See H. Jolson, Mistah Jolson (1951); M. Freedland, Jolson (1972).
Al Jolson (May 26, 1886 October 23, 1950), born in Lithuania, Russian Empire, was a highly acclaimed American singer, comedian, and actor, and the first openly Jewish man to become an entertainment star in America. His career lasted from 1911 until his death in 1950, during which time he was commonly dubbed "the world's greatest entertainer.” Numerous well-known singers were influenced by his music, including Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Judy Garland, and Elvis Presley.
By 1920, he was America’s most famous and highest paid entertainer. Between 1911 and 1928, Jolson had nine sell-out Winter Garden shows in a row, more than 80 hit records, and 16 national and international tours. Yet he's best remembered today for his leading role in the world’s first talking picture, The Jazz Singer, released in 1927. He starred in a series of successful musical films throughout the 1930s. After a period of inactivity, his stardom returned with the 1946 Oscar-winning biographical film, The Jolson Story. Larry Parks played Jolson with the songs dubbed in with Jolson’s real voice. A sequel, Jolson Sings Again, was released in 1949, and was nominated for three Oscars.
According to the St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, "Jolson was to jazz, blues, and ragtime what Elvis Presley was to rock 'n' roll." Being the first popular singer to make a spectacular "event" out of singing a song, he became a “rock star” before the dawn of rock music. His specialty was building stage runways extending out into the audience. He would run up and down the runway and across the stage, "teasing, cajoling, and thrilling the audience," often stopping to sing to individual members, all the while the "perspiration would be pouring from his face, and the entire audience would get caught up in the ecstasy of his performance."
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Jolson became the first star to entertain troops overseas during World War II, and again in 1950 became the first star to perform for GIs in Korea, doing 42 shows in 16 days.
He enjoyed performing in blackface makeup – a theatrical convention in the early 1900s. With his unique and dynamic style of singing black music, like jazz and blues, he was later credited with single-handedly introducing African-American music to white audiences. As early as 1911, at the age of 25, he also became noted for fighting black discrimination on the Broadway stage. Jolson’s well-known theatrics and his promotion of equality on Broadway helped pave the way for many black performers, playwrights, and songwriters, including Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, and Ethel Waters.
Hard times hit the family when Naomi died in late 1894. Following his mother's death, Asa was in a state of withdrawal for seven months. In 1895, he and his brother Harry were introduced to show business by entertainer Al Reeves. Upon being introduced to show business, Al and Hirsch became fascinated by the industry, and by 1897, the brothers were singing for coins on local street corners, using the names "Al" and "Harry;" They would usually use the money to buy tickets to shows at the local National Theater. Asa and Hirsch became very close and spent most of their days working different jobs as a team.
In 1900, at the age of 14, Asa ran away from home to escape from his strict father. He went to New York City to seek a career in show business. Being under the legal work age of 16 he was unable to find work and lived in poverty for two years. His days were spent milling around booking agencies and befriending out-of-work actors who crowded the benches in Union Square. When the weather got too bad, he stayed in his room at a local hotel, but eventually ran out of money and was forced to sleep in a wagon near the East River. There, he caught a serious cold and cough which was treated as possible tuberculosis at a free clinic.
By the end of the year, however, the circus had folded, and Jolson was again out of work. In May of 1903, the head producer of the burlesque show "Dainty Duchess Burlesquers" agreed to give Jolson a part in one show. Asa gave a remarkable performance of "Be My Baby Bumble Bee," and the producer agreed to keep him for future shows. Unfortunately, the show closed by the end of the year. Asa was able to avoid financial troubles by forming a vaudeville partnership with his brother Hirsch, now a vaudeville performer who was known to the public as "Harry Yoelson" The brothers worked for the William Morris Agency.
Asa and Harry also eventually were teamed with Joe Palmer. During their time with Palmer, they were able to get bookings in a nationwide tour. However, live performances were fading in popularity, as nickelodeon theaters captured audiences; by 1908, nickelodeon theaters were completely dominant throughout New York City as well. While performing in a Brooklyn theater in 1904, Al decided on a new approach and began wearing blackface makeup. The conversion to blackface boosted his career and he began wearing blackface in all of his shows.
In the fall of 1905, Harry left the trio, following a harsh argument with Al. Harry had refused to accept Al's offer to take care of Joe Palmer - who was in a wheelchair - while he went out on a date. After Harry's departure, Al and Joe Palmer worked as a duo, but were not very successful together. By 1906, the two agreed to separate, and Jolson was on his own.
