprised that Jolson was still alive, although this is difficult to confirm and unlikely given his ongoing presence in the news. Despite the business MGM and Warner Brothers had done in the field of biopics, they turned Skolsky down along with Fox and United Artists, the latter in which Jolson had been invested over a decade prior. However, there was one man who was intrigued by the idea, even if not entirely sold—the somewhat volatile but otherwise successful Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures. After a bit of deliberation, Cohn finally called Skolsky on the plan and greenlit development of the picture as early as May of 1943, which was widely reported in the press. The reports also noted that Jolson agreed he would not be playing himself, but would soon be recording songs for the picture, indicating that this idea had been established more than two years prior to the start of production. An article in June even made it clear that Al would soon be scouring the country for men to do screen tests to his voice, and that fourteen songs had been already selected for the picture. However, the project was put on indefinite hold until the end of the war, in part because of the tours, and then due to Jolson's ongoing health issues.
Among the details to be worked out were how to frame the story, and who in the world could play Jolson other than the man himself. It has written in some Jolson biographies that Skolsky had reportedly been careful in not leaking the news to Jolson prematurely,
Once the film was in pre-production, the initially cooperative Al soon became predictably a bit more involved than Skolsky wanted, and made a few aggressive "suggestions." Having now been engaged in even more opportunities to perform for everybody from small groups to radio to benefits, Jolson reportedly pulled back from his original plan, and was growing increasingly confident that only one person could play him in a film, and it wasn't Larry Parks, the relative look-alike B-movie actor Columbia had engaged for the project. It took repeated convincing by Cohn and the production team that not only was the shoot going to be rigorous, but that makeup technology of that time would not take forty years off his face. Even in blackface, his once gaunt profile would not be matched by his present shape. Fortunately, they did allow him to do a singing test—reportedly not an audition—of Parks miming either Toot, Toot, Tootsie, Goo'Bye or Swanee to Jolson's recording, which the actor pulled off brilliantly.
Decca Records had started in the United Kingdom in 1929, and during the Great Depression looked for an opportunity to expand to the United States. They did so through acquisition, purchasing the recently bankrupt British branch of Brunswick Records in 1932, and therefore by proxy adding many American stars to their distribution roster, including the increasingly popular crooner Bing Crosby and Al Jolson through his Brunswick output. When they finally came to the United States in 1934, Decca's association with Crosby helped them to expand to the level of prominence and enterprise that had been enjoyed by Columbia and Victor, now RCA Victor, for some decades. Their brand gained new life in 1942 with the release of the soundtrack album of Holiday Inn, including the best-selling single of all time, even into the 21st century, Crosby's rendition of White Christmas. This is considered by many to be the first Original Cast Album directly associated with a film, a trend that has continued since.
When The Jolson Story was still in pre-production in late 1945, and Jolson was recording at the studio for the tracks that Larry Parks would mime to, also recreating them on film for a visual reference, Decca brought him to their facility to record two of the songs with the Carmen Dragon orchestra, possibly in anticipation of an original cast album. The in-house musical director for both Columbia Pictures and Decca, Morris Stoloff, became the musical director for the film, as well as one of the arrangers, bringing new life to Jolson numbers that had been recorded as many as three decades prior. He translated these into three minute versions that were also recorded for release by the label. While the arrangements were hardly authentic to the period from which they emerged, they were still entertaining to older Jolson fans as well as the new generation hearing him for the first time. So it was that when the film hit the theaters, the record stores had already been featuring the cast album — at that time a literal album of four discs with eight tracks — on their shelves, with more in the works. All but one tune, Sonny Boy, had been featured in the motion picture, the latter having not made the final cut due to the legal complications with Warner Brothers.
