Radio Days

15 03 2009


The Jolson Story:
Al’s Success in Radio Adds New Luster to Career of Master Minstrel”
New York Times, April 13, 1947

By Jack Gould

The season of 1946-47 may yet become known as the year of the “comeback.” Back last fall Jack Benny confounded the pundits of Radio Row by climbing up again to the top of the comedy brackets. Now, as the formal program semester nears a close, another veteran showman, Al Jolson, has caught the public’s fancy anew.

Al is, as the saying goes, as “hot” as anything on the dial at the moment. His guest appearances with Bing Crosby and Eddie Cantor stimulated mightily the usual ratings of those worthies and last Monday night he gave an added fillip to the Radio Theatre’s star-studded production of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” not to mention the Bob Hope show on Tuesday.

In fact, the Hope show was the occasion for an extraordinary demonstration of Al’s current popularity. As part of what was to be a gag routine Bob suggested that Al should have his own program, a statement which evoked spontaneous applause from the studio audience. By way of finishing the gag Al said a regular program would mean he would be on the air only once a week. He has made sixteen radio appearances in recent days and already has been signed up by Mr. Crosby for ten “guest shots” next fall.

No doubt it was the motion picture, “The Jolson Story,” which made Al once again a “buy” in the eyes of radio’s ever practical producers, but this alone does not explain the heart-warming and deserved success which he is enjoying at the moment. Al has had more than his share of disappointments at the microphone and never did seem really at ease within the confines of the studio.

That’s all changed now and perhaps the answer lies in the fact that Al is relaxed and being himself again. Particularly in his crackling exchanges with Bing, he has been the master minstrel of old, the performer who by the sheer magnetism of his personality captivates and audience in a way that the actors weaned on the mechanical films and radio never have been able to do.

For no matter what the setting, Al is first and last of the stage, a trouper who engenders that elusive liaison between player and spectator which is the theatre at its most effective. Through magic quite his own, he now has managed to bring to the loud speaker this electric and intangible excitement of the footlights in brilliant reaffirmation of his artistry in make-believe.

Al’s greatest asset, which over the years seems to have slipped away from many entertainers on the air, is that he always gives the impression of having a capital time, of really enjoying what he is doing. No slave to a script, he goes at his chores with obvious relish, encompassing his co-workers and listeners alike in the glow of his high spirits and big heart.

In song Al could not be anything but frankly sentimental, pouting it on for the sake of mammy, sonny and Irving Berlin. His gravel-throated delivery may not be singing, but certainly it is selling a song in the great tradition of the Alley and the show business. In this day of gentle baritones who seem almost afraid of the lyrics, that is no small blessing.

In story, of course, Al has been exuberance itself in radio, telling a joke or fencing with Mr. Crosby and Mr. Cantor in the eager and frolicsome manner of one thoroughly at home under the spotlight.

Thanks to radio, some of the brightest chapters in the Jolson story still would seem to lie ahead.



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