Al became a regular at the Globe and Wigwam Theater in San Francisco, and remained successful nationwide as a vaudeville singer He took up residence in San Francisco, saying the earthquake devastated area needed someone to cheer them up. In 1908, Jolson - needing money for himself and his new wife Henrietta - returned to New York. In 1909, Al's singing caught the attention of Lew Dockstader, who was the producer and star of Dockstader's Minstrels. Al accepted Dockstader's offer, and became a regular blackface performer.
According to Esquire magazine, "J. J. Shubert, impressed by Jolson’s overpowering display of energy, booked him for La Belle Paree, a musical comedy which opened at the Winter Garden in 1911. Within a month Jolson was a star. From then until 1926, when he retired from the stage, he could boast an unbroken series of smash hits."
On March 20, 1911, Jolson starred in his first play at the Winter Garden Theater in New York, La Belle Paree, which also greatly helped launch his career as a singer. The opening night drew a huge crowd to the theater, and that evening Jolson gained audience popularity by singing old Stephen Foster songs in blackface. In the wake of that phenomenal opening night, Jolson was given a position in the show's cast. The show closed after 104 performances, and during its run Jolson's popularity grew greatly. Following La Belle Paree, Jolson accepted an offer to perform in the play Vera Violetta The show opened on November 20, 1911, and, like La Belle Paree, was a phenomenal success. In the show, Jolson again portrayed the role of a blackface singer, and managed to become so popular, that his weekly salary- which he earned from his success in La Belle Paree- of $500 was increased to $750.
After Vera Violetta ran its course, Jolson starred in The Whirl of Society, and through this play, his career on Broadway would rise to new heights. During his time at The Winter Garden, Jolson also would tell the audience "you ain't heard nothing yet" before performing additional songs. In the play, Jolson debuted his signature blackface character, "Gus." The play was so successful, that Winter Garden owner Lee Shubert agreed to sign Jolson to a seven year contract with a salary of $1,000 a week. Jolson would reprise his role as "Gus" in future plays and by 1914, Jolson achieved so much popularity with the theater audience that his $1,000 a week salary was doubled to $2,000 a week. In 1916, Robinson Crusoe, Jr. was the first play where he was featured as the star character. In 1918, Jolson's acting career would be pushed even further, after he starred in the hit play Sinbad.
It became the most successful Broadway play of 1918 and 1919. A new song was later added to the show that would become composer George Gershwin's first hit recording, Swanee. Jolson also added another song to the show, "My Mammy." By 1920, Jolson had become the biggest star on Broadway.
His next play, "Bombo," would also take his career to new heights and became so successful that it went beyond Broadway and held performances nationwide. It also led Lee Shubert to rename his newly built theater, which was across from Central Park, "Jolson's Fifty-ninth Street Theatre." At thirty-five, Jolson became the youngest man in American history to have a theatre named after him.
But on the opening night of Bombo, and the first performance at the new theatre, he suffered from extreme stage fright, walking up and down the streets for hours before showtime. Out of fear, he lost his voice backstage and begged the stagehands not to raise the curtains. But when the curtains went up, he "was [still] standing in the wings trembling and sweating." After being physically shoved onto the stage by his brother Harry, he performed and received an ovation that he would never forget: "For several minutes, the applause continued while Al stood and bowed after the first act." He refused to go back on stage for the second act, but the audience "just stamped its feet and chanted 'Jolson, Jolson,' until he came back out." He took thirty-seven curtain calls that night, and told the audience "I'm a happy man tonight." “ I don’t mind going on record as saying that he is one of the few instinctively funny men on our stage,” wrote reviewer Charles Darnton in the New York Evening World. “Everything he touches turns to fun. To watch him is to marvel at his humorous vitality. He is the old-time minstrel man turned to modern account. With a song, a word, or even a suggestion he calls forth spontaneous laughter. And here you have the definition of a born comedian."
Performing in blackface makeup was a theatrical convention used by many entertainers at the beginning of the 20th century, having its origin in the minstrel show. Most early American stage actors performed with the aid of costume and makeup, often as characters of other nationalities and races. Al Jolson was the most famous performer to wear blackface makeup when singing which is now considered a form of racial stereotyping. However, by the standards of stagecraft one hundred years ago it was considered no more than another stage costume or prop.
In addition, working behind a blackface mask "gave him a sense of freedom and spontaneity he had never known before and was not considered racially offensive in the early 1900s." According to film historian Eric Lott, for the white minstrel man "to put on the cultural forms of 'blackness' was to engage in a complex affair of manly mimicry...To wear or even enjoy blackface was literally, for a time, to become black, to inherit the cool, virility, humility, abandon, or gaité de coeur that were the prime components of white ideologies of black manhood."