As to the content and accuracy of the motion picture, Jolson being the primary source of the information and the consultant romanticized some of it, and the four screenwriters did the rest. Most people who knew something of Al's life were aware this was a story full of seminal events that had been tweaked a bit, but also some basic untruths. For example, in the story, Al's birth mother was still around, even in the late 1930s, and his relationship with the Rabbi Yoelson was portrayed as quite a bit warmer than other accounts had indicated. His manager, former vaudevillian "Steve Martin," played by William Demarest, who had also been in The Jazz Singer in 1927, was a composite of several people in his life. His first two marriages were ignored. Warner Brothers made it clear they could not use any portion of The Jazz Singer other than the title, limiting options on how that would be presented. Ruby Keeler would not allow her name or some facets of her life to be used, so bitter was their relationship, and she became the more sympathetic "Julie Benson," although starring in the same-named shows as Keeler had also done. For her cooperation with offering a little bit of her side of the story while not stirring the pot in the press, she was awarded $25,000 by the studio. That so many variances of the truth had been affected on the story of Al's life was a point deftly, if curiously, acknowledged in the follow-up film, where Parks as Jolson, dictating his life to a writer, stated:
I don't think anybody cares about the facts of my life, about dates and places. I'll give you a mess of 'em, you juggle them any way you like. What matters is the singing a man did and the difference that made.
Filming began in November of 1945. On December 23, Cantor Yoelson died in Washington at age 88, and the funeral was held the next day, so Al, who had been consulting on the set, was unable to make it to his father's burial. Initially set to be filmed in black and white, given the cost of Technicolor™, even after the end of the war, Cohn evidently saw some of the first rushes with Parks doing his very best Jolson emulation, and had the first scenes reshot in Technicolor™, continuing the film in that format as well. The sound recordings, done on film and acetate, were the very best that could be obtained in those days just prior to magnetic tape recording. In spite of the effort to present him in the best light, Jolie was reportedly not nearly so fond of Larry Parks as the sequel to the film indicated. He was tolerant and for the most part cooperative, even taking Parks to the racetrack a couple of times and relaying his personal history and performance tips to the actor. Just the same, he still wanted to be part of the film and kept pressing Cohn and director Alfred Green on that point. They finally relented just a bit, and Al Jolson appeared on screen in his own biopic in long shots, singing Swanee on the set of the Winter Garden Theater and his famous walkway. They more or less conceded that virtually nobody could accurately replicate his style of performance as captured in front of the willing audience of extras. This inclusion was a poorly-kept secret that made it into press releases.
The Jolson story was previewed in July in Santa Barbara, California, to great acclaim. Jolson himself had spent much of the showing pacing outside of the theater, reminiscent of his many nights before actually going on stage to perform decades earlier. The studio heads and the audience were enthusiastic at the very least, although one lady was apparently overheard saying, "Isn't it too bad that Jolson couldn't have lived to see it." Despite the obvious fictional aspects, public and critical response to the completed version of The Jolson Story, released in October of 1946 at Radio City Music Hall in New York, was strong, and the sales of the soundtrack album even before it was released were encouraging enough to have Stoloff and Decca bring Al back into the studio for more big-band style recordings his old hits from his Columbia and Brunswick years, plus some newer material he had not previously tackled or committed to disc. One of the most popular and poignant pieces from the film was one that Al had been humming backstage between takes. It was a portion of an old Romanian waltz Waves of the Danube by Ion Ivanovici, which he had remembered as something with which his mother had rocked him to sleep. With the help of lyricist Saul Chaplin, The Anniversary Song was born. Although Al got writing credit, he did not insist on any of the royalties. Sung in a somber but rich and lyrical baritone, it was clearly a standout number of the collection, rising to #2 on the Billboard charts in early 1947. Based on the success of this and the film, in 1947 alone, Jolson, most of the time under Stoloff's direction, cut no less than 26 sides across nine sessions. The last two of the year were songs of his faith, which had also been featured on the radio. In short order, the film made Al Jolson a viable commodity, whether it be for nostalgic reasons, or the fascination of a new generation. George Burns recalled that shortly after these successes he saw Al once again sitting in his corner with his usual package of sturgeon at Hillcrest:
I went over and said, "That's the best picture I ever saw," and waited for my sturgeon. Nothing. So I tried again, "That's the best soundtrack album I ever heard." Finally, Jolie looked at me and said, "Forget it, Natty. I'm hot again. Get your own sturgeon." ["Natty" was from Nathaniel Birnbaum, Burns' birth name.]
