Archive for George Jessel

The Courtney Sisters (featuring Florence, Georgie Jessel’s First Wife)

Posted in Sister Acts, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 11, 2017 by travsd

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August 11, 1892 was the birthday of Florence Courtney (Florence Grismer). With her sister Fay, she was one half of the vaudeville singing duo The Courtney Sisters. Joe Laurie, Jr. called them “one of the first great harmony sister acts”. Originally from Texas, the Grismer family moved to Missouri, and then finally to New York, where their mother pursued a career as a model and the daughters tried to break into show business.

They’re already making a noise in vaudeville by 1912; by that point they were already popular enough to feature on sheet music, like this immortal classic from that year:

In 1914, Florence married ragtime piano player Mike Bernard, a rake who had previously had an affair with Blossom Seeley, fathered children out of wedlock with a Ziegfeld girl, and was to marry two other times. Not surprisingly, they divorced two years later.

The Courtney Sisters made it all the way to Broadway, appearing in the shows The Little Whopper (1919), Blue Eyes (1921), and Snapshots of 1921. 

In 1919, Florence met and married Georgie Jessel.

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One gets Jessel’s side of their rocky romance in his typically self-serving autobiography So Help Me. The Courtney Sisters were big time when the Florence and Jessel got together, whereas Jessel was still kind of second tier. But that was the year his own career broke out as well. The way he paints it, everything conspired to undermine the marriage. First both husband and wife were too busy. Fay was against her sister’s marriage, afraid it would break up the act. Then Jessel was out of work and not bringing in dough. Then he was working again. Then there were affairs because they were apart. They separated almost immediately, then got a formal divorce in 1921. Then they got back together, then broke up again, then remarried in 1923.  Meanwhile, the Courtney Sisters had broken up; Florence appeared solo in five Broadway shows through 1925. Then she did retire from show business and became intensely religious, which further alienated Jessel. So they were frequently separated, she didn’t like to go out and party more, and had lost the “whoopie” energy that had attracted him in the first place. There were plenty of affairs. Still, they didn’t get divorced again until 1932. Perhaps out of spite she kept “forgiving him” which was pretty clearly what he didn’t want. He had begun seeing Norma Talmadge during their marriage; she was to be his second wife in 1934.

When Florence passed away in 1989, she had remarried; her surname was then Mayehoff.

To learn more about vaudeville, including acts like the Courtney Sisters, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

The Jazz Singer

Posted in African American Interest, Hollywood (History), Jews/ Show Biz, Movies with tags , , , , , on October 6, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the landmark Warner Brothers motion picture The Jazz Singer (1927) starring Al Jolson. 

The fame of this film is perhaps greater than ever, but I’ll wager many more millions have heard about the movie than have ever seen it. Like many other great American works (Huckleberry Finn, The Birth of a NationThe Jazz Singer’s legacy is complicated.

Its biggest renown is for being the “first talkie”, which is actually far from the case. Countless (or at least numerous) talking films had been made and shown prior to The Jazz Singer, just as many Europeans had traveled to the Americas prior to Columbus. What made The Jazz Singer (and Columbus’s voyage) significant was that this was the one that GOT NOTICED, and that brought about major, sweeping change. A major feature length film starring one of the top theatre stars of the day singing many popular tunes, it was an ATTRACTION. People went to see it, and so the studios sought immediately to replicate its success.

Another complicating factor? The Jazz Singer isn’t really a talkie. It’s more like a silent film with a musical soundtrack, punctuated with a half dozen short sequences containing sync sound musical numbers and brief chatter. Then back to the silence. The recording process, called Vitaphone, allowed Warner Brothers to take the industry lead in talking films. The first all-talking feature Lights of New York wasn’t released by Vitaphone until almost a year later.

The other complicating factor is of course that the film makes use of blackface** performance. In time — mostly because of widespread public ignorance of early show business history — The Jazz Singer and Jolson have been unfairly scapegoated as some sort of particular standard bearers for this practice, which has since become universally discredited and acknowledged to be racist. The truth is blackface had been popular to the point of near universality on the American stage for nearly a century by the time The Jazz Singer came out. Nearly every performer of the time put on burnt cork from time to time. Jolson was just the most famous of them, and The Jazz Singer is simply the most famous movie that uses it. But in no sense did Jolson or The Jazz Singer pioneer or particularly popularize or spearhead blackface minstrelsy. In 1927, it was just another show. This isn’t to defend blackface, which is heinous; it’s to put The Jazz Singer in its proper context.

Finally, the most complicating aspect of The Jazz Singer is, even as it dehumanized African Americans, it was landmark in constructing a sympathetic narrative for the American Immigrant Story. Amazingly, the play on which The Jazz Singer was based The Day of Atonement by Samson Raphaelson, was based on Jolson’s own life story.  It tells of one Jake Rabinowitz, the son of a Jewish cantor who is trained to take such a role in life himself. But he breaks with tradition and embraces American culture, becoming the titular Jazz Singer in night clubs and theatres. Astute listeners will hear music they recognize as “Tin Pan Alley” — popular compositions with an element of syncopation — but no actual jazz instrumentation. Jazz had a broader definition back then. Everything is relative. At any rate, George Jessel had starred in the hit Broadway play, but when the film became a talkie, through various machinations Jessel was displaced and Jolson was brought in to replace him — as himself. Anyway, to further complicate the racial ripples and overtones and undertows in this crazy musical, Jolson’s cantor father is played in the movie by Warner Oland, the Swede best known for playing Charlie Chan).

Here is a little snippet. Most of us today find Jolson overbearing and obnoxious. As with many performers, I have an affection for him, with some reservations. But in his day his brash personality was considered winning — it’s one of the factors that made such a hit of this movie. It’s entirely possible that a more boring performance might have delayed the final triumph of sound (after decades of quiet development) by months or even years.

To learn more about early film history please 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 amazon.com etc etc etc. To learn about the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

**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. 

George Jessel: The Toastmaster General

Posted in Broadway, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Jews/ Show Biz, Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 3, 2009 by travsd

As part of the research for my book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, I worked up hundreds of biographical sketches of the principal stars of vaudeville. Going forward, I’ll be posting them here on the artists’ birthdays.

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GEORGE JESSEL

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 three decades later.

Young Jessel and Cantor

Young Jessel and Cantor

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”

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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.

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After a couple more Broadway shows The War Song (1928; co-wrote) 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 atrocious bio-pics of the Dolly Sisters and Eva Tanguay.

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

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

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.

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He was still performing two weeks before he died in 1981.

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 vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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