(All the photos on this page are
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Al Jolson as he appeared on the program cover for the
Broadway musical Hold On to Your Hats (1940). By then, he had come a long
way from his childhood in Tsarist Russia.
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
Asa Yoelson would
never be the same again. He grew up in that moment probably as much
as he would ever grow up. Al Jolson, for all his tough, earthy
exterior, would remain an emotional child for the rest of his life
a self assured braggart who was terrified of being alone, a
sentimentalist with a heart of gold who made life miserable for those
around him, and a lothario who chased, conquered, and in turn ignored
young women. In short, a man-boy, full of seeming contradictions and
haunted by the specter of his mother's death.
- Herbert G. Goldman Jolson: The Legend Comes to Life
(New York, Oxford Univ. Press, 1988), p. 9.
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.
In 1904, while playing an engagement at Keeney's Theatre in Brooklyn, Al started
performing in blackface, supposedly at the suggestion of veteran blackface comedian James
Francis Dooley. Working behind a burnt cork mask gave Al a sense of freedom
and spontaneity he had never known before. The act became a
surefire laugh-getter, and was soon booked on vaudeville's Orpheum
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.
Jewish entertainers also put on blackface for another reason.
According to Ronald Sanders, both groups felt a deep woe, had suffered
at the hands of oppressors, and lived close to their pain. Many of the
new songs hailed the brighter day and the aggressiveness necessary to
live in the new land, but the singers invested blackface with a
plaintive note, which kept them in touch with their past though with the
pain once removed, hidden behind a black face.
- Lewis A. Erenberg, Steppin' Out: New York Nightlife and the
Transformation of American Culture 1890-1930 (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1991), p. 195.
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
California native Henrietta Keller was an eighteen year old dancer with shapely
legs and a shy smile. Twenty year old Al became infatuated, relentlessly
courting Henrietta and her family. After nearly a year of refusals, Henrietta
accepted Al's umpteenth proposal. They were married in September 1907. Henrietta
would soon learn that she had tied the knot with one of the most maddening,
self-centered men on earth.
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.
The Shubert Brothers were opening
their handsome new Winter Garden Theatre with a lavish production,
La Belle Paree (1911 - 104). This musical
about a wealthy widow gallivanting around Paris was just an excuse for a
succession of variety acts. With a curtain-raising one act comic opera
tacked on, the over packed show opened on March 20th,
1911, and ran over four hours. Jolson suffered from crippling nerves on
opening nights a habit that only deepened over time. He won only a
moderate response from the exhausted first night audience, but that changed as
the Shuberts rearranged the show in the days that followed. Between the
better placement of Al's solos and his personal determination to succeed,
he was suddenly stealing the show.
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
On to: Jolson Bio - Part II