The Blackface with a Grand Opera Voice
And then there came on the scene a young man, vibrantly pulsing with life and courage, who marched on the stage, head held high with the authority of a Roman emperor, with a gaiety that was militant, uninhibited, and unafraid, and told the world that a Jew in America did not have to sing in sorrow but could shout happily about Dixie, about the Night Boat to Albany, about coming to California, about a girl in Avalon. And when he cried Mammy, it was in appreciation, not lament.
Jolson was born Asa Yoelson, the
fourth surviving child of Cantor Moses and Naomi Yoelson in
Srednik, a small village in Russian Lithuania. The year may have
been 1886 - the exact date is uncertain. Rose was the eldest
child, followed by Etta, and then Hirsch who was three years
older than his brother Asa.
Pearl Sieben: Russia in those years was the land of the progrom and the Cossack. Since the assassination of Alexander II in 1881, the lot of the Jew in Russia had steadily worsened. Life for the Yoelsons was happy, but hovering over them was the impending threat of violence.
Al Jolson: Early life? Well, very early in my life I was born in Russia and named Asa Yoelson. Thats what they tell me. Personally, I dont remember it. I bet I was left in a basket on a doorstep. Im Skeezix for all I know. Theres nothing much to tell about me.
Asa was four years old when
his father left for America hoping to quickly put down roots. It
took another four years before he had saved enough money to pay
steerage passage for his family to join him. During the journey
the family transferred ship at Liverpool where Asa got lost and
was brought back to their lodgings by a policeman. They sailed
for America on the Umbria the next day and arrived at Ellis
Island in April 1894, seasick and dishevelled.
It was a terrible trip, Asa related many years later. Moses, who was waiting for the family on the quayside, took them by train to Washington where he had found a job as a cantor in a synagogue - his original ambition to be an opera singer had only been a dream.
Settled in a flat over a feed store, the family quickly learned the new customs. It was a tough neighbourhood and the boys joined the local gang. Hirsch and Asa sang the Kol Nidre at the synagogue but Moses was horrified when they came home singing about Sweet Marie. He gave them singing lessons, pointing out that each note was a praise to the Lord. Hirsch sang pleasantly enough but Asa was something special - he instinctively knew that singing came from the stomach, not just from the throat.
Naomi was often ill but no
one realised how desperately so. Nine months after their arrival
in America, Asa came home from school one day to be led along
with his brother into her room just in time to see the doctor
pulling the sheet over her head. Asa just turned and ran. The
funeral was held within twelve hours in accordance with Jewish
law and in the bitterly cold wind, unable to hold back the tears,
Asa dabbed at his eyes with little fists covered by socks.
Pearl Sieben: Al Jolson was born at the age of eight in the streets of Washington, DC.
Rose took on the mantle of little mother while Moses wrote to his wifes cousin Hessi in the old country, proposing marriage. Hessi accepted by return of post. The girls welcomed their new mother but the boys were resentful. Hessi lacked Naomis sense of humour though she tried hard to win them over but they did eventually grow fond of her.
Al Reeves billed himself as The Worlds Greatest Banjoist and Comedian when he appeared at the Lyceum Theatre, Washington. He certainly impressed the Yoelson brothers with his big finish, and they applauded when he exclaimed: Give me credit, boys. Hirsch and Asa Yoelson had discovered show business.
The Yoelson brothers worked on various moneymaking schemes - singing in the street, selling water melons together, and in competition selling newspapers from street corners. They began to earn dimes and quarters singing popular songs to high officials who sat sipping cool long drinks on the veranda in front of the Hotel Raleigh. The sadder the songs, the more they earned and they used the money to get into the local Bijou theatre. The boys began to frequent burlesque shows, became rebellious, smoked, and played hookey. Their father called the theatres dens of sin, described ragtime as loafer music, and regarded theatre music as less than respectable - not like grand opera. He probably didnt know half of what his two boys got up to.
Hirsch changed his name to Harry, and Asa called himself Al. Harry later explained: As Asa and Hirsch we were Jewish boys. As Al and Harry we were Americans. Harry always got the blame for leading his younger brother astray so at the age of fifteen he took himself off to New York. Harry told Al: Look, you heard of Broadway . . . in New York. Im gonna go there an try an get into show business. Soon as I get started Ill send for you.
Some months later when he
had heard nothing from him, Al followed suit by hopping on a
freight. Unable to find Harry, he sold newspapers and shined
shoes for a few cents. As Al said later: You get awfully
hungry at twelve years of age. Walking down Broadway one
day, Al heard blonde singer Fay Templeton rehearsing a song:
Rosie, You Are My
Posie. When she
had finished he couldnt get the song out of his head and as
he walked he got hungrier and hungrier until he reached a grimy
restaurant on the Bowery called McGirks. Inside he could see
plates of steaming food. Will you give me something to eat
if I sing for you? he begged the owner. The proprietor
agreed. Through the noisy, smoke-laden atmosphere, Al Yoelson
sang Fay Templetons song and at the end, a hush descended.
Al got his dinner. It was also his first taste of show business
and the beginnings of a love-affair with an audience that would
last a lifetime.
Al eventually found Harry with his nose hungrily pressed up against the glass of a bakery window - singing in the big city was not as easy as he had thought. New York entertainment centred on the Bowery with their vaudeville theatres, burlesque houses and dime museums offering freaks and wonders and a host of acts but the boys couldnt find work. Broke and hungry after sleeping on park benches and in empty railway wagons, Al returned home. Harry soon followed.
Al: Harry, my shoes are gone!
Harry: Ya should never take anything off when ya sleep in a place like this.
During the summer they obtained jobs as singing waiters on the excursion boats on the Potomac. Sometimes they entertained at Snyders place near the Navy Yard where according to Harry: You could get a huge schooner of beer and a dish of crabs for a nickel. Despite his disappointment in New York, Al had been bitten by show business and now that his father and Hessi were starting a new family, there was nothing to keep him at home in Washington.
Hearing the military band
Dollie I Must Leave You,
he joined the troops that came marching down Washingtons
Pennsylvania Avenue on their way to Cuba. It was 1898 and America
and Spain were at war over the disputed territory of Cuba. Al
attached himself as singer and entertainer with the 15th
Pennsylvania Volunteers and went all the way to Key West,
Florida, before he was ordered home. This wouldnt be last
time he would sing to troops at a time of war.
Bandmaster of the 15th Pennsylvania Volunteers: Why dont you become our mascot? Youll be able to sing.
WALTER L. MAIN CIRCUS
We will offer for your indulgence some of the worlds most noted variety entertainers, among them
"Master Albert Joelson."
Al was rescued while working in a bar in Baltimore by the
Gerry Society, a police morals squad. They took him to St.
Marys Industrial Home for Boys in Baltimore, a home for wayward boys run by Roman Catholic monks.
They didnt let us smoke, Al later recalled, so I got a plug of tobacco from an iceman. It didnt taste so good but a fella couldnt sleep right if he didnt pull some kind of fast one on the brothers. He misbehaved so often that they put him in solitary confinement in a monks cell where he caught a severe cold. A doctor diagnosed a tendency toward tuberculosis and recommended fresh air and singing to strengthen his lungs. He sang with St. Marys choir till Cantor Yoelson came to collect him.
In the fall, Al was given a small, non-speaking part in The Children of the Ghetto, Israel Zangwills dramatisation of his own novel playing at the National Theatre, Washington. The show folded after only a few performances.
Harry had a job as a peanut
vendor in the Washingtons Bijou theatre and would sneak Al
into the gallery. Al heard the coon shouter Eddie Leonard, one of
Americas great vaudevillians, sing: Id Leave Ma Happy Home for
would shout to the audience: Come on everybody, join
in. Some did, but none so enthusiastically as the boy
soprano in the
gods. Leonard was
so impressed he made Al sing it as a solo. After a meeting
backstage, Leonard arranged for Al to sing it as a stooge every night from the balcony. It went quite
well but when Leonard wanted to make it a permanent act, Al
refused. Not for him singing from a mere balcony, he wanted to be
in the spotlight on the stage.
Ida, Sweet As Apple Cider (appropriated by Eddie Cantor), and Roll Dem Roly-Boly Eyes were two of Eddie Leonards own compositions that later made him famous.
Al repeated the routine at the Bijou with Miss Aggie Beeler, the burlesque queen, billed as Jersey Lil. From the same balcony he joined in the chorus: My Jersey Lily, with eyes of blue. No other lily can equal you . . . Backstage, Aggie was persuaded that Al would make a good foil for her act. Rabbi Yoelson reluctantly agreed and at fourteen years of age, Al joined the Victoria Burlesquers. Really in show business now, he changed his name to Joelson because it sounded more American. Harry left home for good and found a job as a singing waiter in New York.
AT LIBERTY FOR NEXT SEASON
(Mr. Fred Moore is an experienced union electrician)
Al was not happy on tour
and spent a cheerless Christmas at Springfield, Massachusetts:
I was thoroughly miserable and unhappy. I could see myself
- a kid singer warbling questionable songs for a meagre living
and dreaming of footlight fame. Not in good standing at home
either. He fell out with Aggie when she would not allow him
on the stage and when the show reached New York in January 1901,
he teamed up with the company electrician Fred E. Moore as an illustrated singing act with scenes
projected on a screen. They billed themselves as Master Joelson and Fred Moore - the first time Al had
received a billing.
Fred E. Moore: Suppose you and me team up? We could hit the agents and see if we cant pick ourselves up some bookings. Besides, my wifes a wonderful cook. Shell put some meat on those bones of yours.
Jolson was fifteen years
old, touring between New York and the Middle West, learning show
business arts from the other comedians, dancers and singers in
Burlesque - how to come on stage, how to exit, how to win
applause and how to end a song.
In March 1902 they joined the Al Reeves Famous Big Company and Al was able to study his idol Al Reeves in close-up - his walk, mannerisms and how to put up a good front. They soon left the Reeves show to try vaudeville but with few bookings they had to join The Dainty Duchess show in burlesque. A year later, when Als voice began to break, Joelson and Moore were fired, and a despondent sixteen-year old has-been had to return home to Washington.
Al Reeves: He was a good boy. Al never drank or smoked. Just a good kid. I predicted hed go far.
THE HEBREW AND THE CADET
Harry also returned home in
straw boater and flashy suit, a singing success in a burlesque
show entitled: The
brothers immediately decided to form their own act and left for
New York. Stealing lines from old burlesque acts, comedian Harry
did all the singing, while straight-man Al whistled. The sketch
ended with Al marching off-stage and Harry following in a
loose-jointed shuffle with his head bobbing like a ducks.
The new act was called: The Hebrew and the Cadet. Their fortunes fluctuated. There
werent too many bookings in between sleeping on park
benches, in empty wagons and in hallways. Als voice came
back as a high tenor but it made little difference and a year
later they reached the bottom rung of show business with the Dixon and Bernsteins Turkey
Even with a turkey that you know will fold . . . - a line from an Irving Berlins song, Theres No Business Like Show Business.
Without an advance on a booking the brothers pawned a typewriter they had bought - and not yet paid for - on the instalment plan.
Harry: We busked around to raise enough money for doughnuts and coffee . . . It was not easy to get a job busking. In many places we were simply given the bums rush without comment. Usually, we applied at places where we knew the boss or head waiter. We told our tale of woe and asked permission to sing . . . Few words were lost whether we were given a job or tossed into the gutter.
George Burns recalled the world of show business in those days: I used to sit in the Fitzgerald building which was the HQ for small-time booking agents. One day, a guy came out and asked where he could find Charley Pride. I said: Im Charley Pride and he handed me a contract for a weeks engagement at the Dewey theatre for Charley Pride and his Wonder Dog. I got myself a piece of beef, caught a small dog, went on stage at the Dewey with the dog under my arm, and did my songs. Went over big!
In New York the Joelsons
stayed in a room opposite Lew Schrafts Restaurant on 14th
Street. More like a broom closet but I could hear the
music, Al observed. Ill never forget the thrill
one rainy night when I first heard Jim Thornton play his song
Sixteen . . . and
whenever I sing that song, Im a young kid again staring out
on to 14th Street in the rain.
Moses Yoelson: The stage! That is no life for a man. Think of the years youve thrown away. When I think of my sons I want to say Kaddish for them. Its a disgrace!
Harry: As many as possible piled into a bed and the others slept on the floor.
A break came for the
brothers when Ren Shields, a special material and songwriter
(In The Good Old
wrote a comedy sketch centred around his friend Joe Palmer, an
old trouper who had been confined to a wheelchair with multiple
sclerosis. The brothers were asked to join in the act if they
would help in feeding, washing and dressing Palmer. They jumped
at it. Harry played a doctor and Al a wise-cracking orderly.
Billed as A Little of
Everything, it made
vaudeville audiences laugh. To advertise the act, cards were
Palmer and Jolson
- the printer had to take the e
out of Joelson to make it fit.
On the same bill in Brooklyn was James Francis Dooley, a blackface comedian and monologue man who advised Al: Why dont you try some of the burnt cork yourself? Itd go perfectly well with that southern accent of yours. Behind the black mask, Als personality blossomed and the act went better than ever.
James Francis Dooley: Wearing burnt cork is like wearing a mask. You look and feel like a performer.
PALMER AND JOLSON
The act went well hitting
the big-time with the Orpheum Circuit at $120 a week until
November 1905 in New Orleans when Al and Harry quarrelled over
looking after Joe Palmer. After nearly coming to blows - Al
kicked a hole through Harrys brand new Derby - Harry walked
out, leaving the act as Palmer and Jolson. Al and Joe revamped
the act and spent most of their time going over new songs and
material. With a growing ego the nineteen-years-old Al was
willing to try anything. He learned comedy songs like Everybody, ballads like My Gal Sal, and how to whistle with two
fingers. A bit of a sentimentalist and an extrovert, he was also
a moody cuss who alternated between bravado and pessimism. Palmer
soon felt he was holding Al back, and just as they were due to
start a Pacific Coast tour in June 1906 he decided to retire into
the laundry business.
Joe Palmer: You got places to go, boy. Youre gonna be a star. I want you to go. Youll knock em dead, kid.
Al was a hit when he opened
as a solo act in Butte, Montana. Billed as a singing comedian, he wore white socks, a dark
ill-fitting suit with a red bow tie, brown gloves, and a
jagged-brimmed straw hat that sat on top of his head.
Jesse Lasky, a former trumpet player working for a booking office, recalled Jolson signing a contract at that time. Al showed more interest in a chequered suit lying in open box and he asked Lasky to sell it to him.
Oh, take it, Jesse said. It cost me sixty bucks.
Ill send you the sixty sawbucks out of my first weeks salary, Al promised.
I never saw the money for the suit, Lasky recalled, but I reminded him of it years later while we were playing golf. Forgot completely, he said, but offered to play a match for it there and then. I wound up losing my suit for the second time.
Al Jolson arrived in San Francisco a few months
after the earthquake of 1906 ( pictured right). A circus tent called the National, pitched by
Pop Grauman and son Sid, was being used as a
makeshift theatre and workers were busy building a wooden theatre
over the top of it, even while performances were in progress.
Al opened on 1 October 1906 - the beginning of the Jolson Legend. With the workers hammering almost drowning out his voice, Al decided to mount a chair in the middle of the audience to sing. He also cleared a space for the girls to dance. His impromptu act, his songs, his jokes and ad libs were so refreshing that the audience quickly warmed to him. Not now, papas working, Al ad libbed when a baby in the audience began to cry. Word spread that there had never been a performer so dynamic and by the end of the week crowds were flocking in to see the young singer in blackface. One night the audience were shouting to him, demanding one song after another, and Al, his collar undone showing the line of his chocolate make-up, called back: All right, all right folks - you aint heard nothing yet.
Henrietta Keller, a cute, strawberry blonde with
sparkling blue-green eyes, was a dancer with the Bell Minstrels Maids troupe.
I fell for her legs, Al later said.
Shy she may have been but she accepted when the young black-faced comedian asked her to dinner. Al was an exciting young fellow, able to charm ladies. Other dates followed and Al met her parents. Her father, a former Danish sea captain, didnt like showpeople and gave Henrietta strict instructions not to get involved with Mr. Jolson. Al continued to court Henrietta and while on tour of the Pacific coast and Midwest he wrote frequently to her. Considered more a comedian than a singer, Al didnt crack funny jokes but made the audience laugh with his refreshing spirit. Often playing return engagements, he was usually greeted by a big hand as soon as he first appeared. By September 1907 he was earning $150 a week and Henrietta agreed to marry him in a civil ceremony in Oakland. Als friend, dancer Dick Fitzgerald, was a witness. When Cantor Moses was told that Al had married a gentile girl he sat in a low chair and recited Kaddish - the prayer for the dead.
Variety: AL JOLSON .