Al Jolson was once again a top entertainer in the music business, and a real money-maker at that. At the 25th anniversary celebration of Hillcrest, he topped the bill along with many of his Jewish co-stars (plus Danny Thomas), clearly taking the night as his own despite their prominent presence. Around the same time, Parks had garnered an Oscar™ nomination for his part in the film, although he ultimately lost to Ronald Colman. Al got new radio spots, and more albums from Decca. By the end of the year he was voted in at least one radio digest as the most popular singer on the air, even above close rivals and friends such as Bing Crosby, Perry Como and Frank Sinatra. Jack Benny, George Burns, Bob Hope, and even some of his more reticent friends and rivals, including Cantor and Jessel, had Jolson on their radio shows as a feature or in a duet, as his presence seemed to be good for their ratings. Even younger stars like Judy Garland or fringe personalities like Oscar Levant were heard on the air with the World's Greatest Entertainer. Lux Radio Theater had Al once again reprise The Jazz Singer dramatization on June 2, 1947, and followed that up with a radio version of The Jolson Story on February 16, 1948, this time with its namesake playing the role. Amidst all of this activity, Erle, unlike Ruby, who often was less than supportive or even engaged at all in his professional activities, continued to encourage her husband to remain active, with care of course, knowing that the exposure and the response from the adoring public brought him happiness and vigor.
The Jolson Story was so popular that, in addition to the continuing flow of records from Decca, the thread was picked up by Columbia once again in 1949. This project was not without its challenges. Even though the story line continued from around 1940, meaning that Al could have played himself in the film with less effort, his physical condition and the question of continuity with the first film convinced Cohn and the production team that they wanted Parks in the role once again. However, in 1947, Parks had testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, revealing that at some point he had been a member of the Communist party, somewhat tainting his public image, and eventually shelving his career. A further and more pressing complication was his suit against Columbia asking to be released from his contract, which had been signed some time before he made The Jolson Story, and which he now found to be deficient in terms of his compensation. The suit was soon settled out of court, and Parks was signed to the sequel, Jolson Sings Again. Columbia starlet Barbara Hale was cast as Erle, providing a strong romantic lead for Parks. Skolsky was pretty much absent from the production team this time around. Jolson did his bit recording the songs once again, although he spent little time on the set, further objecting to Parks in the role. There are reports that he likely had a showdown with Parks or the producers, and was banned from the set.
The new film picked up the story literally minutes after the previous film ended in Jolson Sings Again, and followed his life from the 1940 to the point where the first film was made. In this regard, there was a bit of a content cheat where an extended segment showed clips from the first film while Parks as Jolson paced in the theater office. There was more stretching of both the plot and the truth, although the storyline of Al with his new wife was more or less close to the mark. Production was relatively quick, and the film was released on August 10, 1949. While it did not do quite the same business as the first film had, it nonetheless kept Jolson in front of the public for at least a few more precious hours. Depite his animosity toward the production, Jolie often appeared after presentations of the film, doing a live show, and bringing in large crowds as a result. At some of them he would start out by deftly saying, "I will now do an imitation of Larry Parks." In 1950 the film received three Oscar™ nods, including best color cinematography, musical picture score and screenplay. It was also recreated for the Lux Radio Theater on May 22, 1950, again with Jolson playing himself. Al was also doing quite well in the Decca recording studios and on the radio. When asked about his comeback, he modestly if inaccurately replied "That was no come-back, I just couldn't get a job."
An Entertainer to the Very End
Al Jolson was everywhere once again. He did little in the way of concert appearances, even after having allegedly been offered $40,000 a week to appear at the Roxy Theater in Los Angeles six times daily, as such appearances literally took the breath out of him.
