Today is the birthday of Harry Jolson (Hirsch Yoelson, 1882-1953). Born in Lithuania, the son of a cantor who would settle the family in Washington DC, Harry was the older brother of singer Al Jolson — who would go on to much greater fame in show business. But being older, it was Harry who ran away and went into vaudeville first.
Around the turn of the 20th century Al joined Harry in New York, where he was already beginning to take his first baby steps in show business. Harry and Al teamed up in burlesque as “The Joelson Bros.” in an act called “The Hebrew and the Cadet.” Al’s voice was still changing and this is the point of his career where he whistled rather than sang (whistling would always be one of his distinctive trademarks). 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”. Within a couple of years, Al became a major superstar, and after that the brothers’ rivalry became something of a joke. Harry was deemed to be no competition for Al, and what small crumbs he enjoyed tended to be crumbs from his brother’s table. While Al starred in Broadway shows and, later Hollywood films, Harry struggled on in vaudeville, often humiliatingly billed as “Al Jolson’s brother”. Here he is in a rare 1929 film clip with Lola Lane:
When vaudeville died, Harry became an agent for a while, representing Al and his wife Ruby Keeler for about seven years. When Al left him, his agency folded and he sold insurance and worked at an aircraft plant during World War Two. He was not mentioned at all in the Hollywood films The Al Jolson Story (1946) and Jolson Sings Again (1949). When Al died in 1950, Harry made a spoken word tribute record called “One More Song”, and also enjoyed some last limelight on radio and television (a show called You Asked for It, on which he sang Al’s “You Made Me Love You”). By these years though, he was failing. He passed away in 1953, three years after the brother who was a thorn in his side all those years.
**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, and performers like Harry Jolson, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous