‘Entertaining the Troops Overseas’

Al entertaining the troopsJolson lobbied to entertain the troops overseas and in June arrangements were made to send him to Alaska, via Seattle and Washington. As Al reported in a dispatch to Variety: “We arrived in Anchorage at 9:10 p.m., Anchorage time, and stayed at the Westward Hotel. When they told me to observe the blackout regulations and put my lights out I had to laugh, for in this part of Alaska at midnight you can thread a needle on Main Street. We gave two performances in Anchorage, each for an audience of 1,500 soldiers. Each show lasted an hour and I almost wore out the knees of my pants singing ‘Mammy’.


Al didn’t mention that rumours had swept the camp at Anchorage that Lana Turner was coming. “No she wasn’t - it was Dorothy Lamour,” some one else had said. When Jolson arrived on stage the soldiers’ disappointment expressed itself in the silence. “Hello boys - I’m Al Jolson. You’ll see my name in the history books.” One soldier laughed, then another. Al told a joke, and another, and the laughter grew. He chatted about home, told them what he thought of Hitler and Hirohito and the laughter spread all round. Someone called for a song. Al gave them what they asked for and he was swamped by whistling applause. Al Jolson had found a new audience; and the soldiers had discovered Al Jolson.
Jolson: “Don’t you feel well, son?”
Soldier: “
Oh, yessuh, Mista Jolson. It was on’y when you got to singin’ about Dixie. Well, Mista Jolson, it jest kinda got me - thass all . . . You know Mista Jolson, dis heah Arctic Ocean is an awful long way f’m tu-tty miles t’other side of Bummin’ham, Alabama.”

“Until now,” Al reported to Variety, “the transporting of our small piano had been an overture to an aspirin tablet, but from here on in it became a major headache. In order to entertain all the boys detailed in the vicinity of Anchorage, it became necessary to give shows in foxholes, gun emplacements, dugouts, to construction groups on military roads, in fact, any place where two or more soldiers were gathered together, it automatically became a Winter Garden for me and I gave a show. Imagine carting the piano to these locations. Sometimes it was by truck, once on a side car and once on a mule pack.”

It was during the Alaskan tour that one young soldier called out: “Kiss my wife for me when you get back to New York, will yer Al?”
“I’ll do better than that,” Al called back. “I’ll take her out to dinner. What’s her name?” After writing her name down with her telephone number, he called out: “Any more?” Everyone shouted at once and Al wrote down as many names as he could.
“I’ll call them all when I get back,” he said. And he did, informing mothers, wives and girlfriends that their loved ones were in fine shape. Jolson spent time talking to the servicemen, establishing a relationship, till his arrival in a jeep was always met by a collective: “Hiya, Al!”
Stopping soldiers in the street, Jolson would say: “My name’s Jolson. Do you wanna hear me sing?”
Next Town Reilly’ was a one man Department of Morale Boosting. “Those guys wouldn’t exactly be immune to a shapely dish once in a while, too,” Al told the USO, “whether she could sing or not.”
Jolson: “We woulda brought Lana Turner but she’s busy with the Second Front.”
 
In July 1942 Jolson and Fried toured all the US bases in the Caribbean before the USO flew them, along with actress Merle Oberon and singer Patricia Morison, to England and Northern Ireland. Singing whatever was wanted, wherever he wanted, even to troops on street corners, he enjoyed every round of applause. He told servicemen what he had told their fathers about English beer: “It should have been put back into the horse.”
 
The troupe had been scheduled to appear at the London Palladium with Ben Lyon and Bebe Daniels but Merle Oberon refused to appear. “We are here to entertain the troops, not the general public,” she said. Jolson was furious and announced he was returning to the United States - alone. “I just feel that I could better on my own than I could as a member of a troupe,” Jolson explained to the New York Times. “If I want to crowd in an extra show for defence workers in factories, I’d be able to do it.”
Jolson hadn’t ‘gone over’ as well as he hoped with some of the English audiences and as he sat depressed in the bar of the Savoy Hotel, Ralph Reader walked in whistling ‘Keep Smiling at Trouble’.
“English, English!” he excitedly greeted Ralph and they reminisced about their days at the
Winter Garden. “They were great days, English, great days,” he said with a tear in his eye.

