The King of Broadway
Pearl Sieben: This was 1911 and vaudeville
was enjoying its golden era . . . Caruso signed a new contract
with the Met. for $660,000 . . . In Monterey, California, they
were showing Moving Pictures and Illustrated Songs .
In New York 5,000 members of the Boys Knee Breeches Makers Union went on strike and the Salvation Army conducted a two-month siege to seek the lost and win drunkards, harlots, moralists and all kinds of sinners.
Living in a hotel suite in the heart
of New York, Henrietta was finding it ever harder to compete with
Als audiences. She wanted a husband not a show business
star and would turn down invitations to parties thrown for him to
celebrate his success. At the end of his touring engagements the
couple left for California to see her parents whom she
hadnt seen for two years. Henrietta had never met Als
father and stepmother.
Pearl Sieben: Like a penniless urchin standing before a candy counter, Jolson wanted what he couldnt have, and once he tasted it, he wasnt interested.
After covering the Jack Johnson-James J. Jeffries World Heavyweight boxing match in Reno, Nevada, as a reporter for Variety, Al opened a tour of the Orpheum Circuit in Seattle. Meanwhile Art Klein opened negotiations with the Shubert brothers who were building a new theatre on the site of the old Horse Exchange on Broadway called the Winter Garden and Jerome Kern was asked to produce a complete score for the theatres first production - La Belle Paree. It was agreed that Jolson would appear in the show at a lower salary than he was getting in vaudeville - Klein had convinced him that it was time for him to be in a Broadway show.
Art Klein: I went out and bought Al a fur coat. I think the fur was otter. He was living at the Grant Hotel, Chicago, and he just clowned around there, showing the coat off to all performers.
Shubert brothers: Jolsons from vaudeville, Art. Were legit. This is going to be the classiest musical theatre on Broadway.
La Belle Paree
New York Times: Among the best
features were those provided by the two unctious ragtime
comedians, Miss Stella Mayhew and Mr. Al Jolson, both of
whom had good songs and the acting ability to deliver
every bit of good in them . . .
On the night of the opening
of the new Winter
Garden, 20 March, 1911,
the traffic along Broadway was jammed. With thirty principals in
the cast of La Belle
Paree - Jolson was
about tenth in importance in the billing - it was chaos
backstage. There were too many acts with little direction. Out
front, the audience seemed more interested in an auditorium that
was latticed and carpeted with roomy, comfortable chairs, a blue
Dutch cafe, a wine room, and a flowered ceiling
centrepiece to give a garden effect. It was almost midnight by
the time Jolson came on for his speciality act. He got through
his monologue and sang That Lovin Traumerei to only moderate applause.
Jolson had laid
Disconsolate, Jolson got drunk and walked to 96th Street
instead of 54th Street, where I was living, before I realised
what I was doing.
Broadway wag: The Winter Garden is on the site of the old horse exchange. Judging by the smell of last nights show, things havent changed much.
Two morning papers, the New York Times and New York Herald, favourably singled out Jolsons comic turn
with Stella Mayhew, and the second night of La Belle Paree was the start of a Broadway legend.
Jolson demanded an earlier spot in the show and broke through to
the audience of the Winter
Garden with a loud
shrill whistle. Now they laughed, applauded, rose and cheered.
Jolson had arrived.
The Morning Telegraph: Al
Jolson sang, talked, and whistled the audience into a frenzy of
approval. He began with Piano Man . . . talked about
the girls he had loved and the way he had loved them. When the
girls had nearly laughed themselves into hysterics, Al struck a
sort of Romeo pose and pleaded soulfully: Girls, look me in
the face . . . He announced his intention of singing a new song.
It was about Missouri Joe, a fellow you had to know.
The audience boisterously brought Al back for an encore . .
La Belle Paree was a sell-out and Jolson became
known as the Winter
Garden Comedian -
a favourite with the audiences. Folks came from Park Avenue,
Brooklyn, The Bronx, and some even by train from Chicago to catch
this new marvel in blackface. There was no slipping out to the
Wine Room, or to the concessionary stand for a 75 cent
Winter Garden Ice Cream when Al was on stage. And
what they saw was an ever-changing routine. Not wanting to be
like anybody else, Jolson was going to sing his own songs in
whatever way he felt like singing them - despite what the
composer Jerome Kern hoped. Jolson revelled in it, even though
the musicians were often completely thrown. It certainly sold
Al Jolson: Ive never given the same performance twice for three reasons - Im always trying something new; Im a believer in spontaneous humour and Id go insane if I had to do the same thing every night.