Jolson first heard African-American music, such as jazz, blues, and ragtime, played in the back alleys of New Orleans. He enjoyed singing the new jazz-style of music, and it's not surprising that he often performed in blackface, especially songs he made popular, like Swanee, Mammy, and Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody. In most of his movie roles, however, including a singing hobo in Hallelujah, I'm a Bum or a jailed convict in Say It With Songs, he chose to act without using blackface. In the 1927 film The Jazz Singer, he performed only a few songs, including My Mammy, in blackface, although there was nothing in the storyline that required a black singer.
As a Jewish immigrant and America's most famous and highest paid entertainer, he clearly had the incentive and resources to help break down racial attitudes. For instance, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) during its peak in the early 1920s, included about 15% of the nation's eligible population, 4-5 million men. While D.W. Griffith created the blockbuster movie The Birth of a Nation, which glorified white supremacy and the KKK, Jolson chose to star in The Jazz Singer, which defied racial bigotry by introducing American black music to white audiences worldwide.
While growing up, he had many black friends, including "Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson, who later became a legendary tap dancer." As early as 1911, at the age of 25, he was already noted for fighting discrimination on the Broadway stage and later in his movies:
Brian Conley, former star of the acclaimed 1995 British play Jolson, stated during an interview, "I found out Jolson was actually a hero to the black people of America. At his funeral, black actors lined the way, they really appreciated what he’d done for them. Noble Sissle, then president of the Negro Actors' Guild, represented that organization at his funeral.
According to the St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture: "Almost single-handedly, Jolson helped to introduce African-American musical innovations like jazz, ragtime, and the blues to white audiences.... [and] paved the way for African-American performers like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, and Ethel Waters.... to bridge the cultural gap between black and white America." Jazz historian Amiri Baraka wrote, "the entrance of the white man into jazz...did at least bring him much closer to the Negro." He points out that "the acceptance of jazz by whites marks a crucial moment when an aspect of black culture had become an essential part of American culture."
In a recent interview, Clarence 'Frogman' Henry, one of the most popular and respected jazz singers of New Orleans, said, "Jolson? I loved him. I think he did wonders for the blacks and glorified entertainment."
Jolson was a political and economic conservative, supporting both Warren G. Harding in 1920 and Calvin Coolidge in 1924 for presidents of the United States. As "one of the biggest stars of his time, [he] worked his magic singing 'Harding, You're the Man for Us' to enthralled audiences... [and] was subsequently asked to perform 'Keep Cool with Coolidge' four years later. ... Jolson, like the men who ran the studios, was the rare showbiz Republican." He was unlike most other Jewish performers, who supported the losing Democratic candidate, John William Davis. Jolson did, however, publicly campaign for Democrat Franklin Roosevelt during the 1932 US Presidential Election as well.
In 1906, while living in San Francisco, Jolson met dancer Henrietta Keller, and the two engaged in a year-long relationship before marrying in September of 1907 In 1918, however, Henrietta - tired of Al's excessive womanizing and refusal to come home after shows - filed for divorce. Following Henrietta, in 1920, Jolson began a relationship with Broadway actress Alma Osbourne (stage name Ethel Delmar), and the two were married in August of 1922.
In the summer 1928, Jolson would meet tap dancer, and later successful actress, Ruby Keeler at Texas Guinan's night club and was dazzled by her on sight; at the club, the two danced together. Three weeks later, Jolson saw a production of George M. Cohan's Rise of Rosie O'Reilly, and noticed she was in the show's cast. Now knowing she was going about her Broadway career, Jolson attended another one of her shows, Show Girl, and rose from the audience and engaged in her duet of "Liza." After this moment, the show's producer, Florenz Ziegfeld, asked Al join the cast and continue to sing duets with Keeler. Jolson accepted Ziegfeld's offer and during their tour with Ziegfeld, the two started dating and were married on September 21, 1928. In 1935, Al and Ruby adopted a son, whom they named "Al Jolson Jr. In 1939, however - despite a marriage that was considered to be more successful than his previous ones, Keeler left Jolson, and began a relationship with actor John Loewe
In 1944, while giving a show at a military hospital in Hot Springs, Arkansas, Jolson met a young X-ray technician named Erle Galbraith. After meeting her, Jolson became fascinated by her and -- over a year after meeting her -- was able to track her down and hired her as an actress while he served as a producer at Columbia Pictures. After Al -- whose health was still scarred from his previous battle with malaria -- was hospitalized in the winter of 1945, Erle visited him at the hospital, and the two quickly began a relationship with each other. They were married on March 22, 1945. During their marriage, the Jolsons adopted two children, Asa Jr. (b. 1948) and Alicia (b. 1949), and remained married until Al's death in 1950.Closeness to his brother Harry Despite their close relationship growing up, Harry did show some disdain for Al's success over the years. Even during their time with Jack Plamer, Al was rising in popularity while Harry was fading. After separating with Al and Jack, Harry's career in show business, however, sank greatly. On one occasion - which was another factor in his on-off relationship with Al - Harry offered to be Al's agent, but Al rejected the offer, worried about the pressure that he would have faced from his producers for hiring his brother as his agent. Shortly after Harry's wife Lillian died in 1948, Harry and Al became close once again.
