CABARET LIFE NYC: On the Eve of the 18th Annual Long Island Al Jolson Festival - The Confessions of a Jolson Fanatic
The other day, like clockwork, I received my yearly invitation to attend the Long Island Al Jolson Festival, which is hosted by Oceanside, LI resident Jan Hernstat (see more info at end of story.) For the past 10 years, Jan has been the President of the 64-year-old International Al Jolson Society (which was formed in early 1950, a few months before Jolson died), an organization with a worldwide membership hovering around 1,000. I am proud to say that for 30 years, I've been one of them. I'm even prouder to say that I've been an Al Jolson fanatic for much longer.
While the Society stages three-day Al Jolson "Festivals" in May each year, and holds them everywhere from Wisconsin to Liverpool, England (you see, Jolson's immigrant ship from Russia docked there on its way to America), the 18th Long Island extravaganza coming up on August 16 is a whole-day affair featuring film presentations, lectures, memorabilia displays and sales, and a performance--"The Heart of Al Jolson"--by singer and Staten Island native Tony Babino, who can sing Jolson songs like, well, you ain't heard nothin' yet. (See video below.) I don't go to the three-day celebrations or the Long Island fests every year, but periodically I desperately need to get a Jolson fix through more than CDs and movies. So I make the pilgrimage to Oceanside, NY to commune with my fellow fanatics.
My favorite Long Island Jolson Festival is still the first one ever in 1994. At that point, I was still trying to figure out how someone like me, born five years after Al Jolson died, could become such a huge Jolson fan. During that first Long Island festival, Hernstat staged a Jolson sing-alike contest. Since I'm almost as much of a ham as Jolson was, naturally I entered and told the audience that I had discovered Jolson much the same way many of them had--through the 1947 film The Jolson Story. During one particular week when I was a child, I think in 1965, I was bedridden for a week with a bronchial virus. Always a fan of movie biographies, even at that age, I noticed The Jolson Story was that week's Million Dollar Movie on New York's Channel 9. In those days, MDM ran the same flick for a week, once a day and twice on Sunday. I caught the first showing on a Monday and fell under the spell of Jolie's voice, the vintage American pop music, the charming Hollywood-ized biographical script, and, of course, Larry Parks, who was a revelation playing Jolson. I may have missed elementary school that week, but I earned an advanced degree in Jolsonology.
My affinity at an early age for such an obsolete entertainer made my friends treat me like I was some scholarly musical nerd, and my family members found it a weird eccentricity for a pre-teen. (Although my mother was quite pleased to hear me walking around the house singing "If I Only Had a Match" instead of "Light My Fire.") Had I been as passionate about Bach or Bernstein as I was about Jolson, I'm sure it wouldn't have been given a second thought. But Jolson? He was as dismissible as obscure trivia or corny nostalgia. When years later I would argue to college age friends that Al Jolson was the high priest of an American pop-singer pantheon that included Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Elvis, and Streisand (all of whom, by the way, loved Jolson) they'd tell me that Jolie was politically incorrect; an early 20th-century caricature and a freakish vaudevillian who demeaned African-Americans by performing in blackface as a minstrel, and who sang those silly, sappy songs like "Mammy," and "Rockabye Your Baby," in an overtly affected, annoyingly nasal, period style.
At the '94 Long Island Jolson festival, the audience wasn't much in the mood for supplying instant analysis for my particular pathology, so I sang "Rosie, You Are My Posie," and sat down. Then an eerie thing happened. A woman at the next table leaned over and asked my age. When I told her that I was in my late 30s, she said, "You wanna know something? I'm in my late 30s, too. And in 1965 I was sick at home in New Jersey for a week and I constantly watched The Jolson Story and became a huge fan."
Eureka! This was the kindred spirit who would help me answer my eternal question. I couldn't get the words out fast enough. "So tell me," I said. "Why did you fall in love with Jolson?" Pause. "I can't put my finger on it," she replied. "I just did." The search has continued to this day.
Certainly, I understand why I loved The Jolson Story. It was a film that was, as Jolie would croon, "captivatin'" to an impressionable 10-year-old (and for the thousands of others, like Jan Hernstat, who cite the movie as the start of their love affair with Jolson). Though the contrived love story (between Parks as Jolson and Evelyn Keyes as Ruby Keeler) is a bit cheesy, the account of Jolie's childhood, career development, and meteoric rise to stardom--a clever mixture of fact and fiction--is charming and absorbing. And as a Jew, I strongly identified with the endearing family scenes at the Yoelson's (Al's actual last name) dining room table (including adorable takes when Parks as Jolson eats too much horseradish with his homemade gefilte fish). But two aspects of the film stood out as providing the strongest pull. One was Morris Stoloff's ingenious adaptation of turn-of-the-century and Roaring '20s Tin Pan Alley tunes to mid-'40s arrangements, which made the songs much more accessible to a new generation. The other aspect--even more crucial--was Jolson's voice. He was 60 when he recorded the film soundtrack and his voice had transformed from tenor to baritone, making his sound much more palatable for audiences used to crooners like Crosby and Sinatra (or, in my case, a kid used to hearing Elvis and the Beatles). I'm sure that watching Jolie electrify an audience during his Broadway heyday was a transcendent experience, but listening to those old recordings from the 19-teens and '20s was always more educational than pleasurable.