Al loved his
success but even more he wanted his peers, especially those who
had thumbed their noses at him a few years earlier, to
acknowledge his success. Though theatrical performances were
illegal on Sundays, producers got round the law by calling them
sacred concerts where actors played in
evening clothes without make-up. A religious hymn sometimes
closed the show. Jolson inaugurated the very first Winter Garden Sunday Night Concert on 26 March 1911. Appearing in
whiteface, he sang and ad-libbed in front of an audience composed
of actors and managers on their night off. Winning them over
completely, he proved that he could dominate a theatre without
the aid of any props. He was the entertainers entertainer.
Variety: The Shuberts may run the Winter Garden, but Al Jolson owns it. That dandy performer does as well with the audience, whether Sunday or on weekdays. He had to sing three songs with his ad lib stuff thrown in for good measure then close with the melodrama.
Winter Garden Sunday Night Program
With his growing success, Henrietta received less and less attention from her husband, who preferred going to the racetracks, and she returned home to her parents in Oakland. When La Belle Paree closed for the traditional summer break, Al joined her in Oakland but played engagements in San Francisco and Los Angeles where he was described as extremely funny. Henrietta didnt think it so funny when Al returned to New York without her, more concerned with his career.
Why not take the show
on the road? Al said to the Shubert brothers.
Well take the same scenery and cast and use all the
same songs. It wont cost very much. La Belle Paree went out on tour - the first time a
Broadway show had gone on the road and the first chance people
had to see a Broadway show in their own backyard.
The Shuberts brothers signed Harry Jolson for The Revue of Revues at the Winter Garden. The star of the show, Mlle. Gaby Deslys, was the sensation of the Paris music halls after being romantically linked with King Manuel II of Portugal. It was an artful attempt by the Shuberts to keep Al in line by using Harry as competition to his brother - the show closed within weeks.
In November 1911, Vera Violetta opened at the Winter Garden featuring Mlle. Gaby Deslys and set at a skating rink. Playing a coloured waiter, Jolson took second billing in a cast that included Jose Collins, the darling of Londons Gaiety theatre, singing her famous cockney number Tar-Rar-Rar-Boomdiay. Also in the cast for a short time playing Mlle. Angelique was a buxom eighteen-year-old named Mae West. On opening night, Al danced, marched and hopped up and down the Winter Gardens aisles, singing and whistling as he went from the front of the stage to the back of the theatre. He stole the show. Though Gaby Deslys name was above Jolsons on the credits, it was Jolson the audience came to see, not the Parisienne star. This greeting was placed in the New Year issue of Variety: Everybody likes me, those who dont are jealous! Anyhow, heres wishing those that do, and those that dont, a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year - Al Jolson.
The New York Times: There was Al Jolson in the role of a coloured waiter who succeeded in rousing the audience into its first enthusiasm in the early part of the evening and kept them enthusiastic much of the time afterwards.
Stella Mayhew and Al Jolson made the two hits of
the night. Gaby Deslys went big also with Al Jolson
singing with her in a song, I Want Something
New . Jolson just kidded while he sang.
During Christmas week, Jolson cut his first record with the Victor Talking Machine Company - Rum-Tum-Tiddle and That Haunting Melody. To ensure he sang without moving away from the big acoustic horn, they had to sit him in a chair with his coat buttoned back-to-front like a straitjacket. The record helped Vera Violetta run for 136 continuous performances.
