Al Jolson Dies: Oct. 23, 1950

18 10 2012

New York Times cover story

New York Times, Oct. 23, 1950

Al Jolson, “The Jazz Singer,” died at the St. Francis Hotel here tonight. He had recently returned from Korea after entertaining troops there.

Death came just after 10:30 P.M. (PST) as Mr. Jolson was playing cards in his room with friends. He was in San Francisco to be the guest star on the Bing Crosby radio program scheduled to be recorded Tuesday night.

Mr. Jolson checked in at the St. Francis today. He was playing gin rummy with Martin Fried, his arranger and accompanist, and Harry Akst, songwriter and long-time friend.

They said that he complained he was not feeling well and lay down to rest. He felt no better after a short rest, they added, and asked for a doctor. They called Dr. Walter Beckh, the hotel physician.

Was Popular Everywhere

Al Jolson was one of the most attractive figures the theater has given recently to the country. Essentially a minstrel, he was everywhere popular. Such was his ability and reputation that he could – and occasionally did – dismiss his show’s supporting company and then carry on all by himself for hours. It was he who created the genre of the “Mammy” song of some years back. Although there was a legion of imitators, none reached him. Finally, he is credited with having, single-handed, saved the movies. Without “The Jazz Singer” to lead them, there would have been no talking pictures.

Mr. Jolson’s real name was Asa Yoelson and he was born in Russia, on May 26, 1886. His father was a Jewish cantor who hoped that the son would follow his profession. The boy lacked enthusiasm, however, and ran away. Shipped home from New York, he stayed still for a short time and disappeared again. The Spanish-American War regiment to which he attached himself as mascot gave him an apple and sent him back to Washington. Trip No. 3 was with Al Reeves’ burlesque troupe, but that ended like all the others – back home.

During this semi-roving boyhood young Al made his first stage appearance as a member of the mob in Zangwill’s “Children of the Ghetto.” He also sang for a time in a Washington cafe. He also joined his brother and a friend and went into vaudeville in the team of Jolson, Palmer and Jolson. The troupe arrived in San Francisco at about the same time as the earthquake – a fact that had no great significance to Mr. Jolson. A little later the singer put on burnt cork for the first time, becoming the blackface singer of later fame. The cork, for the records, was first used in Brooklyn.

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Minstrel at $75 a Week

In November, 1909, Mr. Jolson hired himself out to Dockstader’s Minstrels at the weekly wage of $75. Two years later J. J. Shubert heard him sing with the minstrels and hired him for the Winter Garden shows. That theatre had just been built and the Shuberts were looking for talent. They found it in Erastus Sparkler of “La Belle Paree”; Claude of “Vera Violetta”; Gus of “The Whirl of Society”; Gus of “The Honeymoon Express”; Gus of “Dancing Around”; Gus Jackson of “Robinson Crusoe Jr.”; and Sinbad of “Sinbad.” At the Winter Garden he sang “Mammy” for the first time and so set the whole nation howling for the South. And it was at the same theatre, some years later, that “The Jazz Singer” turned the tide of amusement.

Along came 1921, and Mr. Jolson – by that time recognized as America’s greatest single entertainer – had a theatre named for him. He played “Bombo” there – it was up on Fifty-ninth Street – for a season and then toured with the show for the next two. Nineteen twenty-five found Gus back at the Winter Garden in the show called “Big Boy.”

The movies had been after him in the old silent days, of course, but with the Winter Garden so much nearer than Hollywood, he was reluctant to attempt a new medium. He had tried it briefly once before under the direction of D. W. Griffith and the samples were so unfortunate that he confessed himself “unnerved” and broke his contract.

Appears in “The Jazz Singer”

But in 1927 the advent of sound films put a different face, or voice, on the matter. The first and electric result was “the Jazz Singer,” in which, singing his way through a story that followed that of his own life, he was an instant success. Legend has it that the film grossed the record sum of $5,000,000. Certainly, its American success scarcely overshadowed its triumph in England, France and Germany.

A new epoch in the Jolson career was now launched and he pursued it melodiously and with high profits the next year in the “The Singing Fool.” It was in this show that he first sang “Sonny Boy,” which was to resound through the land even more insistently than in earlier days had “April Showers” or “Avalon.” With its sale of a million phonograph records, it even challenged “Mammy.” That meant immortality, as Tin Pan Alley knows the word.

Other films – and all of the, of course, found him singing – followed at regular intervals until, in 1931, he turned once more toward the legitimate stage. Save for a concert tour and a few appearances in “Artists and Models” at the Winter Garden in 1926, he had not met an audience face to face since “Big Boy.” It was “Wonder Bar,” in March, 1931, which brought him back, this time to the Bayes Theatre. Though he discarded burnt cork for the first time in his career, he was once more the Winter Garden’s hero, playing a one-man show, recalling to audiences the familiar Jolson tricks of old – the dynamic gestures, the emotional “delivery,” the intimate conversational style.