Warner Bros. had originally picked George Jessel - who played Jack Robin in the Broadway play The Jazz Singer- to reprise his Broadway role in the film. However, Jessel refused the offer, because the film had a different ending than its Broadway counterpart: In the original play, Robin gave up his career as a Broadway performer to serve as a cantor in his father's synagogue, while in the movie, he chose to remain a Broadway performer. After Jessel refused the offer, Warner Bros. chief Jack L. Warner decided to offer Jolson the role instead. Jolson accepted Warner's offer, and was given a guaranteed salary of $200,000 to play Jack Robin. However, according to Jessel during an interview around 1980, Warners could not afford to produce this movie on its own and Jolson became the movie's main backer. | Watch interview
Much of the film is a silent drama, telling the sentimental story of a Jewish boy who loves to sing popular songs. He becomes a cabaret and stage star, much to the disgust of his estranged father (Warner Oland), a cantor at the local synagogue. Symbolic significance According to film historian Robert Carringer, what the father eventually comes to understand is that his son's jazz singing is "fundamentally an ancient religious impulse seeking expression in a modern, popular form." Or as the film itself states in its first title card, "perhaps this plaintive, wailing song of jazz is, after all, the misunderstood utterance of a prayer."
In one scene, for example, Jolson sings his "Mammy" number, in blackface, to an audience in a theatre. But he was mostly singing to two specific people: his sweetheart (backstage) and his beloved mother (in the audience). Therefore, according to Mast and Kawin, "The cantor's son had synthesized the sacred and profane functions of music - and the contradictory demands of the two women, and of show-biz and the family - by becoming an entertainer who sang from the heart."Vitaphone technology
The film was produced by Warner Brothers, using its revolutionary Vitaphone sound process. Vitaphone was originally intended for musical renditions, and The Jazz Singer follows this principle, with only the musical sequences using live sound recording. The moviegoers were electrified when the silent actions were interrupted periodically for a song sequence with real singing and sound. Jolson's dynamic voice, physical mannerisms, and charisma held the audience spellbound. "Everybody was mad for the talkies," said movie star Gregory Peck ... I remember 'The Jazz Singer,' when Al Jolson just burst into song, and there was a little bit of dialogue. And when he came out with 'Mammy,' and went down on his knees to his Mammy, it was just dynamite.
The irrepressible Jolson insisted on improvising incidental dialogue, and for the first time, moviegoers could hear a spoken conversation. Jolson ad-libs freely while singing "Blue Skies", jokingly telling his mother how he's going to move her to a better neighborhood when he becomes successful. As recently described in the Times Online (UK),
"What made The Jazz Singer such a sensation was the fact that, in addition to the songs on the soundtrack, there were a couple of spoken ad-libs from Jolson: “Wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothing yet” being the most famous. The audience went wild for the film, and specifically for Jolson himself, whose electric performance style was almost as important a component in the film’s success as the fact that audiences could hear his voice.
This opinion is shared by Mast and Kawin: "...this moment of informal patter at the piano is the most exciting and vital part of the entire movie...when Jolson acquires a voice, the warmth, the excitement, the vibrations of it, the way its rambling spontaneity lays bare the imagination of the mind that is making up the sounds ...[and] the addition of a Vitaphone voice revealed the particular qualities of Al Jolson that made him a star. Not only the eyes are a window on the soul."
