AEF Cheers Singing of Al Jolson
Hartford Courant, Sept. 20, 1942
By Ward Morehouse, With the AEF in England
On pasture land flanked on one side by a wheat field and the other by cattle beans, thousands of United States soldiers were assembled, some packed together on benches from the mess tents, the majority standing. Aircraft circled overhead, protectively. It was late afternoon of one of England’s beautiful days.
Before these uniformed thousands, appearing on an improvised stage, talent from home, members of the American Overseas Artists, did their stuff, giving a show that will stay in the memory of every man present.
Now that’s one picture. Another is a square, bare room with space enough for 300 and into which 600 have been squeezed, or 700, and it’s all uniformed humanity. There, as members of a privileged preview audience, these young men only recently departed from American soil behold a comedian and minstrel man, born as Asa Yoelson, and known to the world as Al Jolson, give the first performance of his life on England’s soil. On this occasion he was dynamite: his show was truly stirring. I’ve been watching this Russian-born mammy-singer since “Sinbad” and this private show was certainly his most remarkable exhibition.
Asa Yoelson, alias Big Boy, alias Al Jolson, alias the mammy-crooner had been giving his one-man show in American camps and Caribbean ports, and has performed before United States troops at bases in Aruba, in Port of Spain, in the Canal Zone and in Alaskan harbors.
And now here he finds himself in the British Isles, which he had been avoiding, as a professional, for his entire career. Funny, but for years and years the very thought of appearing before English audiences scared Jolson. As his Broadway fame increased, so did his fear of London’s West End, and he would have no part of it, despite fabulous offers that came from London management. “I didn’t want to flop,” Al will tell you. “I’ve played to audiences of two people and to audiences of 15,000, but I was jittery about London. I love the city and came over all the time. People would always say ‘Hello Al’ no matter where I went, but I would never give a show, not one.”
And so, arriving here this time and knowing that he was coming as an entertainer, not a visitor, Jolson was frankly nervous. He wanted to have his break-the-ice test and get it done with. He wanted to overthrow that seeming London jinx. Jumpy he was, as nervous as two-a-day aspirant from Lima, Ohio, trying to crash the big time. So, at his insistence, a confidential appearance, a secret preview, was arranged. The press was not officially told. Nor were his co-entertainers, such as Merle Oberon and the genial Frank McHugh. Al was just hustled by staff car to that room jammed with soldiers. They had been told something was coming off, but no name was mentioned. And then into their astonished presence strolled the nimble Jolson.
Well, it was a panic. And pandemonium. Al was in the form of his life. He started with “California, Here I Come,” he followed with “April Showers” and “Mammy.” He then came along with “Sonny Boy” and finished with “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” and at the piano was Martin Fried, his musical director, who has followed him from the Caribbean to Dutch Harbor, from the Potomac to the Thames. And when he was done the applause that shook that soldier-packed room was like bombs falling again in Shaftsbury Avenue.
Al Jolson, comic and mammy-crooner, walked out of that room a happy man. Britain’s jinx was broken. Afraid of the English? Never again! They can book him in the future at the Palladium or the Coliseum, at the Prince of Wales or the Victoria Palace. Or in Trafalgar Square, if they prefer. Even the lions couldn’t frighten him now.