Harry Jolson also came back into Jolson's life. In his own autobiography, Al's older brother noted that it was difficult to explain to others how he was living a life of limited means while his famous relative was raking in large quantities of money, but agreed that neither of them were looking to give or receive charity for familial reasons. Harry did end up working for the recently-formed Al Jolson Enterprises, where he remained for a time after Al's death. Soon after his marriage to Erle, Al decided to leave his Hollywood Hills mansion and gave the deed to the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital where his life had been saved nearly two years prior. The Jolsons moved to Palm Springs for a short time.
Perhaps regretting that he had not had a better relationship with his first adopted son, Al and Erle adopted a six-month old boy in late 1947, naming him Asa Albert Jolson [some sources cite Yoelson], Junior. Perhaps tiring of the trips from Palm Springs into Hollywood, Erle soon found an ideal house for the couple in the San Fernando Valley in early 1948. She knew of its history, but just the same as a third anniversary present, Al bought back his own custom home from Don Ameche, who was glad to return it to its original owner,
Riding his new wave of popularity while often bordering on exhaustion, Al was still a viable commodity in 1950. He had been dyeing what little was left of his hair, and had developed a somewhat heavier frame, but still sought to be a vital force. There was potential in this new age of technology, which included high fidelity magnetic tape recordings, long-playing 331⁄3 records, FM broadcasting, and, of course, broadcast television. But before he could engage in many of those activities, the United States again went to war, this time on behalf of the United Nations Security Council in defense of South Korea. Jolson lobbied the USO to be the first to entertain the troops over there. Based largely on financial constraints, and perhaps some concern for his durability given his health issues, the Secretary of defense turned down his request. Undaunted, and regarding the fact that money was not an object when he didn't want it to be, Al called on Harry Akst once again, and funded his own tour of the Army camps in Korea. On the long trip across the Pacific, Al contracted another bronchial infection after staying in damp quarters. After a brief stop performing at Army facilities in Tokyo, Japan, they landed in Korea on September 17th at the 8th Army headquarters.
During this final tour, Jolson literally gave everything he had under a stressful situation. According to Akst, who managed the trip, and was also responsible for making sure the miniature purple piano traveled with them and was kept in acceptable playing condition, the pair did as many forty-two shows in a mere eleven days, which is exhausting in itself. It was obviously more than a man in Jolson's frail condition should have attempted. Given that Al was just 64-years-old, it was clear that longevity should have been on his side, as his father had died less than five years prior at age 87, and his older brother Harry was still around as well. But it was the combination of the stress of the work involved with singing for the troops and masking his pain and shortness of breath, along with breathing in the dust of the makeshift quarters and stages, and the high-altitude pressure that inflicted the fatal stresses on his body and his remaining lung.
Despite the evident strain this tour put on Jolson's body, a fact that was later lamented by Akst in his recollection of the trip, after his return to Los Angeles on September 30 and a week spent in the dry desert of Palm Springs, Al penned a deal with RKO Pictures to star in Stars and Stripes Forever opposite Dinah Shore. It was intended to be the story of a USO troupe in the Pacific theater during World War II. There were other lucrative deals in the work as well. Jolson had his eye on the growing medium of television, hoping to perhaps host his own show on NBC for the 1951 season.
Two weeks later on October 23, 1950, Jolson bid goodbye to Erle and his children, then flew from Los Angeles to San Francisco. He was staying at the Saint Francis Hotel, coincidentally in the same suite where the young actress Virginia Rappe had met her demise nearly three decades prior, a death in which actor Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle was implicated, and finally acquitted after three trials, but with his acting career in ruins. It was also the room in which actor John Barrymore, in bed with a married paramour, was awakened by the powerful 1906 earthquake. Al was scheduled to appear as a guest on a taping of the Bing Crosby show the next day. Crosby, unlike other radio artists and networks, had not only embraced but funded the development of magnetic tape recording through the efforts of Ampex and 3M, and had moved to the new ABC network as they allowed him to record both his rehearsals and shows in advance in order to provide the best possible edited performance. This means that Jolson would likely not have been heard on that show until it was broadcast in mid-November.