Jolson had actually filmed a brief musical performance before The Jazz Singer. A Plantation Act was one of Warners' musical short subjects featuring Broadway and vaudeville headliners. Jolson, in blackface and ragged costume, prances on screen in a bucolic setting and sings three songs, with incidental patter in between. So close is this to an actual stage act that Jolson returns for two curtain calls afterward. This Jolson short was the key attraction in Warners' second theatrical demonstration of Vitaphone. Historians such as Donald Crafton, author of The Talkies (University of California Press), have disputed the official Warner Bros. account of the "talkie revolution," suggesting that the Vitaphone shorts, in production since 1926 and often including significant dialogue passages, were actually more influential than The Jazz Singer in whetting the public taste for talking films.
A Plantation Act was considered lost as far back as 1933 (Jolson requested a print and was told that the film no longer existed), but a mute print was discovered in the Warner vaults. The Vitaphone Project, a consortium of early-sound-film enthusiasts and collectors, located a damaged soundtrack disc and painstakingly restored the sound. Included with the Warner Home Video DVD of The Jazz Singer, the short contains almost as much dialogue as the later feature.
Jolson continued to make features for Warners, very similar in style to The Singing Fool, Say It with Songs (1929), Mammy (1930), and Big Boy (1930). A restored version of Mammy, which includes Jolson in some Technicolor sequences, was first screened in 2002. (Jolson's first Technicolor appearance was in a cameo in the musical Show Girl in Hollywood (1930) from First National Pictures, a Warner Bros. subsidiary.) The sameness of the stories, Jolson's large salary, and changing public tastes in musicals contributed to the films' diminishing returns over the next few years. As a result of this, Jolson decided to return to Broadway, and starred in a new show, entitled "Wonder Bar" which was not very successful.Hallelujah, I'm a Bum / "Hallelujah, I'm a Tramp" (1933)
Despite these new troubles, Jolson was able to make a comeback after performing a hit concert in New Orleans after "Wonderbar" closed in 1931. Warners allowed him to make one film with United Artists, Hallelujah, I'm a Bum, in 1933 (the film had to be retitled "Hallelujah,I'm a Tramp" in the UK and other English-speaking countries where bum' means 'butt' and where the slang word for a vagrant is a 'tramp' rather than a 'bum'). It was directed by Lewis Milestone and written by noted screenwriter Ben Hecht. Hecht was also active in the promotion of civil rights: "Hecht film stories featuring black characters included Hallelujah, I'm a Bum, co-starring Edgar Conner as Al Jolson's sidekick, in a politically savvy rhymed dialogue over Richard Rodgers music."
As the title suggests, the film was a direct response to the Great Depression, with messages to his vagabond friends equivalent to "there's more to life than money" and "the best things in life are free." A New York Times review wrote, "The picture, some persons may be glad to hear, has no Mammy song. It is Mr. Jolson's best film and well it might be, for that clever director, Lewis Milestone, guided its destiny.... a combination of fun, melody and romance, with a dash of satire... Another review added, "A film to welcome back, especially for what it tries to do for the progress of the American musical...Wonder Bar (1934)
In 1934, he starred in a movie version of his earlier stage play, Wonderbar, and co-starred Kay Francis, Dolores Del Rio, Ricardo Cortez, and Dick Powell. The movie is a "musical Grand Hotel, set in the Parisian nightclub owned by Al Wonder (Jolson). Wonder entertains and banters with his international clientele."
Reviews were generally positive: "Wonder Bar has got about everything. Romance, flash, dash, class, color, songs, star-studded talent and almost every known requisite to assure sturdy attention and attendance... It's Jolson's comeback picture in every respect."; and, "Those who like Jolson should see Wonder Bar for it is mainly Jolson; singing the old reliables; cracking jokes which would have impressed Noah as depressingly ancient; and moving about with characteristic energy.
Returning to Warners, Jolson bowed to new production ideas, focusing less on the star and more on elaborately cinematic numbers staged by Busby Berkeley and Bobby Connolly. This new approach worked, sustaining Jolson's movie career until the Warner contract lapsed in 1935. Jolson co-starred with his actress-dancer wife, Ruby Keeler, only once, in Go Into Your Dance. The Singing Kid (1936) Jolson's last Warner vehicle was the highly entertaining The Singing Kid (1936), a gentle parody of Jolson's stage persona (he plays a character named Al Jackson) in which he pokes fun at his stage histrionics and taste for "mammy" songs -- the latter via a number by E. Y. Harburg and Harold Arlen titled "I Love to Singa," and a comedy sequence with Jolson doggedly trying to sing "Mammy" while The Yacht Club Boys keep telling him such songs are outdated.