The Whirl of Society opened in March 1912 with Al
playing a black-faced character named Gus who lived
by his wits - an underdog, Gus enjoyed a private joke
with the audience - the perfect character for Jolson. The
newly-crowned King of Broadway now found that the aisles
werent big enough to contain him. Why not perform on
a runway right through the middle of the theatre, like the
burlesque houses? Al suggested to the Shuberts. That
way I could get close to the audience while still remaining on
Are you crazy? The runway will take up valuable seats, they argued but had to agree when Al told them that the show would run that much longer. You aint heard nothin yet, Al called from the runway and the audience roared. More songs usually followed, including Ragtime Sextette written by Irving Berlin the new Ragtime King, and then more patter - none of it related to what was in the script. Song pluggers, publishers and writers pestered Jolson to introduce their songs and Al solved the problem by devoting two mornings a week to hearing new songs. In this way Waiting for the Robert E. Lee and Row, Row, Row found their way into The Whirl of Society. The Winter Garden became synonymous with Jolson.
Sime Silverman: Jolson probably takes more chances at the Garden than any one else dare do. Sunday night, dressed in a tuxedo, he removed his collar and tie after the first few minutes, remaining neckless thereafter. Al Jolson said: This is just like playing pinochle.
The Whirl of Society
Louis A. Hirsch
In Row, Row, Row, Jolson would bounce
up on the runway, propel himself by imaginary oars, draw
imaginary slivers from the seat of his trousers, and
infuse into the song something wild and roaring and
When The Whirl of Society closed for the summer, Al was leisurely driven by his new chauffeur in his new Packard touring car to Oakland where Henrietta was waiting. Al was trying to save their failing marriage - when he had the time. Bronzed and healthy by September, Al began a tour with The Whirl of Society in Chicago. Early in his career, hard as it is to believe, Jolson suffered from interview fright. Fidgety and nervous, he told his first interviewer: I dont remember one line about mah past. He soon got over it and his tongue wagged faster than any other tongue in show business.
When The Whirl of Society reached Washington, Al called home.
Congratulations, I hear you are a big manager, Moses said to Al.
Pop, Im not the manager, Im the star. The manager gets $75 a week, I get $500.
But you are not the manager . . . its very disappointing.
Hoping to be a grandfather, Moses did ask if Henrietta was pregnant, though he would not agree to meet her. God be with you, Asa, Moses would always say when Al departed.
In Honeymoon Express, Gaby Deslys was still the female lead but Al Jolson as Gus the butler was the star of the show and so his name was billed above hers. Fanny Brice, the original Funny Girl, played a domestic. First night nerves were always a problem for Jolson. Sometimes his stomach would be so knotted that he was physically sick though once on stage he could play the mood of the audience. On opening night with the show already running late and only two-thirds of the way through, he called out to the audience: Do you want to hear the rest of the story - or do you want hear me? They shouted that they wanted to hear him. Al had already made a hit with the song, My Yellow Jacket Girl, so he let rip, singing the songs from his previous shows.
The Honeymoon Express
New York Evening Sun: Al
Jolson is the real star. There wasnt half enough
for him to do . . . but just at the end, he had a Spanish
song, The Spaniard That Blighted My Life,
which aroused shrieks of laughter. The audience simply
would not let go; even Gaby herself had to take a back
seat - which she did with charming grace, by the way -
while the audience made Mr. Jolson sing song after song .
. . and every bit of it was deserved.
When the show went on tour, Jolson sang You Made Me Love You which he had just recorded
for Columbia Records. During the song he went down on one knee
and cried: Gimme, gimme, what I cry for. It created a
sensation. They wouldnt let him sing anything else and he
gave them one chorus after another. Jolson once dismissed the
cast altogether while Gaby Deslys was still on stage. She stormed
off to the sound of her crashing high heels.
Al sang all the new numbers from Honeymoon Express at the Winter Garden Sunday Concerts and one of them, The Spaniard That Blighted My Life, written by Billy Merson, an English music hall star, was a bigger hit than in the show. Singing it in a succession of dialects, Jolson aroused shrieks of laughter. It didnt matter what he sang to the audience, they just wanted him to go on singing.
After severing his contract with Art Klein, Jolson signed his first big money contract with the Shubert brothers for five years. Guaranteed $1,000 a week for 35 weeks a year, he also had 10% of the profits on the shows.
Now a familiar figure at
the racetrack, Jolson gambled on races almost every day. He also
became obsessed with medicine. As a small child he had once told
his mother he wanted to be a doctor. I like to see the
smiles of the people when the village doctor made them
well, he told her. Dogged by sore throats himself
throughout his life, he patronised a small army of doctors, even
though he usually told them that they didnt know what they
were talking about. A small satchel full of bottles of pills,
liquids and assorted home medicines were a permanent part of his
baggage and he was always first to obtain any new miracle
drug that came on the market. He always opened Time
magazine at the medicine page. To him a perpetual suntan denoted
good health and he sat out for hours on the white sand of Miami
Beach soaking up the sun.