New York Times: “There were few jokes in his talk. The comedian was playing a straight part . . . For, like many other comedians, at heart, Jolson is serious and sentimental.”
 
New Yorker: “We’ve just heard from a soldier who was fortunate enough to be on hand at one of the entertainments presented before the troops in Ireland by Jolson and some of the other performers from the States. Jolson, our soldier reports, concluded the entertainment with what was obviously considered to be the best number in his repertoire. It was ‘Brother Can You Spare a Dime?’ - and Jolson gave it, as the people say, everything. No other happening in recent weeks has given us such a sense of this significant moment in history.”

Al JolsonThe Colgate Show Starring Al Jolson’, a weekly radio show that CBS signed Jolson to do, ran until June 1943. Usually opening the show with an up-tempo number like ‘The Yankee Doodle Blues’, or “I’m Sitting On Top of the World’, he usually ended with a sentimental ballad like ‘Sonny Boy’. The show’s female vocalist was Jo Stafford and the musical director was Gordon Jenkins.
Gordon Jenkins commenting on Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra: “Neither one, I have to tell you, had the electricity that Al had.”
 
In July 1943, Al left on an overseas tour to entertain the troops. Since Martin Fried had been drafted, Al needed a pianist to accompany him and asked his friend Harry Akst. At their first stop, Georgetown, British Guiana, Al found he couldn’t reach the high notes at the close of ‘Swanee’. In a panic, he was ready to give up the whole tour. Harry had to convince him that he didn’t have to cash in on high finishes - Crosby didn’t. “They died with vaudeville,” Harry explained.
The new Al Jolson voice was born - not so light and breezy but deeper and more mellow.
Jolson: “Harry, gimme a chorus of ‘April Showers’ in D. We’ll try one chorus.”
Akst: “I
gave it to him. He tried it and it was only great. Right then and there in Georgetown, British Guiana, the new Jolson was born.”
 
Al and Harry ready for take offIn Natal, they lived on Spam (“Oucha-ma-goucha! - Spam!”), and yet more Spam while giving a series of concerts to hospital patients. Al told the Press: “Those guys deserve the best. It ain’t fair that they have to doctor a can of Spam so it looks different three meals in a row. They called it breakfast but we called it lots of other things - powdered eggs, powdered milk, and if there’s anything else that wasn’t powdered, we’d like to know what!”
Then came a nine-hour flight across the Atlantic to Dakar, West Africa (Al and Harry pictured right before take-off).
Al reported: “Dakar is the filthiest hole I have ever seen. Every known insect is here, breeding every known disease. At seven, we had dinner. Yes, you guessed it - Spam, and for dessert a substitute for quinine called Atabrin - little yellow pills - which Akst mistook for soda mints. They gave him bellyache, which so far, is the only bellyaching he’s done.”
After the show Al was kept busy autographing anything they gave him. One soldier had nothing else but a $10 bill. “Son, my autograph isn’t worth tying up in that much dough,” Al told him, taking a crisp $5 dollar bill out of his own pocket and autographing it. “Here, Sergeant, this is on the house.”
A soldier: “As he sang, I felt as though I were back in New York. Only a short time ago, New York seemed a million miles away. Then along comes Al Jolson and he drops the city right into my lap - Empire State Building and all - Boom!”

After Morocco, came Casablanca, Oran and Algiers where he caught up with Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Before Al had left America, Mrs. Eisenhower had given him a message to deliver to her husband. It read: ‘Dear Ike, Al will give you this note and give you a sweet kiss from me - and also a swift kick, too, because you haven’t written for so long.’ At the General’s H.Q, Ike instructed Jolson to return the kiss and lifted up the skirt of his jacket . . . “Darned if Al didn’t deliver the message.”
It was in World War II that Al Jolson proved himself ‘
The World’s Greatest Entertainer’. Singing to soldiers in foxholes and giving extra shows in out-of-the-way places, he came closer to servicemen than any other entertainer.
Pearl Sieben: “No matter how hard he pushed himself there was always a further distant horizon to scan. For the Jolson nature this was ideal. ‘Next Town Reilly’, as Harry Akst fondly dubbed him, was right at home.”