Al ate dinner at Fisherman's Wharf, then retired to his suite during the 9:00 hour with both Harry Akst and Martin Fried for a game of gin rummy. Part way through the game Jolie expressed some discomfort, then lay down, asking his friends to have room service bring him some bicarbonate of soda to address what he thought was indigestion. They thought better of the situation, and Harry summoned the hotel physician who was currently unavailable. Despite Jolson's fear that the incident would be unnecessarily publicized, Akst called a Dr. Beckh who came relatively quickly when informed of the patient and the gravity of the situation. Even before the doctor was there, Jolie stated, "It looks like the end!" He also claimed he had no pulse, but a nurse who had come up to the room assured him his heart was still beating "like a baby's." Once he was there, Dr. Beckh pulled up a chair at Al's invitation, and started a conversation to assess the situation, with Jolie trying to joke a bit. "I saw you in perform in 1929," stated Beckh. Then Al weakly bragged, referring to his recent tour, that "President Truman only had one hour with General MacArthur. I had two." Soon after that he clutched his chest in pain and said in true Jolson fashion, "Boys, I'm Going."
And then… Jolie was gone.
Al Jolson left this world at 10:20 PM on October 23, 1950, in a relatively dramatic fashion, the victim of a massive myocardial infarction due to physical stress. He left a void in the entertainment world and especially in the hearts of those who knew and understood what truly motivated "The World's Greatest Entertainer." The world-wide response was in proportion to his bigger-than-life stage persona. Broadway dimmed their lights in his honor, not something done all that often back then.
According to George Burns and Irving Caesar, Jolson had left explicit instructions with his wife that his friendly rival, George Jessel, was not to "bury him," or in other words, give the eulogy at his funeral. Jessel had become known not only as the "Toastmaster General" for his speeches given at events all around the country, especially for the Friars Club, but as the go-to speaker to give eulogies at the funerals of show business folks, some that he barely even knew. It is possible that some of those appearances were walk-ons, and that Jessel simply could not help himself. Three days after Jolson's death, reportedly by popular demand or the expectations of the show-business crowds, and possibly due to pressure by the speaker on his representatives, the William Morris Agency, George Jessel stepped up to the podium in front of 1500 mourners at Temple Israel in Los Angeles at Jolson's service and somehow got the last word in. Jessel gave a singularly touching and loving eulogy that would have angered and flattered Al all at once.
… It will take a long time for the people in my business who have been wounded by this event to become reconciled that this dynamic bundle of energy with its God-given talent that called itself Al Jolson is at peace. The very humanly emotional heart of the theatrical business does not heal so easily, and the tears that must fall from the eyes of the many who miss him already cannot be halted by the spoken word. No, the word will not take the place of his song.
And not only has the entertainment world lost its king, but we cannot cry, "the King is dead-long live the King!" for there is no one to hold his scepter. Those of us who tarry behind are but pale imitations, mere princelings. American Jewry suffers as well — and I must inform you of the great inspiration that Al was to the Jewish people in the last forty years. For in 1910 the Jewish people who emigrated from Europe to come here were a sad lot. Their humor came out of their own troubles. Men of 35 seemed to take on the attitude of their fathers and grandfathers — they walked with stooped shoulders. When they sang, they sang with lament in their hearts and their voices, always as if they were pleading for help from above…
Then there came on the scene a young man, vibrantly pulsing with life and courage, who marched on the stage, head high with the authority of a Roman emperor, with a gaiety that was militant, uninhibited and unafraid, and told the world that the Jew in America did not only have to sing in sorrow, but could shout happily about Dixie, about the Night Boat to Albany, about Coming to California, about a Girl in Avalon. And when he cried MAMMY it was in appreciation, not in lament…
The history of the world does not say enough about how important the song and the singer have been. But history must record the name Jolson, who in the twilight of his life sang his heart out in a foreign land, to the wounded and to the valiant. I am proud to have basked in the sunlight of his greatness, to have been part of his time.
Jessel later admitted that he was speaking only about the entertainer, and not about the man himself. Later that day Al Jolson was temporarily laid to rest at Beth Olam Cemetery in Hollywood, with only Erle, Asa, Jr., and Harry Jolson and his wife in attendance.
