“Army Minstrel,” NY Times, 1942

Army Minstrel
New York Times,   Sept. 27, 1942
Written by S. J. Woolf

Al Jolson has sung to more soldiers than any other entertainer. His slogan for home folks is “keep writing.”

In those far‑off days when “Remember the Maine” was the battle cry, a Washington youngster, stirred by the boys in blue who marched down Pennsylvania Avenue to the tune of “‘Good‑bye, Dolly Gray” ran away from home and tried to join a regiment as a mascot. The boy had a sense of humor; moreover, a catch in his voice as he sang the sob ballads of the day made a hit with the soldiers. But the Army was no place for a runaway of 12, so he was shipped back home.

drawing by S, J. Woolf

That boy ‑ Al Jolson‑has at last realized his dreams of ‘98. He has been visiting our far‑flung battle line as a wandering minstrel. He has been at more Army camps and played to more soldiers than any other entertainer. He has crossed the Atlantic by plane to take song and cheer to the troops in England and North Ireland. He has flown to the cold wastes of Alaska and the steaming forests of Trinidad. He has called at Dutch‑like Curacao. Nearly every camp in this country has heard him tell funny stories and sing “Sonny Boy,”‘ “Mammy,” “April Showers,” “Avalon” and “I’ll See You in My Dreams.”

Although he has worn a private’s uniform, he is not a member of the armed forces. He is just a jazz singer who has been traveling with an accompanist wherever the War Department sent him – sometimes he has appeared with others on the program; often he has been the sole entertainer. On his recent trip to England there were four or five other actors in the party, but Jolson kept wandering off to lonely spots to spring his gags and sing his songs for a handful of home-sick boys.

I saw Jolson in a hotel suite surrounded by his cronies. The room seemed crowded as he opened the door, with four men on one sofa, two others playing cards and every available chair occupied. We sought the privacy of a bedroom so that I might make a sketch of him and hear of some of his adventures. But before I could get to work, several men who seemed to be holding a conference there had to be dislodged. Even the bedroom door proved no barrier, and I had to sketch and learn something about the singer’s odyssey between interruptions.

The Broadway atmosphere which pervaded the rooms did not dispel a feeling of nervous tension which surrounded the showman in khaki. The Jazz Singer seemed more like a doughboy awaiting the zero hour than a Sonny Boy listening for the curtain call. There were few jokes in his talk. The comedian was playing a straight part. The lighter side of Army life apparently had not made much of an impression upon him. For, like many other comedians, at heart Jolson is serious and sentimental. The minstrel kneeling on the ground, stretching out his arms and calling for his mammy is more an expression of his real nature than the capering clown who sets his audience off into peals of laughter.

“When the war started,”‘ he said when we were finally alone. “I felt that it was up to me to do something, and the only thing I know is show business. I went around during the last war and I saw that the boys needed something besides chow and drills. I knew the same was true to day, so I told the people in Washington that I would go anywhere and do an act for the Army.

“I have been on the go ever since, singing “Mammy” in igloos and “April Showers’ in August. I have dropped in on places where the entire force flocked to hear me and I played to a packed house of two. Other places we have had as many as 15,000.

“I don’t have to tell you what a swell bunch our boys are. They are the fellows you have seen on Broadway and Main Street, on the farms and in the factories, and they have not changed, except perhaps they look a little healthier. And no matter where they are, in England or Ireland, in the wilds of Alaska or the jungles of Trinidad ‑ and believe me they are some jungles ‑ they make the place seem like home.

“They don’t speak much about the war, but I have yet to meet one who seemed scared or wasn’t anxious to get on with the job. Of course, there is some grousing ‑ about mosquitoes or cold feet; but there would be the same complaints on a hot night in Jersey or a cold one in Minnesota.

“They like to hear jokes,” he said. “but the thing they like best is an old familiar song. And boy, you ought to hear them join in the chorus! Up to the present no new war song has caught on. It is the old ones with a touch of sentiment which go over best.

“This is not surprising. Set a bunch of youngsters down in a place miles from nowhere and the songs they all know form a bond between them. When a guy comes along and sings those songs for them it’s a sort of a get‑together for all of them. At the same time, it takes their minds off their surroundings.

“Some of the places where those fellows are stationed are not ideal summer or winter resorts. But the morale is great. As you go around you can’t help comparing this bunch with the bunch in 1918. These fellows have their feet firmly on the ground. They aren’t bluffing themselves. When I say this I am not handing out propaganda. I have run up against fellows who kicked because their food was not served on the finest china ‑ the Army is going to do a lot for those boys. I have seen homesick guys, too. I’d he lying if I said they were all as happy as larks. But all of them want to know how things are going at home and they all feel that it’s the things here at home that they are fighting for.”

Jolson was interrupted by a Telephone call. Then a chap who is working on a script for future use came in and talked for a while. It took a few minutes for Jolson to get back to his story.

“It has often happened,” he continued, “after I have sung ‘Mammy’ that a kid with tears in his eyes comes up to me and asks me to please phone his folks when I get home. I have been calling up so many mothers that Chicago or Memphis seems almost like a local call to me now.

“One chap in Alaska asked me if I wouldn’t take his wife out to dinner when I got back to New York. I phoned her and she came to the hotel and we went to dinner and a show and then to the Stork Club. When it was time for me to take her home I found that she lived way out in the Bronx.

“After being to so many camps, the slogan I suggest to the folks at home is “Keep writing.’ You don’t know what letters from home mean until you see the way those boys flock about the fellow who is handing out the mail.”

It was hard to realize that this serious Jolson was the Erastus Sparkler of “La Belle Paree,” the Gus Jackson of “Robinson Crusoe Jr.” and old Sinbad himself. There was an undercurrent of intensity that made it easier to think of him as the son of the Russian cantor who had settled in Washington, and who hoped that his boy, Asa Yoelson, born there fifty‑six years ago, would one day also chant the holy words of the Torah in the synagogue.

But the eyes of the youngster were on the footlights of the theatre. He got his first chance as a youthful member of the mob in Zangwill’s “Children of the Ghetto.” This was followed by a catch‑as‑catch‑can period during which Yoelson sang in Washington cafes. Then he formed a partnership with his brother and a friend and toured the country in a comedy trio, and he took the name Jolson. A chance suggestion that he become a black‑face comedian changed his whole career. The century was ten years old and Lew Dockstader was the Edwin Booth of minstrelsy. Jolson got a job with it and before long was given the choice spot on the program. Jake Shubert heard him and hired him for the Winter Garden. That was in 1911. Within ten years Jolson was one of the foremost entertainers in the country and opened his own theatre with “‘Bombo.”

Since then he has divided his time among the stage, the screen and radio. Before 1929 he had a fortune that probably was written in seven figures. Although he is still well off, he insists that money means little to him. “The only thing money is good for these days,” he says, “is to help win the war.”

Video clip: WWII scenes from “Jolson Sings Again” (1949)

One response

9 09 2009
asa wittow

as a little boy i saw jolson story and jolson sings again. i started imitating him in school in denver. in 6th grade i pruduced and star in the jolson story. i took my name from him i am asa wittow. when he died i wanted to say kaddish for him

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