Stars of Vaudeville #15: Al Jolson
“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 (1927), 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 Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc