by Maurice Zolotow – condensed from Esquire magazine, January 1949
Age cannot wither the amazing vitality of Jolson, who has sung himself into the hearts of audiences for 50 years. At 64 (he claims 59, but early clippings belie him) he works as hard, talks as much, travels as widely, lives as intensely and flamboyantly as any actor I know.
In relative obscurity for more than 15 years, Jolson suddenly came to life again with the release in 1946 of The Jolson Story, a Technicolor extravaganza. His lusty way with a song, his sincere sentimentalism, his infectious warmth have now made him the top favorite even with the bobby-sox generation, who have been startling their mothers and fathers with the discovery of “this new singer, Al Jolson.” The annual Hooper rating of radio stars, summarizing the 1947-48 season, put Jolson in first place among male singers, with a rating of 19.0 (Bing Crosby was second with 16.9). An album of eight of Jolson’s old tunes has already sold more than a million copies. Songs long dead and buried – like “April Showers,” “Swanee,” , “Mammy” – are being hummed, whistled and chanted all over.
Meanwhile, The Jolson Stoty, starring hitherto unknown Larry Parks as Jolson (with Jolson’s husky baritone dubbed in for the 30 songs) has earned more than ten million dollars, outgrossing any motion picture released since Gone With the Wind, and has thus far put about three million dollars in Al’s pocket.
Whether he’s on or off the stage, Jolson is always putting on a Jolson production. He has the best-developed megalomania on Broadway or in Hollywood. He often talks about himself in the third person as if he were a noted historical figure like George Washington.
In a 1919 benefit for war relief the great Caruso had entranced a capacity audience at the Winter Garden and retired after a tremendous ovation. At that moment Jolson capered out on the stage, threw out his arms and yelled: “Folks, you ain’t heard nuthin’ yet!” Then he sang two choruses of “Swanee.”
For years there was bitter rivalry between Jolson and Eddie Cantor. Jolson was the backbone of the Shubert theatrical empire, Cantor a Ziegfeld star.
Each winter Jolson, who loathes freezing weather, would find some excuse for leaving his show and fleeing to Florida. One Sunday in December 1923, Jolson’s aide-de-camp telephoned the Shuberts to say that Jolson had just suffered a severe attack of laryngitis, had already departed for Florida; they must cancel a month of Bombo. Jake Shubert left for Miami Beach immediately, and found Jolson in his beach cabana sunning himself, an impressive silk scarf around his neck to accent his air of invalidism. Shubert said, “How you feeling, Jolie?”
Jolson reached for a pad and pencil, to carry out his claim of being unable to use his voice. “Not so good,” he replied.
“How’s the voice?” asked Shubert.
“Terrible,” wrote Jolson. “How are things in New York?”
“Oh,” said Shubert, “not too exciting. By the way, Cantor had his biggest week yet in Kid Boots – grossed $45,000.”
Jolson jumped up. “That’s a damn lie! ” he shouted. “When is the next train to New York? No, we got to catch a plane.” He was in town by Monday night and didn’t miss a performance of Bombo!
The sexagenarian Jolson looks a trim, healthy 40. He carries himself with a jaunty air. He is always well sun-tanned. People who have known the the venerable vocalist for years credit his extraordinary condition to the fact that he is fanatical about healthy living. Until recently he never smoked, and he has never imbibed anything stronger than beer. He sleeps at least eight hours a night, usually retiring before midnight after putting away a huge plate of ice cream. Every morning after breakfast he walks three or four miles. He has given up golf and boxing, formerly his other athletic diversions.
Jolson’s fourth wife is Erle Galbraith, a tall, glamorous girl whom he met at an Army base in Arkansas while he was on the road for USO and she was an X-ray technician. He fell in love with her on sight and they were married a year later. In 1948 they adopted a three-months-old boy, whom they named Asa, Jr. Jolson is not at all disturbed by the disparity in their ages. Not long ago the couple, motoring, stopped at a gas station.
The attendant remarked, “Mister, that’s a mighty pretty daughter you got there.”
Al grinned and replied, “I’m too old to have a daughter that young – that’s my wife!”
Originally named Asa Yoelson, Al was born in a log cabin in Srednik, a small town in Lithuania, Al’s father, Morris Yoelson, was a poor cantor who journeyed about small towns singing religious chants on Jewish holy days
In 1889, Morris Yoelson emigrated to this country alone. Five years later he brought his family to Washington, D. C., where Yoelson was appointed cantor of a large synagogue. His deepest ambition was that his youngest son should become a great cantor, and he gave Asa singing lessons from the age of five. The depth and sadness of Al Jolson’s singing has its roots in the emotionalism of the cantorial tradition of song.
When Asa was ten his mother died, and he became what would to-day be called a juvenile delinquent. He played truant to go to vaudeville shows, bummed around with a gang of what his father called “loafers.” (The “loafers” included a skinny Negro lad with magic in his feet who grew up to become Bill Robinson, greatest of all tap dancers.) To raise money for theater admissions, Asa sold newspapers and sang in the streets the lachrymose ballads of that era.
After serving as drummer boy with a Pennsylvania regiment during the Spanish-American War, Asa ran off with a circus as a singer for $5 a month. The circus stranded him in Baltimore and he stayed there six months. His father traced him and brought him back, but by now the boy was determined to be a vaudeville actor. For a year he toured with burlesque troupes, then went to New York. He got few singing jobs and was reduced to cadging food from free-lunch counters in saloons and sleeping on park benches. Finally he developed tuberculosis. A Manhattan clinic sent him to a Saranac Lake sanatorium, where he was cured.
In 1903, Asa, his brother Harry and Joe Palmer did a singing-and-comedy vaudeville act. Harry played a doctor, Asa a bellboy and Palmer a sick man in a wheel chair. James Francis Dooley, a blackface monologuist, told Asa he would make a much funnier bellboy if he put on burnt cork. “Blackface goes perfectly with that southern accent of yours,” he explained. For the next 25 years Asa was never seen on a stage in white face.
When the act broke up he changed his name to Al Jolson and played in the West for five years. He began to develop his intimate style of singing, his way of enfolding an audience to his bosom as if it were a single giant human being. He also began acting out every song as if the words and the melody had just occurred to him and were a genuine expression of his feelings. His mannerism of getting down on one knee, however, was prompted by a prosaic accident. One night an ingrown toenail hurt unbearably. So Al knelt to get the pressure off his toe. The trick was so effective that he adopted it permanently.
In 1909 he came to New York as a star in the greatest show of them all, Lew Dockstader’s Minstrels. J. J. Shubert, impressed by Jolson’s overpowering display of energy, booked him for La Belle Paree, a musical comedy which opened at the Winter Garden in 1911. Within a month Jolson was the talk of the town. From then until 1926, when he retired from the stage, he could boast an unbroken series of smash hits. Usually there was nobody of importance in the cast besides Jolson; generally the plots were tedious, the music dull. Many times Jolson dismissed the entire cast in the middle of a performance and just sang songs and told funny incidents to the audience. He was the greatest stage attraction of that era. Then in 1927 he made the first talking and singing movie, The Jazz Singer, which revolutionized the film industry.
After 30 years of success, other men might have been satisfied to remain in retirement. But it bothered Al when he strode into a New York restaurant and went unrecognized, or when he swaggered on the sands at Miami Beach and was ignored. When he married Erle Galbraith, it burned him up that she had never seen him strut on a stage. “Tell Erle,” he’d say to friends, “how great I used to be.” He tried unsuccessfully to star in a radio program. In Hollywood, meanwhile, columnist Sidney Skolsky had for years been trying to peddle an idea for a musical film based on Jolson’s life. Finally, Columbia Pictures took him up. The movie has been so successful that a sequel, Jolson Sings Again, is being filmed.
For Jolson the only uncomfortable aspect of this adventure in becoming a star all over again is that millions who have seen The Jolson Story are under the mistaken impression that Jolson is, physically, identical with Larry Parks. I was with Jolson one night when he tried to walk into the stage entrance of the Warner Theater in Atlantic City, where he was headlining a show. The doorman stopped him.
“I’m Al Jolson,” Jolson said.
“Don’t kid me,” said the doorman. “You don’t look like Al Jolson!”
The daughter of one of his friends, with the serene bluntness of youth, put it clearly: “Gee, Mr. Jolson, you’re much better looking on the screen!”