Archive for Al Jolson

Tomorrow on TCM: The Jolson Story

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies, PLUGS with tags , , , on February 5, 2014 by travsd


Unless you’re a rooster you’ll want to set your DVR for this one: tomorrow at 3:30 a.m. EST, Turner Classic Movies will be showing The Jolson Story (1946). 

While undeniably entertaining, this grand-daddy of bio-pics surpasses its notable template Yankee Doodle Dandy in being almost completely fictional, apart from the very loose outline of Al Jolson’s life. As in, almost every main character in what is purported to be Al Jolson’s life story NEVER existed. But his old man was a cantor, and he did run away from home as a kid, and he did succeed in show business, and (not unimportantly) those are the songs Jolson is famous for singing, here lip-synced by Larry Parks, who was nominated for an Oscar for this performance.

Jolie was still alive and kicking when this film came out and it helped spur something of a comeback for him in his final years. Jolson’s being alive however also meant that audiences were deprived of what ought to have been the film’s most entertaining aspect: what an S.O.B. he was.

The film was Columbia’s biggest money-maker up until that time. So popular was it in fact that it was re-released in 1954. Here’s the trailer:

For more on the real Jolson go here:

For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


And don’t my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from etc etc etc


An Al Jolson Christmas?

Posted in HOLIDAYS, FESTIVALS, MEMORIALS & PARADES, Jews/ Show Biz, Radio, Singers with tags , , , on December 3, 2013 by travsd


Nobody is more Jewish than Al Jolson — the real son of a cantor, as well as the fictional son of a cantor in The Jazz Singer. On the other hand, no one is more secular than Al Jolson — the wayward son of a cantor both onscreen and off. Like many other Jews  in show business (many of whom we’ll be posting about this month) Jolson was quite happy to celebrate Christmas on the air for the enjoyment of his audience. The conflict between warring identities is one of the things I think makes his generation of American entertainers truly interesting. This Christmas episode of his radio show The Kraft Music Hall originally aired December 23, 1948.

To find out more about show business consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from etc etc etc


“Al Jolson: Here and Now” Opens Tonight

Posted in Contemporary Variety, PLUGS, Singers with tags , , on September 21, 2013 by travsd


Ruby Keeler

Posted in Broadway, Dance, Hollywood (History), Movies, Women with tags , , , , on August 25, 2013 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Ethel Hilda “Ruby” Keeler (1910-1993). She’s another of those performers about whom I keep saying, “I haven’t done a post on her yet?“. But surprisingly, Keeler didn’t come out of vaudeville, and that’s why the lapse. Yet her artistry is so closely related we feel we can’t neglect her any more.

Born in Nova Scotia, raised in NYC, Keeler went straight from teenage dance classes into the chorus line of George M. Cohan’s Broadway show The Rise of Rose O’Reilly in 1923 (she lied about her age). This led to work at Texas Guinan’s El Fay Club and the Broadway shows Bye Bye Bonnie (1927), Lucky (1927) and Sidewalks of New York (1927).

Movie fans love her tap dancing; most of the dance experts I know tend to be less generous with respect to her abilities in that area. One quality all agree on though is her appeal. She possessed an extremely rare mix of innocence and sensuality that is like cat nip to a male audience. It was this quality that inspired Cohan and Charles Dillingham to cast her in shows, and it was this quality that drove the most eligible of show biz bachelors, the 42 year old Al Jolson to snatch the 18 year old Keeler out of the cradle and marry her.

