America’s Minstrel Man , May, 1948
by Cameron Shipp
When Al Jolson opened up in the Kraft show in the fall of 1946, he set a record for a “new” radio performer – an 18.8 Hooper rating, or almost 20,000,000 listeners. Many of these were under the excitable impression that they had discovered a new vocal star. They weren’t old enough to know that Jolson was singing the same songs almost half a century ago.
Today, Jolson is as carefree, as full of vigor and gaiety and unashamed sentiment, as he was that memorable evening in New York’s Winter Garden when he dropped, on one knee and implored his Mammy. That was 30 years ago, the show was Sinbad, and the blackface singer was already world-famous.
Now, in 1948, Jolson is an ebullient miracle of inexhaustible bounce. Old friends wag their eyebrows and admit defeat. Says George Jessel: “Explaining Jolie’s dynamics would be like trying to capture the power of the ocean by putting it in bottles. ”
Jolson’s hair is thin, but so is his waistline. Rehearsing a full orchestra and a chorus of 12 voices for eight hours straight, he wears a yellow turtle-neck sweater, bounds all over the stage, often sings one song 20 times to get it right, exhausts Oscar Levant and winds up as raffish and debonair as a 30 year-old boulevardier. Then he hurries out to buy fancy presents for his 25-year-old wife.
Although Jolson is approximately 65, the question of his real age became a national pastime soon after his Kraft show went on the air. Eddie Cantor, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Fred Allen profess to believe that Jolson is prehistoric.
Al encourages the rumor that he is only 61, but under pressure he admits he doesn’t know how old he is. In the village of Srednick, Russia, no birth certificates were issued under Czar Alexander II. The Yoelsen family’s vital statistics, engraved on a silver cup, were lost during the family’s migration to America when young Asa – later “Al”- was seven years old.
Jolson often pestered his father to tell him his real age. Once, at the height of his fame, he tried to pin the old man down.
“You are 49,” Cantor Yoelsen said firmly.
“But how do you know for sure, Papa?”
“It’s very simple. Last year you were 48.”
While Jolson’s precise age can only be estimated, one thing is certain: he is one of the most durable performers ever to star on stage, screen and radio. His life story has already been screened in The Jolson Story and a second biographical treatment is coming up at MGM. Today Jolie has more money, earns more money and works harder than at any time in his life.
Including his great Broadway hits, La Belle Paree, Honeymoon Express, Robinson Crusoe, Jr. and Sinbad; his motion pictures, The Jazz Singer, The Singing Fool, Say It with Songs, and Sonny Boy – the songs he wrote with collaborators, California Here I Come, Avalon, Me and My Shadow and the current Anniversary Song; his estimated $3,500,000 share of the profits from The Jolson Story and his $7,500 a week from Kraft – lumping all that, Jolson has probably earned upward of $20,000,000 in his 50-year career.
Recently he rejected an offer to appear at the Roxy Theater in New York for $40,000 a week. His recordings of My Mammy and April Showers sold well over a million copies; a new Jolson-Bing Crosby disc, The Spaniard That Blighted My Life and Alexander’s Ragtime Band, sold 300,000 in a week. And every juke box has the Anniversary Song.
Jolie lives modestly in a small house in Beverly Hills with his fourth wife, – the former Miss Erle Galbraith of the Kentucky Galbraiths, but spends most of his time on his three-acre estate with swimming pool at Palm Springs in the desert. There he rises daily at 8 o’clock and reaches for the stockmarket reports. Jolie, who lost heavily in the 1929 crash, knows his market quotations as thoroughly as he knows the words to There’s A Rainbow Round My Shoulder, which he wrote.
Jolson is a sun-worshiper and toasts himself until 5 o’clock. Then he goes to a barbershop and orders every possigle treatment, including hot towels. After an early dinner the Jolsons usually repair to whatever theater offers a double feature, sit through it with unflaging interest, and retire early.
As a person, Jolson is hardly reserved, yet doe does not speak in the raucous tones of his public appearances. He thinks the world is in bad shape and mourns because all the money spent on war isn’t used for sanitation (he is familiar with China) and education (his own formal schooling is almost nonexistent).
As a showman, he is like a race horse bucking at the post, so nervous to get on that he can’t contain himself. Recently, when he sang at a Bob Hope testimonial given by The Friars, he wanted a full orchestra, a choir and a special runway from the speaker’s table. When these accessories were denied, he had all the flowers removed so he could get closer to the people.
One of his greatest successes was the song Sonny Boy. Jolson used to make himself so sad with this ditty that he wept real tears. But the way he wrote it with Buddy De Sylva, Lew Brown and Russ Henderson was extremely businesslike.
In The Singing Fool, Jolson rehearsed his big aria in a Los Angeles theater before a crowd of 3,000 movie extras. The song fell flatter than a cold pancake. Jolson rushed from the theater to phone De Sylva in Atlantic City.
“I need a new song!” he cried.
“About what?” De Sylva asked.
“About a boy,” said Jolson.