From Algeria, Al and Harry went on to Tunisia and then they followed the advancing Allied troops through the ‘hell and mud’ of Sicily and Italy, sometimes giving four shows a day. When Jolson sang, ‘Brother Can You Spare a Dime?’, he gave it everything; and when he sang, ‘Give My Regards To Broadway’, some of the men felt they were back home. Al often admitted to Harry: “What I’m doing for these boys ain’t nothin’ compared to what they’re doin’ for me.”

Jolson had already cancelled his thirteen Colgate radio shows programmed for the fall when he suddenly began to feel bad. In an emergency flight, Al and Harry flew home to Miami Beach on 21 September 1943. Less than two weeks later while standing in a hotel lobby in New York, Jolson suddenly collapsed.
Joe E. Lewis: “Al did a fine job in the war, at least until the Confederates captured him.”

Jolson woke up in a hospital bed to find he had picked up malaria from overseas and it had turned into pneumonia. His temperature reached 105F and doctors had to contact a military hospital for the proper serum before he began to recover. “No more overseas tours for you,” the doctors told him. After recuperating in Miami he went back to work playing himself in a film biography of George Gershwin called Rhapsody in Blue.

Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures, invited Jolson to be a film producer. No one was sure why until Cohn later divulged to Sydney Skolsky: “I was a song plugger in my twenties and I used to go backstage at the Winter Garden. Sometimes Jolson would see me and sometimes he would treat me like a jerk without looking at the song. I vowed that one day I’d have that son of a bitch working for me.” Jolson did very little as a producer. His phone never rang and when it eventually did, a voice asked: “Is that Shapiro, the plumber?”

After accepting an offer to headline the Philco Hall of Fame radio show in Philadelphia, Jolson flew with Harry Akst to Washington to see Moshe and Hessi.
Jolson still suffered from a bug, a permanent one - being worshipped by an audience. After incessantly ringing the USO offices demanding work, he was asked to tour out-of-the-way service hospitals - the ones without railroad connections. Driving their own station wagon, Al and Harry barnstormed their way west on a zig-zag course cheering up a lot of boys who had lost arms and legs, for this was the ‘Purple Heart Circuit’. The applause considerably improved Al’s own health.
Harry Akst: “What’s the crazy cuckoo up to now? So sick they thought he was dying a few weeks ago and now he’s probably cooked up some crazy scheme that’ll take us to Tim-Buck-Too!”

Erle Galbraith was an X-ray technician at the Eastman Annex, Arkansas. She had long, dark hair and flashing white teeth and because of her civilian dress she stood out amongst the audience during Al’s performance. Afterwards, Erle stood nearby when Al asked the colonel in charge to authorise some petrol coupons. Al asked to be introduced. “I just wanted to see if you were as pretty close up as you were from the stage,” he casually explained. “How would you like to be in movies?” Erle gave no definite answer and Al and Harry drove on to Texas. Newspapers later reported that Erle had asked Jolson for his autograph - perhaps she did.
Hospital surgeon: “Eastman Annexe in Hot Springs is a little off the beaten track. The boys haven’t had a show in a long, long time. If you could find the time to run down there . . .”


Al was smitten. Unable to get Erle out of his mind, he wrote to her, telling her that he was a film producer and invited her to come out to Hollywood for a screen test.
Soon after arriving back in Hollywood, Al received a visit from an elderly gentleman who introduced himself as a lawyer friend of the Galbraith family. “About this offer you’ve made to Erle. The Galbraiths are one of the oldest families in Arkansas. Naturally, a girl would be attracted by the glamour of the movies, but the family doesn’t like it at all. I’ve come here to explain these things to you, sir, because it would be most unfortunate if everything wasn’t exactly as it is represented.” Al assured him that indeed he was a film producer and that Erle would be properly placed under a contract.
Harry Akst: “Al, you’re out of your mind. You can make a damn fool of yourself if you want to, but I won’t help you do it.”