Harry Akst, pianist and friend: Al knew enough about medicine to get himself into trouble, but not enough to get himself out.
When Honeymoon Express closed for the summer, Al travelled by car to Oakland. Henrietta went by train. Despite a failing marriage, Henrietta was a very patient woman who saw it as a duty to be a good wife. It would take years of neglect and humiliation to make her change her mind. Al was often indifferent to her and when he did come home after being out with the boys, barely a word passed between them. He was like a child demanding care and attention - when it suited him. Frequently he would totally remorseful, apologise to her and promise to reform his bad behaviour, and was no doubt truly sorry at the time, but it didnt prevent him repeating his cruel actions. He appeared to give more money to bellhops than he gave to Henrietta. The entertainer was married to the sound of people queuing up at the box office and an audience shouting for more.
While in San Francisco,
Jolson was so impressed by two youngsters in an act called Kid Kabaret at the local Orpheum Theatre
that he took the pair of them, Eddie Cantor and George Jessel, to
a kosher dinner.
Eddie Cantor: It was the craziest dinner you ever heard. George and I, the two big mouths, couldnt think of a thing to say. Jolson did a monologue.
Henrietta did accompany Al
when Honeymoon Express went on tour. At their first stop, Apollo Theatre, Atlantic City, Al met up with his
old partner, Fred E. Moore, who was the house manager. At the
Belasco Theatre, Washington, Al invited his father Moses,
stepmother Hessi, and their four children to the performance.
They all sat in the balcony - Rabbi Yoelson had refused the offer
of orchestra seats. After the show Al sent an usher to bring them
Moses refused: Tell Asa that a father does not go to a son.
Al was shaken and hurried to see his father.
How was I? Al asked, looking for approval.
You must have been good, his father told him, Every time you werent on stage, the people read their programmes.
Al had tears in his eyes.
In Toronto, the dancing team of Doyle and Dixon came off stage to prolonged applause holding up Jolsons entrance. Dont let that happen again, he told them. Jolson didnt like competition. In Kansas City, he was encored so extravagantly, and was so generous in his responses that he was almost exhausted when he exclaimed toward the end of the show: Havent you folks got any homes to go to?
After only doing moderately
well in England, Harry Jolson returned to play Brooklyn billed as
brother - Harry.
He didnt like the billing but with a wife to support he had
to accept it. It was that or no billing at all.
Harry Jolson: There were two Jolson brothers appearing on stage and Al was both of them.
After Henrietta had her
appendix removed in June 1914, Al sailed with her, along with a
few friends, to England as part of a European holiday. Travelling
on to France, Venice and the Swiss Alps, they sailed back home in
New York Review: Every manager and agent in London made Jolson offers of record salaries for appearances in the music halls of London . . .
Jolson received top billing on opening night of Dancing Around in what was another Winter Garden hit. The hit songs werent necessarily those of the shows composer Sigmund Romberg. Jolson sang Its A Long Way To Tipperary imported from England and the war in France, and an English tongue twister: Sister Susies Sewing Shirts for Soldiers, after which Jolson offered $10 to anyone in the audience who could sing the chorus through without a break. For the matinees, Irving Caesar provided another tongue twister - Brother Bennies Baking Buns for Belgians. Theatre folk, even in vaudeville, were expected to keep their place behind the footlights, but defying tradition, Jolson sat on the edge of the stage with his legs dangling in the pit, loosened his collar and tie, and went into a routine of songs and patter. Playing Clarence in the show was a young Clifton Webb. Still king of the Winter Garden Sunday Concerts, Jolson would close the show and hold the audience for half an hour or more after all the other acts had gone before. He always appeared to be having a good a time as the house.
