Friday, September 28, 2012

Al Jolson and his music and his magic. No one was like him or will ever be.

Today if I mention the name Al Jolson it barely gets a nod. Few people today outside of very supportive fans remember him. He has been dead this coming October 23, 62 years. For many people in the field of entertainment and today's world of 15 minutes of fame that is an eternity. But who was Jolson and what was he like? If I ask the question here at Columbia university where I am writing this blog for the last time I will be met with the fact, if anyone knows him at all that he was just a racist. I disagree, but I can understand this  modern world not understanding the entertainment style of near a century ago and the use of blackface.  Today it is dreadful, but in its time it was SOP.  For those who do not know those initials it means  "Standard Operating Procedure" ....

As a person he was not very nice, as an entertainer he was adored. He was the reigning king at the Winter Garden Theater on Broadway from 1911 to the later 20's He was in movies and was a star in them from the the later 20's to the mid 30's. Then he was nobody for a while till he was rediscovered after WW2. then from 1946 till his death in 1950  he was king again!  What a career he had.

He was always on stage, if he was not he was depressed. George Burns who knew Jolson well said of him  "Al Jolson had a love affair with Al Jolson, and he was always faithful!"

He sang for the troops in WW1, WW2, and Korea.  he was the first entertainer to travel out to the troops in WW2 and the 1st to Korea as well. But when he went to Korea over the objections of everyone he was a sick, tired old man. He did 42 shows in 16 days and paid his own way for everything.

He would die 3 weeks after returning from Korea. Even his death has some show business in it. He was playing cards and suddenly looked at the guys playing and said "Boys I am going"  and died.

But my one question is this....why was he so popular?  What did he do?  How did he do it?   I watch many of his performances in shorts and movies and can see he was not really a very good actor, he was a good singer, he was a good minstrel man, he was a great whistler, he was an ok dancer.

But what it seems to be from those who I knew who had seen him perform in the 1920's was that he did all of it and everything was so electrifying and exciting.

 I can guess that what made Jolson was lost to us. What we see are shadows of what once was.

 I can recall Allen King telling the story of watching a show with George Burns. The star was Sammy Davis Jr.   King went on " It was the most amazing show ever, he danced, sang, was all over the theater, made the entire audience go absolutely wild. It was the greatest show I had ever seen. I turned to George Burns and asked him about it and Davis's performance. Burns replied that it had been the best show and performer he had ever seen...except for Jolson"  So whatever Jolson had, Burns knew it, but we do not today.

 I watch his films and laugh at some of his jokes and enjoy many of his songs. But I still wonder what it was that made him "The Worlds Greatest Entertainer"    That statement was on all of his records from the 1920's...  So today you can see his grave at Hillside Cemetery in California.  Of course you know his grave is the biggest. It even has a waterfall....

Fitting for Al Jolson   It can entertain you a little.