At first the balance of power was all in Jolson’s direction. He famously humiliated her during the opening performance of Show Girl in 1929, when he stood up in the audience and sang during her number, thus stealing her spotlight. Four years later, that balance would shift to her advantage when she starred in a series of now classic Hollywood musicals: 42nd Street (1933), Gold Diggers of 1933Footlight Parade (1933) and Dames (1934). By this point the career of Jolson (who had been the very first star of the talkies starting in 1927) was in decline. To help boost his waning box office she co-starred with him in 1935’s Go Into Your Dance.  But movie musicals (and now Keeler too) were going out of fashion. She continued to appear in a string of ever less popular movies through 1941 and then retired to marry her second husband John Homer Lowe (she’d divorced Jolson in 1940. )

Keeler occasionally popped out of retirement to make the odd film or tv appearance thereafter. Her major re-emergence occurred in the 1970 revival of the 1925 Broadway show No, No, Nanette, which ran for two years.

And here’s something cool — a clip from that show, Keeler still kicking at age 60:

To find out more about  the history of show businessconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


And check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc


Hallelujah, I’m a Bum

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , , , , on July 15, 2013 by travsd


Set yours DVR’s chillun, tomorrow July 16 at 7:45am, Turner Classic Movies is showing the terrific and wonderfully strange Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (1933), with songs by Rodgers and Hart, and a book by S.N. Behrman from a Ben Hecht idea.

In this Depression era anomaly, Al Jolson plays “the Mayor of Central Park”, sort of the king of the bums, who’s actually good friend of the actual mayor of New York, clearly based on Jimmy Walker, and played by Frank Morgan. The very first scene is crazy: they meet while duck hunting in Florida, instead of some logical place in New York. Back in New York, Jolson’s pals include Harry Langdon as a communist sanitation worker, and Chester Conklin as a hansom cab driver. Plenty of magic in that cast! And also in the fact that a good bit of the dialogue is rhymed and sung—it’s actually an operetta. The plot has to do with the fact that Morgan is having all sorts of troubles with his girlfriend. She tries to kill herself by jumping into the pond at Central Park and is rescued by Jolson. She has amnesia. The two fall in love. Jolson subdues his freedom-loving hobo philosophy and gets a job to support her. Then Jolson sees a photo at Morgan’s house and realizes he has to give her up. The instant she sees Morgan she gets her memory back, and sees Jolson only as a dirty bum. But he goes back to his old ways—and happy to do so. What a part that would have been for the young Nat Wills!

The film has many magical elements but somehow lacks the alchemy to be the complete transformative experience that would have made it a better-known classic. Seems a little torn perhaps between two standard genres of the period: 1) crazy fantasy comedy and 2) screwball comedy. (I wish there were better terms in place for me to more clearly make the distinction between the two very different forms I referred to!) The former refers to films like the early Marx Bros, of W.C. Fields’ Million Dollar Legs, or International House…crazy comedies with no real rules: outlandish plots and characters with crazy names—anything goes. The latter (screwball) generally refers to Capraesque romantic comedies, a sort of flip side of noir actually…where the coming together of a mismatched couple makes sparks fly in all directions and they have an adventure.

Though the film is beautiful in its way, it could have gone farther.  The production feels sort of cramped and low-budget. The costumes and sets could have gone wild… the hoboes and their camp could and should have been been amazing, but fall short. Another thought: by 1934, it’s very hard to have sympathy for the Jimmy Walker type — the guy who’s into high living. Though Depression era movies were full of rich people and their foibles, I don’t think we usually see much of the decadent, dissipating type, at least not as a sympathetic character. The moment for drunken partying was past. So this character seems sort of out of step. Interesting to me that the communism of Langdon’s character is presented as a mere foible…that would have been impossible in films just a few years later. It’s definitely a bellwether of the time in which it was made.

Herewith, the trailer:

To find out more about  the history of show businessconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


And check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc


A Holiday Message from Mr. Al Jolson

Posted in HOLIDAYS, FESTIVALS, MEMORIALS & PARADES, Vaudeville etc. with tags on December 24, 2010 by travsd

The Billy Rose Theatre Collection, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

More on the sender of this card here.