Sigmund Romberg and Harry Carroll
The Strand: There was as much
art in Jolsons rendition of Venetia as
there is in Carusos singing of Canios
Dancing Around went on tour in February 1915 and reached San Francisco in June where Henrietta was staying with her parents. Jolie spent little time with Henrietta and was seen dancing at the Pacific-Panama Exposition with Kitty Doner (pictured right). Rumours were rife that Jolson shouted at Henrietta and called her names. She told friends: A wife does not enjoy being insulted by a husband who is a star any more than if he is a failure.
In October the touring show
ran into trouble. A bad spot on Jolsons lung became
inflamed and for a few days he had to check into a sanatorium.
Doctors told him he needed a long rest and a despondent Al wired
Henrietta to join him in Baltimore. Al wanted sympathy but
Henrietta was more concerned at his gambling.
If youre so sick, Henrietta asked him, why are you going to the races?
Al explained: Dr. Outdoors is the best medicine in the world.
Just as Jolson shared his joy with audiences, he now inflicted his misery, and his performance at Baltimores Academy of Music was second rate. Henrietta told him straight: Yes, youre a big star now, but you keep giving performances like that and you wont be for long. A stand-in took over for the last two performances. An angry letter to the Baltimore Sun read: Mr. Jolson proceeded to kid the audience unmercifully, saying that he sometimes sang, but wasnt going to sing tonight. Two of the scenes from the last act were cut out, and the entire performance given with an arrogant indifference that was insulting to the last degree.
A few days later in
Washington, Jolson had mysteriously recovered and treated the Belasco Theatre audience to a flat-out, rip-roaring
Jolson performance. It was while he was in Washington that Jolson
received a message on White House note paper from President
Wilson asking him to meet him for breakfast the next day.
Im Al Jolson and I want to see the President.
I am the President, said Wilson, holding out his hand. Ive heard some of your records and Ive read of your great success on Broadway, but I havent seen you perform.
Wait a minute, said Al, rolling his eyes, wait a minute - you aint heard nothin yet. He sang You Made Me Love You to Woodrow Wilson as he sat with his aides.
The half a dozen tickets
that Al sent to his father for the evenings performance at
the Belasco Theatre, Washington, werent used.
Why didnt you come? Al asked his father afterwards.
On Shabbes eve? I couldnt.
Couldnt you make an exception? I was singing for the President?
I was singing for God!
For the opening of Robinson Crusoe Jr. early in 1916, Al Jolson was not just billed as
the star but as Americas
He played Man Friday but it soon became clear that the plot would
not be allowed to interfere with his domination of everything on
stage; and the ridiculous scenario provided ample opportunities
for comedy - in one scene, hunted by cannibals, Jolson popped out
of a tree trunk to ask: Anybody got any aspirin?
Jolson would ask the audience: Well, what do you want to hear? . . . Wait a minute - you want You Made Me Love You? . . . Professor, pass the mustard . . . You Made Me Love You.
This shows a lot of bunk, Jolson told the Shuberts. Lets get a Negro chorus to sing in the background and Ill do a couple of spirituals . . . Id like that. The Shuberts agreed. Wasnt Jolson the star?
Robinson Crusoe, Jr.
Sigmund Romberg and James F. Hanley
Chicago Herald Examiner listing the cast of Robinson Crusoe Jr.: Al Jolson . . . . . . . . . . AL JOLSON
In an attempt to revive his crumbling marriage, Al promised to take Henrietta to Hawaii when the show closed for its summer break. After driving to Los Angeles to see a brilliant Eddie Cantor starring in a show called Canary Cottage, Al changed his mind. Competition had to be faced. He cancelled Hawaii, left Henrietta with her parents at Oakland and began a national tour with Robinson Crusoe. The show toured for fifteen months in mostly one-nighters, though he did manage to fit the Chicago World Series Baseball between dates. The tour appeared to be part of Als increasing great search for something up ahead at the next outpost. Newspaper adverts now began to refer to him as The Worlds Greatest Entertainer. Jolson would remark on stage: If those three-dollar seats are filled we are out of trouble already.
The Lusitania was sunk by a German U-boat and America entered the war. Jolson began to joke about being called up for service: I know two guys who aint going - me and the guy they send to get me. Nevertheless he began to devote time to American servicemen, singing to the troops leaving New York, touring training camps and hospitals, and meeting hospital ships returning from Europe. Often he would stop a show in order to appeal for Liberty Bonds.