A New Jewy? America since the Second World War
By Peter Y. Medding, Oxford University Press, 1992
While Einstein was based in Zurich, formulating in abstract mathematical terms the notion that energy consisted of mc², he might have easily discovered its most ebullient embodiment dominating the vaudeville circuit across the Atlantic. Perhaps no white entertainer in American history has ever exuded the demonic razzle-dazzle and the kinetic force of Al Jolson; probably no one could match his Eureka gift for deluding everybody in the audience into believing that “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody” or “Sonny Boy” was being belted out just for them.
He was neither physically prepossessing (only five feet seven inches tall) nor handsome, could neither act well nor dance, and his jokes and a banter were banal. But at the opening of “Bombo” in New York in 1921, Jolson returned for thirty-seven curtain calls. At a U.S. Army benefit in 1918, it seemed malicious to have billed him after the Enrico Caruso. But when Jolson bolted onto the stage and assured the already dazed audience, “Folks, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet,” a legend was indeed given life. Booked as “The World’s Greatest Entertainer,” thrilling standing-room-only crowds from Bangor to Dubuque to Tacoma, Jolson lived up to his own hype.
As his most recent biographer frequently notes, the source of that dynamism is no longer accessible. The ten films in which Jolson starred are, except for his first, forgotten; and even in “The Jazz Singer”(1927), his acting performance is awkward and stilted. Because microphones and recording equipment were too primitive to capture the full timber of that hell-bent-for-leather voice, he could not make the transition to radio, and Decca has not released his records. The BTUs emitted by that first superstar to live audiences can no longer be measured; the power that he could command merely by strutting onto the stage and dropping to one knee to apostrophize “My Mammy” is dimmed. A headliner at the dawn of the century whose spectacular career was already fading by a the Great Depression, Jolson can now be appreciated only by an act of faith, only by summoning reliable witnesses from that era such as Zelda Fitzgerald, who once proclaimed Jolson greater than Jesus.