I've always been attracted to entertainers that leave every ounce of their being on a stage; who give out more to an audience than that audience could ever give them back. So I really succumbed to Larry Parks' excellent (and still underrated) portrayal of Jolson as the obsessive entertainer, one who as even Parks himself said "sang every song as if he was going to drop dead at the end of it-at full volume all the way. It's very difficult to collapse in mid-song while the voice is at full throat." The real triumph of the Jolson biopics (the 1949 sequel, Jolson Sings Again is almost as good) is that while the films couldn't possibly capture Jolson's stage dynamism, they were still able to create new generations of Jolson fans who believed they were watching the real Jolie.
I watched Larry Parks' almost perfect performance many times and was astounded that he could take so many close-ups and still look like he was actually singing those iconic Jolson songs (See video below). Then I devoured old Jolson's movies and read bios and became totally enthralled with this individual who made entertaining his obsession; who gave every performance as if it were going to be his last. Jolson's dark side included possessing a raging ego, but that came with the deal. His massive ego plus that extraordinary talent made him a magnificently obsessed entertainer--in his time "The World's Greatest." And those of us fans who have been insightful enough to appreciate Jolie's ample gifts have reaped the benefits. Jolson was perpetually the kid who, at the urging of stage parents, leaps up to do a song and dance for the relatives. With his commanding stage presence and touch of George Burns/Jack Benny Jewish humor, every song became a mini-performance. He'd clasp those white-gloved minstrel hands together and stretch them out toward the audience as if sending out kinetic energy, while imploring them to love him back.
I was fascinated by the way Jolson would talk part of a song ("Look, look, they're not clouds, no, no; they're crowds, of daffodils"). You could make a case that Jolson was actually the first rapper. I loved the way Jolson would adorn his innate rabbinical wail--heavy heart, cry in the voice--with operatic flourishes, those rolled R's ("Though ape-par-rrril show-ers"), vibrato and tremolo, and the jazz rhythms he discovered in New Orleans. (See video below.) Jolson was never really a "jazz singer," he was more like the first crossover artist, exposing white audiences to ragtime riffs through the mainstream Broadway show tunes of the era.
Like the Black blues and pop singing that has its roots in church gospel, Jolson's style was clearly born of the synagogue. But instead of reflecting the angst of the persecuted Russian Jew, Jolson resonated with the pure, unabashed joy of being a first-generation American during a period when other immigrants, most notably fellow Jews and Blacks, were changing the face of American popular entertainment.
So 20 years after he'd become a has-been to teenagers of the 40s, and 15 years after his death, the Al Jolson legend had seduced me. While friends were discovering the Beatles and humming songs like "That Boy," I was singing "Sonny Boy," and damn near everything else in the Jolson repertoire. I was hooked for life.
My devotion to Jolson only became stronger as I reached adulthood. In fact, in the late '70s I decided to display my affection for Al in public and almost didn't live to tell about it. On this particular Halloween night I was "strollin' with my girlie," on the way to a Manhattan party dressed as Jolson the minstrel--burnt cork, tight afro wig, white gloves, the whole bit--and was chased for blocks by some Black youths who seemed a tad offended.
As a magazine journalist, I was fortunate enough to write about Jolson for The Village Voice and the now-defunct Memories magazine. The Voice piece was published in 1985, a few days before a big 100th Jolson birthday celebration at New York's Roosevelt Hotel, which was a bash befitting anything associated with Jolson--it lasted for three days or as long as it seemed Jolie would sing with stopping. The Roosevelt became Jolsontown, where, with a feeling bordering on religious fervor, over 500 fellow fanatics overdosed on Jolie's films, songs, memorabilia, family, friends, and, naturally, impersonators. The attendees weren't like a Rocky Horror Picture Show type cult. We did not shout out dialogue during screenings of The Jolson Story (except, of course, singing along during the musical numbers). The Jolson Birthday celebration wasn't a convention a la Star Trek. People didn't show up dressed as minstrels (except, of course, for a few Jolson impersonators). There were Jolson fans from as far away as South Africa, but for those three days we were all Jole brothers. I'll never forget it.
But the highlight of the 100th birthday party for me (besides the surreal experience of being in a conversation with Joe Franklin and The Amazing Kreskin) was seeing Rodgers and Hart's Hallelujah, I'm A Bum, for the first time. I found the 1933 film to be a revelation, not only because of its controversial content (socialism vs. capitalism during the Great Depression) and Jolson's wonderful renditions of the title song and "You Are Too Beautiful," but because of Jolie's extremely underrated acting. It was by far his best performance on film. (See video below.)
It's a shame a good director never tried to cultivate Jolson acting skills (although Jolson probably didn't take well to direction). With his natural gift for comedic timing, Jolie could have been a terrific character actor during the latter part of his career. On television, for which Jolson actually did an experimental screen test in the late '40s, Jolie could have been a Jewish Redd Foxx. But, again, Jolson had too big an ego to spend much time working on his game. Nobody knew that better than Irving Caesar, the man who wrote the lyrics to George Gershwin's "Swanee."
