by John Kenrick
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Asa Yoelson was born in Seredzius (a.k.a. Srednike), a Jewish village ("schtetle") in the Lithuanian region of Imperial Russia. Although he would claim Mar. 26, 1886 as his birth date, no documentation exists to verify it it may have been anytime from 1884 onwards. The openly anti-Semitic authorities were not interested in recording the arrival of another Jew. Asa was the fourth surviving child of cantor Moshe Yoelson and his wife Naomi, after daughters Rose and Etta, and their son Hirsh. The Yoelsons raised their family according to strict orthodox tradition, and Moshe expected his sons would one day become cantors too. He trained both boys to sing, propping open their mouths with matchsticks to encourage them to sing loud and clear.
Moshe Yoelson wanted to get his family away from the ongoing threat of Tsarist oppression. Soon after Moshe's studies brought him the title of rabbi in 1890, he traveled to America, promising to send for his wife and children at the earliest opportunity. The emotionally strong but physically ailing Naomi held the family together, becoming the center of young Asa's world. When Moshe became head of a Washington D.C. congregation in 1894, Naomi and the children made the long journey to join him there. Any hopes the Yoelson's had of resuming a normal family life were dashed when Naomi's died in 1895. Eight year old Asa was in the next room, his world shattered.
Asa and his brother Hirsh soon immersed themselves in American culture, learning the ragtime songs performed on the streets and in the saloons of Washington. Moshe did what he could to keep his sons in line. To restore some semblance of a happy home, he married Cheysa Yoels (a.k.a. "Hessi"), an old neighbor from Seredzius who had genuine affection for the children. But nothing could keep the Yoelson boys from embracing a new way of life. Hirsh changed his name to Harry, and Asa became Al. Both boys ran away from home several times. At one point, Al spent several weeks at St. Mary's Industrial School for orphaned boys in Baltimore.
The Yoelson brothers both became obsessed with breaking into show business. Al sang in a traveling circus (1899), then toured in burlesque and vaudeville beginning in 1901. As part of an "illustrated singing act," he performed popular favorites while a series of lantern slides were projected on a sheet. Al and Harry managed to get bookings with a crude ethnic comedy act called "The Hebrew and the Cadet." They also changed their last name to "Joelson," and then the even less ethnic "Jolson." Wheelchair-bound comic Joe Palmer recruited the Jolsons for a three-man vaudeville comedy act that showed promise, but Al's self-conscious performances were holding them back.
Blackface was not considered racially offensive in the early 1900s. White men smearing their faces black and imitating African Americans had been common on American stages since the 1830s, and was just one form of the coarse, humor that all racial and ethnic groups were subjected to at that time. We have no reason to believe Al Jolson's use of blackface was motivated by anything other than a desire to entertain. He was never known to express racist attitudes, and often went out of his way to befriend black performers who were subjected to segregation in theatres, hotels and restaurants. I am not defending blackface, a convention most people consider unthinkable today. However, I am suggesting Jolson's use of blackface is best understood in the context of his era. He was not making a statement; he was hiding behind a mask a mask that gave him an extraordinary sense of confidence while on stage.
Harry eventually withdrew from the act to go it alone. Palmer toured with Al for a time, but retired when he became convinced that he was holding Al back from stardom. In 1906, Al Jolson's solo career as a "singing comedian" began. He wore blackface with a dark suit, black shoes, white socks and gloves, and his mouth outlined in white. This drew maximum attention to his hands and mouth, the key tools for any vaudeville singer. A triumphant engagement in San Francisco made him a top star on the Western circuits. This was no small accomplishment. Smoking was still allowed in most theatres, and customers often paged through newspapers until something on stage demanded their attention. Electronic sound systems had not been invented yet, so performers had to rely on all sorts of tricks to catch an audience's attention. Jolson knew them all, and even invented a few of his own. He danced, stamped, cried real tears, improvised risqué jokes and outrageous physical gags even sashayed about with wildly effeminate gestures. Once he had an audience, Jolson wouldn't let go until they were begging for more.
First Marriage: Henrietta Keller
Jolson continued to win raves in vaudeville, but he could not resist when Lew Dockstader offered him a chance to star in America's last great minstrel troupe. He took a major cut in salary to become Dockstader's second comedian in 1908, knowing it would open the way to greater opportunity. Audiences adored Jolson's antics. When the troupe played New York, he got the kind of acclaim he had always dreamt of. He went off to play a series of solo vaudeville engagements on the Orpheum circuit, and returned to Dockstader to tour in 1909. It was at this time that Jolson started whistling on stage, using loud melodic whistle trills to punctuate songs and gags. It would remain a trademark throughout his career. He was also working closely with musician Harry Akst, who became Jolson's ever-handy accompanist, song selector and personal crony.
Al was already showing signs of the colossal ego that would mark him for the rest of his life. When Florenz Ziegfeld extended an invitation to audition for the Follies, Jolson refused. Most performers would have leapt at such an opportunity, but Jolson insisted that he did not audition for anybody. Jolson returned to touring the UBO and Orpheum circuits in 1910, and played a vaudeville engagement at Hammerstein's Victoria in New York in February 1911. He was already in rehearsals for his Broadway debut.
Jolson kept introducing new gags and new verses to his songs, and audiences kept coming back to see what he would do from week to week. A show that had begun as an all-star cavalcade gradually became Jolson's personal vehicle. By the time the summer heat forced La Belle Paree to close in June, Jolson was the hottest new star in show business.
On to: Jolson Bio - Part II