Eddie Cantor meets Jolson

12 04 2010

from “Take My Life”, by Eddie Cantor (1957)

While I was still a stooge for Bedini and Arthur, still rushing around backstage at Hammerstein’s taking suits out to be pressed or seeing that Jean Bedini’s laundry was back on time- a fellow in blackface wandered onto the stage one day. He was from Lew Dockstader’s Minstrels. Now he was doing a single and there was something electric about him that sent a thrill up your spine. He sang and talked; but he was more than just a singer or an actor, he was an experience, and he was to become the most romantic figure of a romantic era, the King of it. Al Jolson.

From the time I heard him at Hammerstein’s, he was my idol. I somehow saw every show he was in, and always, for minutes after he’d left the stage, you sat still, knowing that a great presence had been there. And I saw him at the Winter Garden where he was at his best, a real one-man show. Oh, there were some other people occasionally on the stage; a line of dancing girls, enough of a company to keep the thing going while Jolie took a glass of water or mopped his brow off stage. But he was the show and many’s the night he’d look at the audience about a quarter of eleven and say, “The girls are waiting backstage and they have some songs and dances, but they’ve worked pretty hard tonight, let’s let ’em go home, huh? I’ll stay here as long as you want, but let the poor kids go home, huh?” And he’d send everybody home while he stood there maybe another hour, singing, clowning, giving the audience the time of its life and having the time of his own. For this was Jolson’s big love affair. Through all the years, the love of his life was the audience.

In 1912, when he was vacationing from this first smash hit at the Winter Garden, our Kid Kabaret hit Oakland. Georgie Jessel and I were as excited as if en route to play the Palace. Jolson was in Oakland! He was then married to his first wife, Henrietta, and she was an Oakland girl. The minute we hit town we turned into a couple of amateur sleuths. We found out where he ate, where he shopped, we haunted all his haunts. No luck. Then one matinee after our show at the Orpheum, the doorman came back to say that Al Jolson was waiting to see us.

I laughed. This had to be a joke of Georgie’s. Georgie laughed. This had to be a  joke of mine.

“Let him wait,” roared Georgie.”

Sure,” I laughed, “let him wait.” I took off my make-up, we dressed and went outside.

My Godl There was Jolson!

He told us we were a couple of talented kids and invited us to have dinner. He took us to a kosher restaurant on Turk Street in San Francisco. It was the craziest dinner you ever heard. Georgie and I, the two bigmouths, couldn’t think of a thing to say. Jolson did a monologue. When he went to the men’s room Georgie and I flipped a coin to see who’d follow him. I won.  A few minutes later I came running out to tell him, “Georgie, that Jolson! He does it like anybody.”

Jolie and I were friends from that night. He didn’t like actors, actually, but of all actors he minded me least, maybe because he knew I worshiped him. The song “If You Knew Susie” was given to me by the minstrel man himself.  He introduced it, then handed it to me, saying, “Eddie, I think this would fit you better than it does me.” A while later when we appeared on the same benefit show he listened to the applause that followed “Susie” and slapped my shoulder, “Eddie, if I’d known it was that good, you dirty dog, you’d never have gotten it. ” When I scored a hit in “Canary Cottage,” Jolson read a review in San Francisco, drove more than four hundred miles to catch the show, and never did come backstage.

He told me about it later. It was tough for him to compliment any actor. Years later when I was with Goldwyn in the movie version of Whoopee, he took a paid ad in Variety to congratulate me. He couldn’t tell me, but he took an ad. The one time he ever showed his affection was in 1927 when I was sick and Ida took me to Palm Springs. Jolie came to see us. “God sent me down here. I have to take care of you, Eddie. Ida, don’t you let him eat any greasy stuff now, we’ve got to get this boy well.”


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