the Troops Overseas
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 didnt mention that rumours had swept the camp at
Anchorage that Lana Turner was coming. No she wasnt -
it was Dorothy Lamour, some one else had said. When Jolson
arrived on stage the soldiers disappointment expressed
itself in the silence. Hello boys - Im Al Jolson.
Youll 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: Dont you feel well,
yessuh, Mista Jolson. It was ony 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 fm tu-tty miles tother side of
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?
Ill do better than that, Al called
back. Ill take her out to dinner. Whats
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.
- Ill 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 names Jolson. Do you
wanna hear me sing?
- Next Town Reilly
was a one man Department of Morale Boosting. Those
guys wouldnt 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 shes 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
- 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, Id be able to do
- Jolson hadnt 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:
Weve 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
The 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 Im Sitting On Top of
the World, he usually
ended with a sentimental ballad like Sonny Boy. The shows female vocalist was
Jo Stafford and the musical director was 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 couldnt 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 didnt have to cash in on
high finishes - Crosby didnt. 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. Well try one
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.
- In 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
aint 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 theres
anything else that wasnt powdered, wed like
to know what!
- Then came a nine-hour flight across
the Atlantic to Dakar, West Africa (Al and Harry pictured right
- 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
- After the show Al was kept busy
autographing anything they gave him. One soldier had
nothing else but a $10 bill. Son, my autograph
isnt 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 havent written for so long. At
the Generals H.Q, Ike instructed Jolson to return the kiss
and lifted up the skirt of his jacket . . . Darned if Al
didnt deliver the message.
It was in World War II that Al Jolson proved himself The Worlds 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
Im doing for these boys aint nothin compared to
what theyre 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
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
Id 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
- 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
Als own health.
Harry Akst: Whats the crazy
cuckoo up to now? So sick they thought he was dying a few
weeks ago and now hes probably cooked up some crazy
scheme thatll 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 Als 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 havent 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 youve 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 doesnt like
it at all. Ive come here to explain these things to
you, sir, because it would be most unfortunate if
everything wasnt 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, youre out
of your mind. You can make a damn fool of yourself if you
want to, but I wont 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 Id never be an
actress. For one thing, theres my pronounced Arkansas
drawl. And I havent 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 Als
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:
Ill never sing again.
- Als 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
Jolsons 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: Ill tell ya
one thing Jolie - you die on me and Ill kill
ya. Then he left, muttering: The guys
gonna die; the guys gonna die.
- Jolson returned to his oxygen tent for
three more days.
Harry Cohn to
Take Jolson to the studio and record everything he
knows. I want to be insured in case the son of a bitch
- 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, Im old
enough to be your grandfather, but I love yer. Al
wrote to Erles father asking for his
daughters 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.
are old enough to be my daughters father. The idea
Erle to reporters: Im surprised that my
relationship with Al has not been known before.
- Wanting 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 dont you
sing again in the movies?
Erle, I cant sing any more - you know that.
singing now, arent 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: Youre daffy, Sidney.
Today he doesnt mean a thing. Save your breath and
well save our dollars.
- Harry Cohn didnt laugh.
Sounds interesting, he had said.
Ill take it up with New York. Get back to you
- Four months later Skolskys phone
rang. It was the unmistakable gruff tone of Harry Cohn:
Get your ass over here. Youre working on the