Toured in “Wonder Bar”

When “Wonder Bar” closed here after a three months’ run curtailed by illness, he toured across the country in it. He was not expected again to be lured by the grind of regular stage appearances, for which he developed an increasing reluctance. More films – “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum” and “Wonder Bar” were some of them – comprised his professional life, together with radio programs. Horse racing was his greatest outside enthusiasm, nor was this the hobby of an amateur. He had his own stable.

Wherever he was he could generally be found in the news. Nervous and alert, he was also pugnacious, and at least one of his fistic encounters reached headlines everywhere in the country. Considering that his wife’s feelings had been injured by a scenario written by Walter Winchell, the columnist. He knocked him down in full sight of thousands in the Hollywood Bowl. There was talk of a damage suit for $500,000. Mr. Jolson, proud of his prowess, grinned and enjoyed the whole affair.

He was married four times. His first two wives were Henrietta Keller and Alma Osborne Carlton, who was known on the stage as Ethel Delmar. The third, Ruby Keeler, he married in Port Chester, N.Y. in September, 1928, after a Broadway courtship.

His fourth wife was Erle Galbraith, a 22-year-old film extra from the South, whom he married on March 24, 1945, after an elopement to Quartzsite, Arizona. He had met her a year before when he was touring a Hot Springs, Arkansas hospital where she was an X-ray technician.

Former Wife Also in Show

The dancer had a part, however, in “Hold Onto Your Hats,” the musical show in which Mr. Jolson returned to Broadway in September, 1940. She appeared in the show while it was on the road earlier in the year, but left in Chicago before the Broadway opening. On Oct., 29, 1941, Miss Keeler was married to John Lowe, a California broker. She and Mr. Jolson had adopted Al Jolson Jr. As an infant in 1935.

Mr. Jolson quit “Hold Onto our Hats” after a successful Broadway run in February, 1941, because of ill health. He had suffered attacks of grippe and pneumonia. In August of that year he reopened “Hold Onto Your Hats” in Atlantic City, and continued on the road until November, when the show closed after the death of his manager, Bobby Crawford.

Then came Pearl Harbor, and Mr. Jolson immediately volunteered for war service, paying his own expenses. He had toured every war front, singing the old songs, “Mammy” and “Sonny Boy,” which he found to be favorites with the troops, from Alaska to the Southwest Pacific, and from England to North Africa, India and Brazil.

He appeared under the banner of the USO but went out of his way also to give independent shows at any post that had an audience of two or more. He was in Sicily soon after the first invasion barges, and left there to return home by clipper at the end of September. He was described as looking fit but tired on his arrival here.

His tours were officially recognized as having been morale builders of great value,  paying his own expenses. Mr. Jolson wore a uniform resembling a private’s although he had refused a commission and was not in the service.   Soon after returning from entertaining solders on three fronts in October, 1943, he became ill with a combination attack of pneumonia and malaria.

Mr. Jolson joined Columbia as a producer in February, 1944. His first assignment, in March of that year, was a supervisor of the new version of the late George Manker Walter’s play “Burlesque,” starring Rita Hayworth. He also played himself in the movie “Rhapsody in Blue,” the story of George Gershwin’s life. He was supposed to have his voice dubbed in in the song of the leading role of a screen unknown to play his part in Lawrence Hazard’s screenplay of his life, “The Jolson Story,” produced by Sidney Skolsky.

“The Jolson Story” proved to be one of the top money-making movies in Hollywood history. The combination of young Larry Parks, playing the title role and Jolson’s voice dubbed in singing the songs which made him famous combined to make the picture an immediate box office success. It is estimated that the picture grossed more than $13,000,000 since its release in 1946.

The success of “The Jolson Story” once again pushed the singer into the entertainment limelight. Scores of guest appearances on the radio and his own show on the air waves soon followed. His phonograph records enjoyed boom sales. In 1949 the Columbia Broadcasting System obtained exclusive right to his services on radio and television for three years.

In August, 1949, the film, “Jolson Sings Again,” with Larry Parks again playing the title role and Jolson singing, was released by Columbia Pictures. It enjoyed a substantial success.

Mr. Jolson was one of the movie stars named in the charge made by the Army newspaper, CBI Roundup, that entertainers quit on the soldiers in the China-Burma-India area because it was too tough.

He replied by saying he had never been booked by the CBI sector. He further retorted with the declaration that the GI’s who wrote the accusation “don’t know what they’re talking about.”


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4 responses

27 05 2013
Liam Keyes

It’s good to get this information about “the greatest performer in show business history”. He ran himself into the ground performing for the troops. I wonder will they ever re-release “”The Jolson Story” and “Jolson sings again”, it would be great for a new generation. Surely, with all the modern conveniences it could be done.

1 06 2013
Ryan Thompson (@RyanTee82)

Which suite in the St. Francis Hotel was he in when he died?

11 06 2013
Laura

Same as the infamous party where Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was wrongly accused of the rape and death of Virginia Rappe. I believe 1221. There were three rooms for the party: 1219, 1220 and 1221.

11 06 2013
Liam Keyes

Thank you for the info Laura>

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