Stars of Vaudeville #15: Al Jolson

Posted in African American Interest, Blackface & Minstrelsy, Broadway, Hollywood (History), Jews/ Show Biz, Radio, Singers, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , on May 26, 2009 by travsd


“Possessed of an immensely electric personality, a rare sense of comedy, considerable histrionic ability, a most unusual musical versatility in the way of song and dance, and, above all,  a gift for delivering lines for their full effect, he so far outdistances his rivals that they seem like the wrong ends of so many opera glasses”.

– George Jean Nathan

How powerful a performer was Jolson? Look no further than the WB frog. The WB frog, a Jolson parody, is Jolie’s most lasting legacy and not one person in a hundred is probably even aware of it. When that frog first made its appearance in the 1955 animated short One Froggy Evening, Jolson was already so washed up that the mere imitation of him was a kind of shorthand for “corny.” Yet, only a few years earlier, Jolson was the last word in cutting edge in the world of popular vocal music. Such was the rate of change in the twentieth century.

It was Jolson who transformed an industry drugged on saccharine, antiseptic renditions of songs like “Bicycle Built for Two” and “I Dream of Jeanie (With the Light Brown Hair)” and jazzed it up with finger popping, hyperkinetic rags. Despite the incriminating and archaic blackface, he was a negrophile, who played a central role in promoting the styles and sounds of  black music to the mainstream white audience. Yet he was a transitional figure; by the 1940s he was worse than passe. His patented pathos, the hands on heart, down on one knee, calling for his dead Mammy….had become bathos in the age of Bobby soxers and Frank Sinatra. And time has never yet rehabilitated him.

He was born Asa Yoelson in the 1880s in Russia. He normally gave 1886 as the date, but most biographers claim that he made it up, he truly had no idea, as no records were kept. He started out singing with his father, a Washington D.C. cantor, at temple.


He decided to go into show business after hearing Faye Templeton sing “Rosie, You Are My Posie”. The boy ran away from home several times as a minor to try to break into show business. Once, most famously, he had an extended stay at St. Mary’s Industrial Home for Boys in Baltimore, where he met Babe Ruth and Bill Robinson, both also waywards. He started really to break in when at an Eddie Leonard performance at the Bijoux Theatre in Washington, Leonard asked the audience to sing along with “Ida, Sweet as Apple Cider”. It was one of those moments where most of the people in the audience are too shy and only one person starts singing. Consequently everyone in the house, including Leonard, could clearly hear Jolson. Leonard was so impressed he asked him to stay on and do it for every performance. But Jolie, ever prideful from the beginning, turned him down, preferring to actually be on the stage. This early line in the sand  reveals a brash self-confidence that characterized his entire career. He never settled for less than he wanted.

But job opportunities for songbirds were scarce. He finally did swallow his pride and did a balcony job for Aggie “Jersey Lil” Beeler with the Villanova Touring Burlesque Company. Aggie never gave him billing or let him come onstage, so he quit and joined hos brother Harry, who had also run away to be in show business, in New York. He was cast as an extra in a Broadway musical called Children of the Ghetto in 1891, which closed after three performances. Al then teamed briefly with a man named Fred Moore, but his voice began to change. During this awkward age, Al worked up a bit where he whistled rather than sang,  and teamed up in burlesque with Harry (“The Joelson Bros.) in an act called “The Hebrew and the Cadet.”

In 1901 the boys teamed team up with one Joe Palmer as  Jolson, Palmer and Jolson in a sketch called “A Little Bit of Everything”. Palmer was a former headliner who had written the lyrics to “In the Good Old Summertime”. He now had multiple sclerosis and was in a wheelchair. They boys dropped the “e” from their name because it wouldn’t fit on the business cards. Harry played a doctor, Al, a bellhop, and Palmer…the guy in the wheelchair. Al started using blackface at this time, and found that it liberated him so that he could really cut loose as a performer. The act was very successful. In 1905, they were contracted to play Tony Pastor’s but the act split up before the engagement started. Part of the boys’ obligation in the act was to clean, dress and otherwise babysit the infirm Palmer in their offstage moments. The boys had a falling out over who would take care of Palmer on a certain night. They never quite fully made up after this spat.

