Al Jolson



  • (Asa Yoelson; 1886 - 1950) US star of blackface revue andmusical comedy who appeared in Hollywood's first talkie. Born in Russia,the son of a rabbi, he grew up in Washington, DC, and first appearedon stage at the age of 12. He first wore blackface in 1904 for anact with his brother Hirsh. Five years later he joined Lew Dockstader'sminstrel troupe and quickly became a leading star. He began to singhis famous 'mammy songs' when the company played in San Francisco.Wearing blackface and white gloves Jolson delivered the sentimentaltunes with sweeping gestures, often falling down on one knee. Hishit songs included 'Mammy', 'Rockabye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody','Swanee', 'April Showers', and 'California, Here I Come'.

    However camp and schmaltzy old films of him may now seem,Jolson had an undeniable power over the emotions of his audiences,often reducing them to tears. His famous catchphrase was "Waita minute! You ain't heard nothin' yet!". His energy was boundless:he would sometimes dismiss the entire cast of a show during a performanceand continue alone on stage for hours.

    In the 20 years between 1911 and 1931, Jolson appeared inmany lavish productions, including several at the Winter Garden Theatre.His most successful shows included La Belle Paree (1911), HoneymoonExpress (1913), Robinson Crusoe Jr. (1916), Bombo(1921), which opened the Jolson Theatre on 7th Avenue in New York,and Wonder Bar (1931), his first appearance without blackfacein 27 years.

    In 1927 Jolson starred in the cinema's first talkie, WarnerBrothers' The Jazz Singer. Ironically, this and subsequentscreen performances helped to speed the demise of his beloved vaudeville.The story of his own life was filmed in 1946 as The Jolson Story.

    Jolson could not endure criticism of or apathy towards his act.Although he was offered enormous sums to perform in Britain, he wasfrightened by the idea of a strange foreign audience to which he mightnot be able to relate. "If there's just one guy who ain't enjoyingthe show, I'll know it," he explained, "and that'll killme".