The Singing Kid was not one of the studio's major attractions, (it went out under the subsidiary First National trademark,) and Jolson didn't even rate star billing. The song "I Love to Singa" later appeared in Tex Avery's cartoon of the same name. The movie also became the first important role for future child star Sybil Jason in a scene directed by Busby Berkeley. Jason remembers that Berkeley worked on the film although he is not credited. Berkeley, whose career was in eclipse due to his conviction for vehicular manslaughter shortly before, was probably permitted to work on the film incognito. Rose of Washington Square (1939) His next movie - his first with Twentieth Century-Fox - was Rose of Washington Square, in 1939. It starred Jolson, Alice Faye and Tyrone Power, and included many of Jolson's most well-known songs, although a number of songs were cut to shorten the movie's length, including "April Showers" and "Avalon." Reviewers wrote, "Mr Jolson's singing of Mammy, California, Here I Come and others is something for the memory book. and "Of the three co-stars this is Jolson's picture ... because it's a pretty good catalog in anybody's hit parade. The movie is scheduled to be released on DVD in late August, 2008.
Again, in 1939, Twentieth Century-Fox hired him to re-create a scene from The Jazz Singer in the Alice Faye-Don Ameche film Hollywood Cavalcade. Guest appearances in two more Fox films followed that same year, but Jolson never starred in a full-length feature film again.
After the success of the George M. Cohan film biography, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Hollywood columnist Sidney Skolsky believed that a similar film could be made about Al Jolson -- and he knew just where to pitch the project. Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia Pictures, loved the music of Al Jolson. He knew that Jolson had been one of America's most well-known and popular entertainers.
Skolsky pitched the idea of an Al Jolson biopic and Cohn agreed. It was directed by Alfred E. Green (best known today for the pre-Code masterpiece Baby Face), with musical numbers staged by Joseph H. Lewis. With Jolson providing almost all the vocals, and veteran Columbia contractee Larry Parks playing Jolson, The Jolson Story (1946) became one of the biggest hits of the year. Watch Clip
From a review in Variety, "But the real star of the production is that Jolson voice and that Jolson medley. It was good showmanship to cast this film with lesser people, particularly Larry Parks as the mammy kid... As for Jolson's voice, it has never been better. Thus the magic of science has produced a composite whole to eclipse the original at his most youthful best.
Parks received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, and the film became one of the highest-grossing films of the year. Although Jolson was too old to play himself in the film, he persuaded the studio to let him appear in one musical sequence, "Swanee," shot entirely in long shot, with Jolson in blackface singing and dancing onto the runway leading into the middle of the theater. In the wake of the film's success, Jolson became a top singer among the American public once againCritical Observations According to film historian Krin Gabbard, The Jolson Story goes further than any of the earlier films in exploring the significance of blackface and the relationships that whites have developed with blacks in the area of music. To him, the film seems to imply an inclination of white performers, like Jolson, who are possessed with "the joy of life and enough sensitivity, to appreciate the musical accomplishments of blacks." To support his view he describes a significant part of the movie:
While wandering around New Orleans before a show with Dockstader's Minstrels, he enters a small club where a group of black jazz musicians are performing. "Jolson has a revelation, that the staid repertoire of the minstrel troupe can be transformed by actually playing black music in blackface. He tells Dockstader that he wants to sing what he has just experienced: 'I heard some music tonight, something they call jazz. Some fellows just make it up as they go along. They pick it up out of the air.' After Dockstader refuses to accommodate Jolson's revolutionary concept, the narrative chronicles his climb to stardom as he allegedly injects jazz into his blackface performances...Jolson's success is built on anticipating what Americans really want. Dockstader performs the inevitable function of the guardian of the status quo, whose hidebound commitment to what is about to become obsolete reinforces the audience's sympathy with the forward-looking hero."
This has been a theme which was traditionally "dear to the hearts of the men who made the movies." Film historian George Custen describes this "common scenario, in which the hero is vindicated for innovations that are initially greeted with resistance ...The struggle of the heroic protagonist who anticipates changes in cultural attitudes is central to other white jazz biopics such as The Glenn Miller Story (1954) and The Benny Goodman Story (1955)." "Once we accept a semantic change from singing to playing the clarinet, The Benny Goodman Story becomes an almost transparent reworking of The Jazz Singer... " and The Jolson Story.Jolson Sings Again The Jolson Story and its sequel Jolson Sings Again (1949) introduced a whole new generation to Jolson's voice and charisma. Both movies are currently available on DVD.