Now both Jolson brothers were working solo. By accident or by design the Jolson Brothers now cut up the continental U.S. into spheres of influence. While Harry worked the Keith and William Morris circuits in the east as “The Operatic Blackface Comedian”, Al worked Sullivan and Considine in the West as “the Blackface with the Grand Opera Voice”. Harry tried to sue Al to have him stop using his tag (his had pre-dated it). In 1906, Al placed a Variety ad that read: “Watch me – I’m a wow.” He proved it that year in performances in San Francisco immediately after the earthquake. The city had been devastated and was hungry for laughs. Here is where Jolson’s legendary dynamism first made itself manifest, honing the act for which he would become famous. It was here that he first uttered the words “you aint seen nothing yet” —  a ritual at every performance for the next 44 years.

Al was discovered by Lew Dockstader and hired for his minstrel company. Jolson helped prolong the life of that dying theatrical form by bringing a bit of jazz into it. By 1909 he was eclipsing Dockstader in his own show.

He started working with songwriters to cook up a new kind of song for his act. In December 1909, at the Colonial Theatre he introduced one of these “Hello, My Baby” and it became a huge hit. People started to notice him. Sime Silverman of Variety raved about his turn at the Fifth Avenue. Scouts for Hammerstein’s Victoria spotted him at the Grand Opera House. On the first night of his gig at the Victoria he established another Jolson ritual – he asked the manager to turn up the house lights so could see the audience. In 1910, he briefly went back to Dockstader, bringing his ragtime with him. Here he did Berlin’s new song “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”, making a hit of it.

In 1911 the Shuberts took over Dockstader’s Minstrels, including Al.  They booked him in a musical at the Winter Garden La Belle Paree: A Cook’s Tour Through Vaudeville with a Parisian Landscape (1911). Jolson was not a huge hit on the first night, but in the next performance, he arranged an earlier entrance. He threw out a bunch of gimmicks, including whistling on the chorus of some numbers, and scored this time. His part in the show quickly grew bigger and bigger. Audiences began flocking just to see him. Also that year he starred in Vera Violetta, where he began the Jolson tradition of prancing down the aisle as he sang. In later shows, he would have a special runway built just for this purpose.

Did Jolson let this success go to his head? That would imply that he wasn’t already egotistical. Consider: in 1910, he turned down an offer to audition for Ziegfeld: “Jolie don’t audition for nobody.” And in 1911, he placed this appalling holiday message in Variety : “Everybody likes me. Those who don’t are jealous. Anyhow, here’s wishing those that do and those that don’t a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year—Al Jolson” Thanks for nothing! Once he saw some empty seats in the house and had to be coerced into performing. Another favorite trick of his was to stop in the middle of a performance and say “Do you want me or do you want the show?”. If the audience chose “him” he would proceed to do a song set, and the rest of the other performers could go home.

In 1911 he began to cut records for RCA Victor, which helped propel his career even farther and faster. In the 1912 show The Whirl of Society he officially starred for the first time. In Hangman Express (1913) with Fanny Brice and Harry Fox, he got down on one knee for the first time. He later claimed that it was an accidental response to the pain caused by an ingrown toenail – but Milton Berle claimed that Blossom Seeley was using the move as much as a year earlier for dramatic effect. Seems likely Jolson borrowed it.


Meanwhile, the country was singing the songs Jolson made famous, “You Made Me Love You”, “Mammy”,  “Swannee”. Each show seemed to introduce at least one: Sinbad (1918) had “Rockabye My Baby with a Dixie Melody”. Bombo (1921) had “Toot, Toot, Tootsie”, and “April Showers”. By now Harry had long since resorted to billing himself as “Al Jolson’s Brother” to get bookings. It was just as well – Buster Keaton claimed that he was the only blackface act he’d ever seen with a Yiddish accent.