Several months later, looking to provide her late husband with something more in line with his large presence in the world, and also as a place for his mourning or appreciative fans to come and honor him in perpetuity,
Almost immediately after he was eulogized, there was a debate on what type of man Jolson was overall, including mentions of his three divorces, excessive behavior, and the ever-present issue with ego. However, they could not deny the generous and non-sectarian nature of the man, as when the dust settled, it was reported by The Billboard of November 4, 1950, that Jolson had set aside a trust of $4,000,000 to be distributed evenly amongst Jewish, Protestant and Catholic charities, as well as hospitals in New York and California, and a couple of New York colleges to provide scholarships for needy students, likely of any race. Trust funds were set up for Erle as well as Asa Jr., but nothing was left behind for Ruby, so bitter was their ongoing feud. Some additional funds were also set aside for the Northwoods Sanatorium at Saranac Lake, NY, possibly in association with Alma's continuing care, in addition to other unnamed beneficiaries. He had also asked that those who wanted to send flowers instead send money to the American Heart Association, but it is possible that this was his Erle's request, given that his big heart was also the ultimate cause of his early demise.
The Jolson Legacy
The death of Al Jolson truly ended an era that covered everything from minstrelsy to the demise of vaudeville and a few moments of talking and singing glory on the silver screen. Jolson had been recorded on acoustic horns and magnetic tape. He had commanded all types of theaters from the stage to the screen and the airwaves, and was heading for television. But he was hardly forgotten. Among those that paid homage to Jolson were Judy Garland, who frequently emulated some of his material in her 1950s concerts, and even Elvis Presley, who took on Jolson's 1950 recording of Are You Lonesome Tonight complete with the dramatic monologue in the middle, but not as effectively. Both Danny Thomas and Jerry Lewis tried to recreate The Jazz Singer for new audiences, Thomas in 1952 for Warner Brothers, and Lewis on NBC television in 1959. Even though the Thomas film, directed by Michal Curtiz, received an Oscar™ nomination for Best Musical Score, neither production was critically acclaimed, and unlike the original, both are rarely seen today. Singer Neil Diamond did a reimagined version of the story in 1980 in his Jazz Singer film, enjoying a little more success, but also including tributes to the original, including a new tune titled Robert E. Lee. With esteemed actor Sir Laurence Olivier cast as Cantor Rabinowitz and Lucie Arnaz as Jakie's love interest, it received three Golden Globe nominations. However, it was the multi-platinum soundtrack that fared best in this instance, including the hit song (Coming to) America. Diamond also included a well-intentioned homage to the blackface tradition in one scene, but it came off as questionable in the context of that time.
In particular, Cantor and Jessel both tried to keep alive the combined legacy they had with Jolson on television, often a bit awkwardly, even when genuine respect was intended. Cantor did not take the screen the way Jessel did, and eventually retired. Jessel then either paid homage to or perhaps tried to trump Jolson in 1959. In response to a 1958 album of a faux minstrel show that had recently been put out by Benny Fields with help from George Burns and Jack Benny, and possibly feeling snubbed for having been excluded from that process, Jessel reacted with an album of his own, claiming, perhaps rightfully, to be "The Last of the Minstrel Men." It included the Stephen Foster gem Oh, Susanna!, and a handful of early minstrel tunes, but also covered My Mammy as originally rendered by Jolson, and even a take on Cantor's famous number Makin' Whoopee. Despite his best efforts, and the inclusion of his own stage number, My Mother's Eyes, sales were tepid at best, as the wave of old-time nostalgia that the 1950s had enjoyed was on the wane. Repackaged long-playing vinyl albums of Jolson's Decca and Brunswick material, on the other hand, did very well throughout the decade of nostalgia, even as rock and roll started to creep in to the musical lexicon.
Since the 1950s, there have been dozens of Jolson tribute artists doing shows, usually in Las Vegas or similar entertainment meccas, and even on Broadway. While none of them can exactly capture the original, they often at least rise to the level of Larry Parks or better, and convey the idea of Jolson to appreciative audiences around the world. A handful of fine books on Jolson and minstrelsy surfaced between the time just after his death and late in 20th century. Several websites (listed in the footnotes with the books) have also emerged in the 21st century. Jolson is the first and perhaps only known performer to have had two consecutive biopics made about them while they were still alive. Both of the films with Larry Parks have remained popular on television for more than a six decades, and are readily available in digital form.