“How old is the boy?”
“Where is the boy?”
“He’s at my knee.”
“Okay,” said De Sylva. “We have the first two lines already: ‘Climb upon my knee, Sonny Boy, though you’re only three, Sonny Boy.’ Take it from there.”
Jolson took it. Later, he made a motion picture and another million under the same title.
The Jolson Story, in which Larry Parks portrays Jolson, with Al dubbing in the singing, is a reasonable but condensed facsimile of Al’s biography, though it performs the extraordinary synthesis of rolling four wives into one.
Jolson acquired his Southern accent more honestly than most professionals who yearn for the Swanee River: he learned it from the Negro playmates of his boyhood. But Al, who was in training to become a cantor himself, started running away from home, joining circuses and small-time singing acts.
One of these escapades landed him at St. Mary’s, a Catholic school in Baltimore, where he sang soprano with the boys’ choir. It is not widely known that the good fathers discovered young Jolson was suffering from tuberculosis. Following the popular treatment of the day, they encouraged him to take long walks and to sing to strengthen his lungs – a contribution to American minstrelsy that the priesthood could hardly have predicted.
His career for a number of years was that of any brash song-and-dance boy trying to get along. The turning point came when he applied blackface make-up for the first time. The darker complexion gave Jolson precisely what he needed: an excuse for unlimbering his unabashed sentimentality and a grand-opera style in exhortation.
There was one more trick. Jolson discovered that he could take the last eight bars of a popular song and make a fighting campaign of them. Sometimes he didn’t even sing – he shouted, with flailing arms and stamping feet.
The famous theater runways also helped, -Jolson had them built so he could work as close to the audience as possible. Through the radio, his runway is extended into the nation’s homes on Thursday nights.
The Jolson exuberance and the Jolson tricks didn’t work the magic immediately. His first Broadway hit was made the, hard way at the Winter Garden in 1911, in La Belle Paree. Jolson didn’t get on stage until after midnight. His exertions at that late hour only annoyed a laughed-out audience, and Jolson “died.” Next day he went to J. J. Shubert and quit. Shubert urged Jolson to try once more and moved his appearance up by two hours. Jolson became a star at once and has been one ever since.
As Al’s fame grew, he toured the country, making friends everywhere because he was not only willing to give but insisted on giving, even to the extent of extra shows. In the Apollo Theater in Chicago during Prohibition, Al played in a two-hour show in which he was on stage for an hour and 50 minutes. But when the curtain fell, he would step to the footlights and announce that the audience would be foolish to “tramp through the snow to some speak-easy. Why don’t you stay here?” Then Jolson would hop out on his runway and sing for two more hours.
Al was married to Henrietta Keller in 1906, to Alma Osborne in 1922, to Ruby Keeler in 1928, and to Erle Galbraith in 1946. Undoubtedly, there was only one reason for Al’s previous marital woes: his first and last love is show business. Until the advent of Miss Galbraith, who was born 17 years after Jolson’s first marriage, Al put his career above everything else.
Jolson first clapped eyes on Erle Galbraith at Hot Springs during the war. She was an X-ray technician and Jolson saw her as he was leaving a building. “You waiting for my autograph?” he asked.
Miss Galbraith said “No.”
In Texas, Jolson worried about that, phoned back, got the girl’s name and began to write to her. He asked her to come to Hollywood, promising to put her in pictures. This fetched not Miss Galbraith but her father – who was charmed by Al’s sincerity. He told daughter to go ahead. Jolson let her work a few months in small movie parts and married her as fast as he could.
Al’s war service as a touring entertainer almost did him in. He courted Miss Galbraith with a tube in his back while he recovered from an abscessed lung, contracted in China. He was in the hospital 15 weeks, the first time he had been ill since the St. Mary’s days.
“I may be dead in ten seconds, but I never felt better in my life!” he likes to say now.
Shortly before the war, Jolson was in almost total eclipse. But the war, which brought him before large audiences again, and Columbia’s gamble in ‘making The Jolson Story rescued him from oblivion.
Jolson clings to old friends. Eddie Cantor and George Jessel, who twit him, but respect him as a great showman, are intimates. Amos ‘n’ Andy and George Burns are others. And hundreds of ex-vaudeville actors, many of them out of work and in need of a handout, are always sure of a generous welcome.
Jolson seldom touches anything stronger than soda water, smokes when he feels like it but swears off at will. He probably enjoys giving presents more than anything else. He showers old friends with luxurious wrist watches and frequently drops into a store to buy five new dresses at a time for his wife. He qets the right size, too.
Al’s biggest event of the week is rehearsal day, when he dons the sweater and gives the orchestra and chorus a workout. Although he doesn’t read music, he knows exactly how he wants to sing a song and does it that way until everybody else falls into line. However, he does it with such good humor and self-deprecation that his musicians would probably pay to get in.
Jolson doesn’t mind spoofing himself or being spoofed, but when he tells an audience, “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” he means it. “I sure put it in. If it comes out bad, it ain’t my fault,” he says.