In a recent television interview Jerry Lewis was asked to comment on the latest Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton misadventures. He shook his head and said, “One, they don’t know who Al Jolson was.” Although I understand what Lewis was getting at, it’s a silly thing to say in relation to these young girls. Of course they don’t know who Al Jolson was. Al Jolson died in 1950, probably before Lohan’s and Hilton’s parents were even born. Lindsay Lohan is 24 years old and most likely doesn’t know who any celebrity was before the year 1990. Paris Hilton at 29 is a bit older, but I’m pretty certain she wouldn’t know any old time show business names much before Michael Jackson.
These girls aren’t into show biz history, they’re into themselves. Narcissism mixed with money is always a dangerous combination, add to that plain ordinary stupidity and a total lack of moral fiber and you’ve got the society/celebrity of the 21st century. It’s sad. It’s also disgusting and shameful. I’m sure you could add a few of your own favorite adjectives to that list.
In the interest of keeping our young celebrity narcissists fully educated I thought I’d take a shot of explaining just who the heck Al Jolson was. Gather around kids, you might actually learn something.
Al Jolson was known in the industry as “The World’s Greatest Entertainer,” for well over 40 years. Jolson’s career began in vaudeville but quickly his talents were recognized by the Shubert Brothers and he was signed by them to appear in the opening show of their new Winter Garden Theater on Broadway. That was in April of 1912. Jolson soon became “King of the Winter Garden,” with shows specifically written for him. Winter Garden and Jolson became synonymous. This lasted for close to 20 years. During that time Jolson received reviews that have yet to be matched.
The Jolson presence on stage is said to have been magical. Audiences loved his bigger than life singing style and his warm, happy manner. Audiences shouted, begged, and often would not allow the show to proceed unless Jolson would come back out on stage. At one performance in Boston, the usual staid and conservative audience stopped the show for 45 minutes! He was said to have had an “electric” personality, along with the ability to make each member of the audience believe that he was singing only to them.
Then in 1927 Jolson starred in the early sound movie “The Jazz Singer” and his appearance in that film caused a worldwide sensation and changed motion pictures for ever more. Al Jolson became bigger than ever and moved to Hollywood to make pictures. Unfortunately his screen persona didn’t rise to the same level of his stage presence. He just couldn’t make the successful transition from live stage entertainer to movie actor. He continued to make pictures throughout the 1930’s however and also starred in his own radio show, but by the late ‘30s his star was not shinning as brightly as it once had.
When World War II broke out Jolson was among the first entertainers to travel overseas to entertain the troops. While in Africa and Sicily he contracted malaria and pneumonia which cut short his show travels. He continued to entertain the troops stateside after he recovered.
In 1946 Colombia Pictures struck a deal with Jolson to film his life story starring Larry Parks. “The Jolson Story” became a surprise smash hit and rejuvenated Jolson’s career. The picture was the highest grossing film of the year and earned Parks an Academy Award Nomination for Best Actor. A sequel, “Jolson Sings Again,” was made in 1949 (to this day the only biography sequel in film history) and that too became a box office hit.
Jolson was at the top once again, so much so that in 1948 at the peak of the popularity of Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Perry Como, Jolson was voted “The Most Popular Male Vocalist” by a Variety poll.
In 1950 and against doctor’s orders, Jolson went to Korea to entertain his favorite audience, American troops. While there his health declined and shortly after his return to the U.S. he suffered a massive heart attack and died.
Al Jolson was undoubtedly the first American entertainer to become a true phenomenon. He was the biggest Broadway star of his time. He was the first show business superstar, setting the stage for others such as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. Elvis, by the way, always said that Jolson was his idol and he recorded “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” one of Jolson’s last recordings, in tribute. How sad to note that today there is no plaque or statue or even a sign anywhere on Broadway to honor him.