Jolson had frequent throat troubles, and it was not surprising, since he constantly bathed his tonsils in liquor and the smoke of unfiltered cigarettes. But he was stubborn. On one occasion he was really truly sick and refused to close a show because Eddie Cantor had a show on at the same time. Though Jolson didn’t know it, Cantor was also sick. When the Cantor show folded, that very day Jolson closed his own show.

On the other hand, if he didn’t feel good about what he was doing, he would pack up his tent in a heartbeat. Slated to appear in a D.W. Griffith picture to be called Mammy’s Boy, or Black and White , he walked off the set after a few days shooting, claiming “ill health”. In reality, he had no idea what he was doing without the response of an audience.


Of his performance in the 1921 show Big Boy, Robert Benchley wrote that it was “to know what the coiners of the word ‘personality’ meant”. “If You Knew Susie” was a song from this show. Jolson wasn’t crazy about it, so he gave it to Cantor, who made a hit out of it, much to Jolson’s regret.

The next great leap came with pictures, which was ironic in light of the Griffith incident. When Jessel blew his chance at the film version of The Jazz Singer (1929), which was to be the first talkie, Jolson was given the role, thus cementing his place in cinematic as well as theatrical history.

The film he did in 1928, The Singing Fool film featured the songs “Sitting on Top of the World” and “Sonny Boy”. In 1930 he did two films, Mammy with songs by Irving Berlin, and a version of his stage hit Big Boy.



In 1928 he married Ruby Keeler. Her boyfriend had been “Johnny Irish” Costello who fortunately was bumped off—or Jolson might have been. Jolson caused a brouhaha in 1930 when he inserted himself into a show in which he wasn’t even cast. On the opening night of the musical Show Girl in which Ruby appeared, as the band struck up the opening chords of “Liza”, the song Ruby was to sing, she seemed to freeze. With all the brass of someone who really was “sitting on top of the world”, Jolson stood up in his seat in the audience and sang the song himself. I guess he figured he’d done it before, he could do it again.

This late in the game, vaudeville was still a part of his life, but only sporadically. In 1930 he made his only appearance at the Palace, and worked a week at the Capitol Theatre. In 1931 he did the show Wonder Bar, his first on Broadway since Big Boy. From that show came the song “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” which was throughly in tune with the mood of Depression-era audiences.


But for the most part films and broadcasting were the dominating forces in his career. He’d first been on radio in 1927. In 1932 he began his own program, with Chevrolet as the sponsor. In 1933, he launched Kraft Music Hall, the long running radio show he was associated with until his death. Throughout his broadcasting career, he was to forever drive his sponsors crazy—saying their name wrong, insulting other companies, and being sued in turn for liable. But what were they going to do, fire him?

In the early 30s, he was the 3rd richest man in Hollywood after Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. But just as quickly as it rose, his star rapidly fell. His 1934 picture Halleluiah, I’m a Bum highly regarded and studied today, was a flop when it was released. His 30s releases were increasingly formulaic, and hence uninteresting. Go Into Your Dance a joint picture with Ruby (who’d become a star because of her role in 42nd Street) seemed more an act of desperation than anything else. By 1939, he was down to 3rd billing in Rose of Washington  Square under Alice Faye and Tyrone Power – quite a comedown. Young people were not digging him at all by now. He was like something from another era. Playing E.P. Christie in the Stephen Foster bio-pic Swannee River only proved it.


He toured extensively with the U.S.O. during World War II, and in the late 40s enjoyed a major comeback when the 1946 film The Jolson Story was released. Al was played with uncanny accuracy by Larry Parks, but he dubbed his own songs for the film, which were released as an L.P., jumpstarting his career. In 1947, Jolson Sings Again was also a hit.

He died in 1950 following a punishing U.S.O. tour of Korea. There were two funeral services, one presided over by George Jessel, the other by Eddie Cantor.

To hear a podcast of me discussing Jolson and other vaudevillians with “Jolson & Friends” blogger Brian Decker, go here. And…

To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


And don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc




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