Jolson 101

Al Jolson Biography: Part IV

by John Kenrick

(Copyright 2003)

(All the photos on this page are thumbnail images – click on them to see larger versions.)

Rocky Times

Jolson in the 1930s (5643 bytes)Jolson in the 1930s, a decade filled with professional and personal challenges.

When Hollywood's interest cooled, Jolson returned to Broadway in The Wonder Bar (1931 - 86). This relatively intimate musical featured "Monsieur Al" as the owner of a Parisian nightclub, with a supporting cast that included Patsy Kelly and Arthur Treacher. But this time, Al Jolson stayed in character this time and did not interpolate any songs into the unremarkable score. With the Great Depression at its worst, seats soon went empty – a sight that always gave Jolson psychosomatic sore throats and laryngitis. As he missed performances, ticket sales plummeted. The show closed after ten weeks – Jolson's first and only Broadway flop.

Jolson starred in his first radio variety series in 1932 on the NBC network, withdrawing after 15 weeks. He starred in the United Artists experimental musical Hallelujah, I'm a Bum (1933), but the screenplay was muddled and an uninspired score by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart gave Jolson little to work with. At the same time, Ruby Keeler scored major triumphs starring in 42nd Street (1933), Gold Diggers of 1933and Footlight Parade (1933). While Al floundered in the screen version of The Wonder Bar (1934), Ruby racked up further hits with Dames (1934) and Flirtation Walk (1934). Jolson publicly expressed pleasure at his wife's success, but seeing her rise as he descended must have affected him.

Warner Brothers tried to bolster Jolson's popularity by co-starring him with Keeler in Go Into Your Dance (1935), in which he introduced the title tune and the charming "About a Quarter to Nine." But the flimsy backstage love story did neither star much good. Keeler's film career was essentially over within two years, and after the failure of The Singing Kid (1936), Jolson was relegated to featured roles. He began concentrating on network radio, both as a guest artist and on several variety series of his own.

Keeler and Jolson adopted a boy, who was legally renamed "Al Jolson Jr.," but Al always referred to him as "Sonny Boy." Despite the presence of a child, Al's mistreatment of Ruby only grew worse. He would belittle her in front of guests, or ignore her altogether. When Al could do no better than supporting roles in Rose of Washington Square (1939) and Swanee River (1939), the atmosphere at home became unbearable and Ruby walked out on him. Jolson made his usual eleventh-hour attempts at a reconciliation, but Ruby filed for divorce, charging extreme cruelty.

A repentant Jolson decided to return to Broadway, financing the production himself and begging Ruby to be in the cast. After prolonged pressure, she agreed. Al launched into his usual marital yo-yo games. At the first rehearsal, he raged at Ruby in front of the cast, but he apologized and persuaded her to stay. During the pre-Broadway tour, he interpolated disparaging remarks about her into his performances. Ruby finally left the show in Chicago, returning to California where she eventually married John Loewe. "Sonny Boy" eventually had his name changed to "Albert Loewe," wiping the last vestige of Al Jolson from Ruby's life. She gave many interviews over the years, especially after starring in the hit revival of No, No Nanette (1971), but always refused to discuss her marriage to Jolson.

Jolson in Hold On To Your HatsOn Broadway, Hold On to Your Hats (1940 - 158) brought Jolson the kind of acclaim he had not enjoyed in years. The second act included a scene where Al improvised a radio broadcast, and he was able to banter with the audience and sing as many of his old hits as wished. His fans were thrilled, and carried on as they had decades before. But Jolson's health started falling apart after his divorce from Keeler was finalized, and he closed the show despite excellent ticket sales. Feb. 1, 1941 marked Al Jolson's last performance on Broadway. He starred in the road tour, but quit when it became clear that operating expenses were too high to allow a profit.