The Jazz Singer, one of the high-priority films on the Library of Congress preservation list, was subject to a high-definition digital restoration in 2007 for both theatrical presentation and DVD home media, then again with more clarity from a 4K scan and improved sound synchronization for a Blu-Ray release in 2013. It helped to further spur the restoration of many of the Warner Brothers shorts through The Vitaphone Project, a joint venture of the Library of Congress, Turner Classic Movies, Warner Brothers, the British Film Institute and the UCLA film archives. One of the more difficult restorations was Jolson's A Plantation Act, from which the only existing sound element was the original disc cracked into four pieces. Virtually all of Jolson's audio recordings, including some private issues, have been restored and released in digital format, as have all his films, most of them available from The Warner Archive Collection and Amazon.
Harry Jolson, the only Yoelson sibling left after his sisters and Al had died, was called on for interviews for a time, but remained overshadowed by his more famous brother's continuing presence. When he died on April 26, 1953, it was some days before the event even made the news. Ruby Keeler married John Homer Lowe in 1941. In the early 1950s, Al, Jr., became Albert Peter Lowe, rarely referring to his famous father. Ruby died in February of 1993, followed by Albert in November of 2007.
Nearly a year after Al's death, Erle met journalist, playwright, and Oscar™ winning screenwriter Norman Krasna, who was working his way up the production ladder at RKO Pictures.
In the wake of so many fine contributors to American musical and Jewish culture having been forgotten over the years, and sometimes even within months after they were gone, it should be considered that Al Jolson represents the best of their collective talents and so much more. As the world wide web continues to grow thanks to fine researchers who write on these individuals, they will find their place in the hierarchy of American culture for those who care to write about them or search for them, so less of them will remain unknown or forgotten. When Al started on stage, there was only a small quotient of actual business in "show business." Within two decades, he had helped turn entertainment into a viable and lucrative industry that was respected for its contributions to American culture. Jolson will forever remain unforgettable, highly complex in many ways, an example of the best aspects of an entertainer and questionable aspects of an individual, and for those who discover him in their own way, undeniably The World's Greatest Entertainer.
"Nobody Follows Jolson."
Nobody ever has.
This uncharacteristically lengthy (even by my standards) web biography of "The World's Greatest Entertainer" went through five false starts before I bore down on it in the late fall of 2016. My approach was to start from the ground up and see what happens. Fortunately, Jolson's life was logged much more completely during and after his lifetime than virtually any other public figure of his time outside of politics. This made the job easy in some regards, but nearly impossible in others, including sorting through both conflicting and duplicate information to properly vet original sources and copious stories.
In that regard, well over 90% of the content was derived from official government records of several countries, ship passenger lists, thousands (yes, thousands) of newspaper articles from around the United States and the United Kingdom, hundreds of periodicals ranging from trade and show-business to fanzines, dozens of interviews with actors and writers who knew him, radio interviews with the man himself, recording logs, stage logs, film logs, the films themselves, and anecdotal sources, especially from George Jessel and George Burns (taken with a shaker of salt but usually verified). In some cases, a mere picture told a story, depending on the look on the faces of those in the photograph. Once the core text and photographs were compiled into something resembling his life in detail, a handful of contemporary sources were then consulted just to fill in a couple of gaps of that remaining single-digit percentage, so complete was the press during his storied lifetime. Some were simply referenced, but not read or quoted in detail.
Noting that this is, despite its length, a condensed look at Jolson's life, if you want to know more, I can direct you to the sources below which will provide different perspectives on the singing comedian with the tear in his voice. In all fairness, they should be considered as alternative reads as mine is hardly the only viewpoint on Jolson, and some of them might be appropriate for your library, either digital or paper. They are linked to a source where you can view or purchase the items as protocol might suggest.