Jolson Sings Again opened at Loew's State Theatre in New York with positive reviews: "Mr. Jolson's name is up in lights again and Broadway is wreathed in smiles," wrote Thomas Pryor in The New York Times. "That's as it should be, for Jolson Sings Again is an occasion which warrants some lusty cheering ..." Jolson did a tour of New York film theaters to plug the movie, traveling with a police convoy to make timetables for all showings, often ad libbing jokes and performing songs for the audience. Extra police were on duty as crowds jammed the streets and sidewalks at each theater Jolson arrived at. In Chicago, a few weeks later, he sang to 100,000 people at Soldier's Field, and later that night appeared at the Oriental Theatre with George Jessel where 10,000 people had to be turned away.
In Baltimore, he took his wife Erle to see St. Mary's Catholic School where he was confined for a while as a boy and treated for tuberculosis. He introduced her to the same priest, Father Benjamin, who watched over him. That night, Jolson took over two hundred of the church's kids to see Jolson Sings Again at the Hippodrome. A few weeks later, the Jolsons were received by President Harry Truman at the White House. Radio shows Jolson, who had been a popular guest star on radio since its earliest days, got his own show, hosting the Kraft Music Hall from 1947 to 1949, with Oscar Levant as a sardonic, piano-playing sidekick. Despite such singers as Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Perry Como being in their primes, Jolson was voted the "Most Popular Male Vocalist" in 1948 by a poll in the show biz newspaper Variety.
The next year, Jolson was named "Personality of the Year" by the Variety Clubs of America. When Jolson appeared on Bing Crosby's radio show, he attributed his receiving the award to his being the only singer not to make a record of Mule Train, which had been a widely covered hit of that year (four different versions, one of them by Crosby, had made the top ten on the charts). Jolson even joked that he had tried to sing the hit song: "I got the clippetys all right, but I can't clop like I used to."
Also in 1950, Columbia was thinking about a third Jolson musical, and this time Jolson would play himself. The project, tentatively titled You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet, was to dramatize Jolson's recent tours of military bases. The film was never produced.
From a NY Times interview in 1942: “When the war started,” 'he said when we were finally alone. “I felt that it was up to me to do something, and the only thing I know is show business. I went around during the last war and I saw that the boys needed something besides chow and drills. I knew the same was true today, so I told the people in Washington that I would go anywhere and do an act for the Army." Shortly after the war began, he wrote a letter to Steven Early, press secretary to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, volunteering "to head a committee for the entertainment of soldiers and said that he "would work without pay... [and] would gladly assist in the organization to be set up for this purpose." A few weeks later, he received his first tour schedule from the newly formed United Services Organization (USO), "the group his letter to Early had helped create."
He did as many as four shows a day in the jungle outposts of Central America and covered the string of U.S. Naval bases. He paid for part of the transportation out of his own pocket. Upon doing his first, and unannounced, show in England in 1942, the reporter for the Hartford Courant wrote, "... it was a panic. And pandemonium... when he was done the applause that shook that soldier-packed room was like bombs falling again in Shaftsbury Avenue.
From an article in the New York Times, "He has been to more Army camps and played to more soldiers than any other entertainer. He has crossed the Atlantic by plane to take song and cheer to the troops in England and Northern Ireland. He has flown to the cold wastes of Alaska and the steaming forests of Trinidad. He has called at Dutch‑like Curaçao. Nearly every camp in this country has heard him sing and tell funny stories." Watch
Some of the unusual hardships of performing to active troops were described in an article he wrote for Variety, in 1942: "In order to entertain all the boys ... 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 would give a show." After returning from a tour of overseas bases, the Regimental Hostess at one camp wrote to Jolson, "Allow me to say on behalf of all the soldiers of the 33rd Infantry that you coming here is quite the most wonderful thing that has ever happened to us, and we think you're tops, not only as a performer, but as a person. We unanimously elect you Public Morale Lifter No. 1 of the U.S Army."
He was officially enlisted in the United Service Organizations (USO), the organization which provided entertainment for American troops who served in combat overseas. While serving in the USO, he received a Specialist rating due to his age, which would permit him to wear a uniform and have the same standing as an officer. During his time entertaining troops he caught malaria and lost a lung.
In 1946, during a nationally broadcast testimonial dinner in New York City, given on his behalf, he received a special tribute from the American Veterans Committee in honor of his volunteer services during WWII. Listen
In 1950, Michael Freedlandwrites, when "the United States answered the call of the United Nations Security Council ... and had gone to fight the North Koreans. ... [Jolson] rang the White House again. 'I'm gonna go to Korea,' he told a startled official on the phone. 'No one seems to know anything about the USO, and it's up to President Truman to get me there.'