. . You dont know him? . . . You Will!
Als advertisement in Variety Watch me - Im a wow!
Henrietta loved Al and believed in marriage but she was no substitute for a live audience. Jolson had talent but it came with an enormous ego. The manager of the Wigwam Theatre, San Francisco, offered him $350 for a two-week engagement but Jolson would accept nothing less than $500 - and he got it. Al got excited about everything. At twenty-one years of age with a blossoming career, a loving wife and friends, he had the world before him.
Al wanted to play in the melodramas he had seen at the Bijou in Washington and joined the playhouse company of the Globe, San Francisco. For five weeks he was principal comedian, entertaining between the acts with his popular singing and monologue turn. Also appearing in the plays, he played the comedy Hebrew in The Great Wall Street Mystery. A great comedian, Jolson was never at ease with love scenes and best expressed his emotions in song.
San Francisco Examiner: Al Jolson, the popular
comedian of the company, appears as the comedy Hebrew and
laughter is hearty while he is on stage
Al began a tour of the West and Middle West, occasionally billing himself as The Blackface with the Grand Opera Voice. He was already feuding with his brother Harry (picture right) over billing via the mailbox when Harry arrived in San Francisco, billing himself as The Operatic Blackface Comedian. Harry threatened to report Al to the White Rats, a variety artists union. Al said he did not give a single damn, expressing his opinion of the union in four-letter words. Al was already getting rave reviews from the Press, and Harry, after what he later termed odorous comparisons, cancelled his bookings and returned East. Harry later struggled to find work and departed for England to try his luck on the Music Halls.
The minstrel show was at
the height of its success and at Little Rock, Arkansas, Al was
asked to join Lew
Dockstaders Minstrels. The salary was only $75 a week but he was promised
a big billing and he could choose his own songs, such as the
current hit Sweet
Sixteen, and the
way the orchestra played the accompaniment. There were also late
evening sessions of poker accompanied by whisky and cigars
between engagements aboard trains. When Jolie became broke he ran out on the show,
appearing in Wilkersons
Minstrels of Today at
the American Theatre in San Franciso for much higher pay. But the
show folded after two weeks and at Dockstaders demand, Al
returned to Dockstaders
Jolie: Why should I save money? Im the greatest entertainer in the world. Some day Ill be a millionaire. Watch and see if Im not right.
Arthur Klein, a booking manager for a vaudeville theatre owner, offered his services to Jolson as his manager and Al accepted. After years of trying, Al needed help to get into big time vaudeville and Klein booked Al at the Fifth Avenue Theatre. Al and Henrietta booked into the Metropole Hotel, New York. Success at Fifth Avenue would put him on the road to fame, but if he flopped it would mean a life in small-time vaudeville. Fifth on the bill in the Monday matinee, he scored such a hit that he displaced Louise Dresser, the headliner in the evening. Variety opened an Al Jolson file and Lew Dockstader released him from his contract. Jolie was on his way.
Lew Dockstader: Well, folks, I knew the kid had it, but I guess I didnt know how much. Perhaps he should have followed me.
Variety reviewed Jolsons olio spot in the show: Dressing neatly in evening clothes of faultless cut and of a new colour called taupe, Jolson offers a quiet quarter of an hour of smooth entertainment. As a singer of coon songs, Jolson has a method of his own by which lyrics and melody are given their full title . . . As it stands now, Jolsons offering is capable of holding down a place in any vaudeville show. He is now in the next to closing position in the olio . . .
Jolson toured Eastern vaudeville and returned to triumph at the Colonial Theatre on 27 December singing one of the first big ragtime hits - Hello, My Baby. Henrietta excused herself with a headache and didnt attend the celebratory party afterwards.
new theatre, the Victoria, had a reputation for killing
talent. The Monday matinees were torture for performers since the
audience was made up of fellow show business people. Jolson was
so scared to death that he could hardly hear the
orchestra play his opening music and the stage manager had to
tell him three times that it was his turn to go on. His new song
Hypnotise Me was
so successful that the next act found it impossible go on until
he had given a second encore and made a speech..
One night Jolson walked to the front of the stage, told the electricians to bring on the houselights and announced: Ya know folks - this is the happiest night of my life. Yes siree. Im so happy. I wanna sing and sing and sing. Ya wanna listen . . .
He sang all of his most cheerful songs.