“She has a voice like an angel and is going to be the new Rita Hayworth,” Jolson told everybody and when her train pulled into Union Station, Al found her as beautiful as he remembered. What he had forgotten was her Southern drawl - her face was made for the movies but not her voice. Jolson did some fast talking and got her placed under a six-month contract at $100 a week. An extra in A Thousand and One Nights was the summation of her screen career but it never bothered Erle. She enjoyed being taken by Al to night clubs, prize fights, and of course, the races.
Erle Galbraith: “I knew I’d never be an actress. For one thing, there’s my pronounced Arkansas drawl. And I haven’t that kind of ambition. But who could resist the chance for a wonderful vacation, and it was in that spirit I accepted it.”

In October, Al and Harry began another tour of army hospitals. Winding up in Florida, they then drove up to New York, before driving west playing to a string of hospitals en route to California. By the time they reached Los Angeles, Al was complaining of feeling run down. Suddenly struck down by severe chest pains, Al was rushed into the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital. Malaria had struck again and this time with a malignant strain to it.
The Warner brothers, Harry and Jack, were gravely concerned and requested General Arnold, head of the Army Air Services, to fly two of his top physicians to Los Angeles. Because of Al’s tremendous war work the request was granted. The doctors saved his life but had to remove parts of two ribs and cut a malignant slice out of his left lung. Not allowed any visitors for a week, Jolson told his nurse: “I’ll never sing again.”
 
Al’s first visitor, Erle, was the only one who managed to get him to smile and break him out of his depression. Al felt sorry for himself, believing his career was at an end but Erle convinced him that the future did hold some promise for him.
Sydney Skolsky had already approached Harry Cohn about producing a musical based on Jolson’s life and Harry called on Jolson at the hospital. Walking straight up to him and without removing his cigar, Harry looked into his eyes and demanded: “You gonna die on me? Can you still sing?” Jolson pushed aside a medicine chest, jumped out of bed and warbled ‘April Showers’ on his one lung.
Cohn told him: “I’ll tell ya one thing Jolie - you die on me and I’ll kill ya.” Then he left, muttering: “The guy’s gonna die; the guy’s gonna die.”
Jolson returned to his oxygen tent for three more days.
Harry Cohn to Saul Chaplin: “Take Jolson to the studio and record everything he knows. I want to be insured in case the son of a bitch drops dead.”
 
Near the end of his stay in hospital, Al proposed to Erle and she accepted. Erle was twenty-one and Al was sixty. He told her: “Sure, I’m old enough to be your grandfather, but I love yer.” Al wrote to Erle’s father asking for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Her father strongly objected but Erle told Al not to worry: “I can twist dad around my finger.”
She returned home to Arkansas and was back in Hollywood within days - her father had been persuaded. Al and Erle were married on 23 March 1945 at the old mining town of Quartzite, Arizona.
Erle’s father: “You are old enough to be my daughter’s father. The idea is preposterous.”
Erle to reporters:
“I’m surprised that my relationship with Al has not been known before.”
 
Erle and AlWanting to be with him by the swimming pool during the day, Erle knitted socks for him in the evenings while he gently sang to her. It was her maternal qualities that kept Al happy and knowing how to deal with his temper - she abruptly left the room when he got angry and came back later, acting as if nothing had happened.
“Tell Erle how great I was,” Jolson would implore visitors to their home. Feeding his ego was as important as feeding his stomach, Erle realised, and encouraged him to start singing publicly again (Erle and Al pictured right). Crosby, Como and Sinatra were the singers in demand now, but Milton Berle invited Jolson to be the star guest on his weekly radio show. The new Jolson voice, four keys deeper than before, was heard again in public.
Erle: “Why don’t you sing again in the movies?”
Al:
“But, Erle, I can’t sing any more - you know that.”
Erle:
“You’re singing now, aren’t you?”
 
Sidney Skolsky, newspaper columnist and studio writer, had for years nursed the idea of adapting the story of Al Jolson to the screen. Metro, Warners, Twentieth Century Fox and United Artists all ridiculed the idea: “You’re daffy, Sidney. Today he doesn’t mean a thing. Save your breath and we’ll save our dollars.”
Harry Cohn didn’t laugh. “Sounds interesting,” he had said. “I’ll take it up with New York. Get back to you soon.”
Four months later Skolsky’s phone rang. It was the unmistakable gruff tone of Harry Cohn: “Get your ass over here. You’re working on the Jolson picture.”
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