"He was promised that President Truman and General MacArthur, who had taken command of the Korean front, would get to hear of his offer. But for four weeks there was nothing. ... Finally, Louis A. Johnson, Secretary of Defense, sent Jolson a telegram. 'Sorry for delay but regret no funds for entertainment-STOP; USO disbanded-STOP.' The message was as much an assault on the Jolson sense of partriotism as the actual crossing of the 38th Parallel had been. 'What are they talkin' about,' he thundered. 'Funds? Who needs funds? I got funds! I'll pay myself!' "
On September 17th, 1950, a dispatch from 8th Army Headquarters, Korea, announced, "Al Jolson, the first top-flight entertainer to reach the war-front, landed here today by plane from Los Angeles. ..." This time, Jolson had shelved plans for a third movie biography along with a TV show and traveled to Korea at his own expense. "and a lean, smiling Jolson drove himself without letup through 42 shows in 16 days." Before returning to the U.S., General Douglas MacArthur, leader of UN forces, gave him a medallion inscribed "To Al Jolson from Special Services in appreciation of entertainment of armed forces personnel ‑ Far East Command,” with his entire itinerary inscribed on the reverse side.
Alistair Cooke wrote, "He had one last hour of glory. He offered to fly to Korea and entertain the troops hemmed in on the United Nations precarious August bridgehead. The troops yelled for his appearance. He went down on his knee again and sang "mammy," and the troops wept and cheered. When he was asked what Korea was like he warmly answered, 'I am going to get back my income tax returns and see if I paid enough.' Watch Jolson in Korea
Two weeks after his return to America, Jolson died suddenly of a heart attack in San Francisco at age 64, due partly to the physical exertion he suffered in Korea. He left a wife and two recently adopted children.
A few months after he died, Defense Secretary George Marshall presented the Medal of Merit to Jolson, "to whom this country owes a debt which cannot be repaid." The medal, carrying a citation noting that Jolson's "contribution to the U.N. action in Korea was made at the expense of his life," was presented to Jolson's adopted son as Jolson's widow looked on.
His wife, Erle, received the news over the telephone, and went into shock, requiring family members to stay with her around the clock until the funeral. At the funeral, police estimated upwards of 20,000 people showed up, despite threatened rain. It became one of the biggest funerals in show business history.
Celebrities paid tribute: Bob Hope, speaking from Korea via short wave radio, said the world had lost "not only a great entertainer, but also a great citizen." Larry Parks said that the world had "lost not only its greatest entertainer, but a great American as well. He was a casualty of the [Korean] war." Scripps-Howard newspapers drew a pair of white gloves on a black background. The caption read, "The Song Is Ended."
Newspaper and radio columnist Walter Winchell wrote, "He was the first to entertain troops in World War Two, contracted malaria and lost a lung. Then in his upper sixties he was again the first to offer his singing gifts for bringing solace to the wounded and weary in Korea.
"Today we know the exertion of his journey to Korea took a greater toll of his strength than perhaps even he realized. But he considered it his duty as an American to be there, and that was all that mattered to him. Jolson, passed away in a San Francisco hotel. Yet he was as much a battle casualty as any American soldier who has fallen on the rocky slopes of Korea … A star for more than 40 years, he earned his most glorious star rating at the end - a gold star."
And longtime friend George Jessel said during part of his eulogy, "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."Memorial He was interred in the Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery in Culver City, California. According to Cemetery Guide, Jolson’s widow purchased a plot at Hillside and commissioned his mausoleum to be designed by well-known black architect Paul Williams. The six-pillar marble structure is topped by a dome, next to three-quarter-size bronze statue of Jolson, eternally resting on one knee, arms outstretched, apparently ready to break into another verse of “Mammy.” The inside of the dome features a huge mosaic of Moses holding the tablets containing the Ten Commandments, and identifies Jolson as “The Sweet Singer of Israel” and “The Man Raised Up High.”
On the day he died, Broadway dimmed its lights in Jolson's honor. A number of eulogies by friends, including George Jessel, Walter Winchell, and Eddie Cantor can be read here. He contributed millions to Jewish and other charities in his will.
Jolson has three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame:
Forty-four years after Jolson's death, the United States Postal Service honored him by issuing a postage stamp. The 29-cent stamp was unveiled by Erle Jolson Krasna, Jolson's fourth wife, at a ceremony in New York City's Lincoln Center on September 1 1994. This stamp was one of a series honoring popular American singers, which included Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Ethel Merman, and Ethel Waters.
In August 2006, Al Jolson had a street in New York named after him after nine years of attempts by the international Al Jolson Society