Jessel, known invariably as “Georgie” did a little bit of everything in show business: kid act, comedian, songwriter, singer, Broadway actor, and movie producer are just some of the roles he filled. Yet he gained his greatest fame in vaudeville with a one-sided dialogue routine, a “telephone conversation” with his mother that anticipated similar routines by Bob Newhart and Shelley Berman three decades later.
Jessel (b. April 3, 1898) started performing as a child to help earn money when his father became ill. He debuted at the age of nine at the Imperial Theatre (116th Street and Lexington), where his mother worked as a wardrobe mistress. With Jack Weiner (later an agent) and Walter Winchell (later a famously cruel gossip columnist) he formed a singing group, the Imperial Trio, which sang songs to accompany slides. Then he performed with Winchell and Eddie Cantor in the Gus Edwards sketch “School Boys and Girls”. Joe Smith of Smith and Dale knew Jessel quite well during this era – he used to buy him ice cream. Charlie Chaplin, who also caught the act at this time, was more impressed with Winchell.
As he grew older, he formed a two-act with a young man named Lou Edwards (no relation to Gus) called “Two Patches from a Crazy Quilt”
As a young man, he began to doing the “mama” bit, which apparently made even President Wilson crack up:
Hello, mom. This is Georgie, your son. Yes, the one from the checks…So tell me, Mom, what’s with Anna’s feller? They got engaged finally. Good, good. When’ll they get married? He has to wait? Wait for what? They’ve been going together for ten years and – oh, he’s waiting for a job. Did he at least give her a ring? He’s waiting for me to lend him the money. I see, Look, Mom, what’s the hurry, why does she have to get married? She’s still a young girl. After all, thirty-eight ain’t so old…Willie wants to talk to me? Okay, put him on. Hello, Willie. Ya a good boy? Good. How ya doing in school? Teacher’s got a grudge against you. I see. You want my autograph. Only last week I sent you four and a few weeks before I sent you—oh, I see, for every six of mine you can swap for one of Eddie Cantor’s.”
Jessel performed several of these routines, changing the material with each engagement, and usually signing off with with ”Yes, mama, the check is in the mail. Good night.”
In the 1920s, he graduated to Broadway shows, where he was a major star. Most notably, he played the title role in the stage version of The Jazz Singer (1925). He blew his big shot at the silver screen for demanding prohibitively high insurance to appear in the 1927 film version, it being such a “risky” venture. The role went to Jolson instead, and because of that one decision, Jessel, who was nationally well-known until the 1970s, is a historical footnote today. He did make several other movies during the years 1926-31 though, notably a handful of Vitaphone comedy shorts, and some features: Lucky Boy (1928, a thinly veiled ripoff of The Jazz Singer); George Washington Cohen (1928); and Live, Love and Laugh (1929).
After a couple more Broadway shows The War Song (1928; co-wrote) Billy Rose’s Sweet and Low (1930); and High Kickers (1931; which he co-wrote), Jessel did finally make his mark in Hollywood—but as a producer. He made pictures for 20th Century Fox for 11 years, including the unforgettable Nightmare Alley (1947), atrocious bio-pics of Lotta Crabtree, the Dolly Sisters , Eva Tanguay, songwriter Joe Howard and impresario Sol Hurok. They aren’t classics precisely, but Jessel’s films definitely bear a personal stamp that is all his, a voice far stronger than the average Hollywood film producer’s.
In later years, the conservative Jessel was best known as a familiar face on television variety shows and as the U.S. Toastmaster General to six presidents, an unofficial, semi-political position, rather like Bill Robinson’s honorary mayorality of Harlem.
Jessel was still performing two weeks before he died in 1981.
Because he seemed a particularly gross old man, it is easy to forget that Jessel was quite good looking in his youth. He clearly had a way with women, much to his detriment when he later owed them alimony and child support. Jessel was one of the first stars whose personal life competed with his professional life for attention. He was married three times, to Florence Courtney of the Courtney Sisters, to silent star Norma Talmadge, and to 16 year old actress and showgirl Lois Andrews. He also fathered a child out of wedlock with actress Joan Tyler, and claimed to have bedded Lupe Velez, Helen Morgan, and Pola Negri. After his divorce from Talmadge he made scandalous headlines by going to her husband and firing a gun to scare her current lover.
Here’s a unique tv show Jessel hosted in 1969. Here Come the Stars was similar in format to Dean Martin’s Celebrity Roasts, with fewer insults, and of course the host was for some reason dressed like a General:
And to bring us all the way up to the present, Billy West based the musch-mouthed Yiddish-inflected voice of the character Dr. Zoidberg on Futurama on Jessel’s:
To find out more about Jessel 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.