I met Mr. Caesar in the summer of 1990 when I was researching a story for Memories magazine, which had commissioned an article commemorating the 40th anniversary of Jolson's death. But when I walked into the then-95-year-old Caesar's apartment in Manhattan's Omni Park Central Hotel, I thought he was dead (he actually lived to be 101). He was sprawled out on his living room sofa, eyes closed, head resting on a pillow. When Caesar's personal secretary alerted him to my presence, he struggled to open his eyes, but otherwise didn't move a muscle. I would later discover that Mr. Caesar was recovering from a birthday party held for him the evening before at the Friar's Club.
I laid my miniature tape recorder on the pillow next to his mouth and started the interview, easily the weirdest of my career. I didn't want to insult the legendary lyricist by badgering him with questions about Jolson, so to kill two interviewing birds with one stone, I asked him to tell me the real scoop about "Swanee." There had been many versions of the story floating around about how Jolson got the song and made it a hit and ultimately the biggest-selling song of Gershwin's career. In his 1988 book Jolson: The Legend Comes to Life, author Herbert Goldman had written that a then 20-year-old Gershwin played the song for Jolson at a Biltmore Hotel Party in New York and a few weeks later it was added to Jolson's hit Broadway show Sinbad. Irving Ceasar told a slightly different tale."Gershwin and I wrote 'Swanee' in 1919 in about 10 minutes," Caesar said slowly in a voice that was no louder than a whisper. He seemed to strain for every single word, but he'd probably told this story so many times before, he could do it in his sleep. "I write very fast; lousy, but fast. That Gershwin story is part of the chronology of how 'Swanee' got into Sinbad, but there's more to it where I'm concerned. I had met Jolson after we wrote the song--I was in my 20s then and he took a liking to me. He was going to San Francisco to perform in a special show and he wanted me to keep him company. So I went out to Frisco and one night he took me to a brothel he used to visit called 'Bessy Bloodgoods.' When we got there we each had a few drinks and he asked me about 'Swanee.' He'd already heard the song in a revue and liked it. He asked me how Gershwin and I were going to publish it. He suggested the song be published as written by Jolson, Gershwin, and Caesar. I said, 'Al, c'mon, you don't need that recognition. I need it. This will do me a lot of good in my career.' Anyway, the next day I got a letter from a music publisher in California telling me Jolson was going to record the song and didn't want my name on it. And Jolson wanted me to go back to New York. Somehow I managed to keep my writing credit on the song."
"Were you able to remain friends after that episode?" I asked.
"Friends? Well, more or less," Caesar replied. "Jolson never had a real friend. There was always somebody Al was using or somebody trying to use him."
I asked Caesar if he agreed with Herbert Goldman's theory that Jolson's abrasive personality stemmed from his losing his mother when he was young. "That had nothing to do with it," Caesar replied, now becoming a bit more animated. "I never heard him talk about his parents. I didn't even know he had a mother or father. I don't believe that stuff about him constantly needing attention. Jolson was born to be Jolson. When Al Jolson said, 'You ain't heard nothin' yet,' that wasn't an act. That was really him. But he was great, there's no doubt Jolson was great. Who made him great? Who knows? It was probably the boss upstairs. Jolson wasn't a great soul, which was strange because he sang as if he had the greatest soul in the world. But his name is still magic and it deserves to be. There was no one like Al Jolson."
I wanted to talk about other Caesar songs that Jolson sang, but I drew a blank. "What was your next big Jolson hit after 'Swanee?'?" I asked sheepishly.
"You know," he said. "I really can't remember. It's so long ago." He was now sitting up and sipping a glass of water. "Hey, let me read you this telegram George Burns sent for my birthday party yesterday."
As Caesar read his fellow 90-plus-year-old friend's birthday greeting, I grabbed Goldman's bio and flipped frantically through the Jolson discography. "Here, it is!" I yelled. "You wrote, 'Is It True What They Say About Dixie?'" (See video below.)
As if on cue, a man who was more than old enough to be my great-grandfather started humming one of his most famous lyrics. Naturally, I joined him in my best Jolson voice. By the end of the song, 95-year-old Irving Caesar was almost bouncing on his couch as we belted out a duet with a big finish. "If it's true that's where I be-longggg."
The Long Island Al Jolson Festival will be held on August 16 (9 am-4 pm) at the Oceanside Knights of Columbus, 2985 Kenneth Place, Oceanside, NY 11572. Tickets are $42.95, including meals and entertainment, featuring singer Tony Babino. Other special guests include: Musician/singer Brian Gari (the grandson of Eddie Cantor), Bob Greenberg and Joe Bevilacqua playing Abbott and Costello, presentations from Ed Greenbaum and Professor Joe Ciolino, and an appearance by very special guest, Joe Franklin. If you just want to attend the show (no food), tickets are $23.00. Call 516-678-3524 for more information on ordering tickets.