During World War II, Al Jolson threw himself wholeheartedly into entertaining the troops. He performed everywhere from boot camps to hospitals and front line locations all over the world. He had a special portable piano that could travel almost anywhere, and would perform a capella in places the piano could not reach. He took time to speak to as many servicemen as possible, handing out autographs and promising to call anxious relatives back home. He made hundreds of such calls at his own expense. He also knew how to use his sentimental songs to maximum effect with audiences back home. Appearing on the radio with Milton Berle, Jolson said –

But Milton, its only today that I'm really playing what you'd call the big time. Let me tell you, of all the wonderful audiences I've played to in my whole life, the one's that have given me the greatest thrill were thousands of miles away from Broadway on the battle swept deserts of Africa, in hell and mud of Italy, and in the jungles of the South Pacific. You see Milton, those kids out there fighting and dying have the same ambition – to have peace and tolerance and democracy for the whole world. So as soon as I get a little better, I'm not so strong, I wanna go back out there and sing for those kids. They promised me they'd fix it so I could sing in Hirohito's palace, if there's anything left of it, and sing this song. And by the song I mean, (sings) Mammy, my little mammy . . (studio audience bursts into cheers).
- Transcribed from archival recording.

Jolson continued to appear on network radio, but entertaining "the boys" remained his main priority until romance unexpectedly reappeared in his life.

Fourth Marriage: Erle Galbraith

While touring Georgia military camps in 1944, Jolson met Erle Galbraith, a twenty-one year old x-ray technician who had good looks and a disarming Kentucky drawl. Instantly smitten, Jolson soon offered her a screen test. He got her under contact at Columbia, and started squiring her around Hollywood. When a recurring case of malaria (contracted during one of his frontline concert tours) left Jolson near death, his relationship with Erle intensified. They were married in March of 1945.

It was soon clear that this marriage would be different. Erle walked out on Jolson's tirades, refusing to fight on his terms. With no interest in a career of her own, she devoted all her attention to Al, and he found himself appreciating her as he never had his other wives. While it is unlikely that life with Al Jolson was truly easy, Erle would always insist that her years with him were happy.

During his prolonged recovery from malaria, Jolson took any opportunity to resume work. He appeared as himself singing "Swanee" in the George Gershwin biographical film Rhapsody in Blue (1945). Then Columbia Pictures began work on a film version of Jolson's life. Al recorded the songs, but was not allowed to play himself – that honor went to the relatively unknown Larry Parks. Parks lip-synched to Jolson's vocals and used many of his performing mannerisms, not so much imitating Jolson as creating a characterization of his own.

The Jolson Story (1946) became a sensation, thanks in large part to Jolson's electrifying renditions of two dozen of his hits. The score included one new number, the sentimental "Anniversary Song" ("Oh, how we danced on the night we were wed . . ."), which became an immediate standard. The plot was a heavily revised version of Jolson's life story. Serving up schmaltz with style, it added up to extraordinary entertainment. In just one distant shot, Jolson appears as himself dancing to "Swanee" – even the Columbia bigwigs agreed that no one else could capture his physical style.


At sixty-one, Jolson was back on top. The Jolson Story introduced him to a new generation of fans and sent his record sales soaring. Because he was entitled to a percentage of the film and recording profits, Jolson raked in a fortune. On radio, his presence now guaranteed high ratings. Several guest appearances with Bing Crosby (who was a longtime fan of Jolson) remain classic examples of network radio at its best. In 1947, Jolson returned to hosting the Kraft Music Hall, a series he helped initiate back in 1933. After years of being dismissed as a "has been," this job was particularly satisfying.

Al's new stardom restored his zest for life. He and Erle adopted two infants, naming them Asa Jr. and Alicia. Jolson also started to dye his hair and put away his glasses when friends were on hand. His recordings of "Is It True What They Say About Dixie?" and "Baby Face" made the hit parade, and his version of the Israeli national anthem raised over $100,000 for the United Jewish Appeal.

Columbia Pictures filmed a sequel to The Jolson Story. This time, Jolson's thinly veiled displeasure with Larry Parks erupted into a sound stage tirade, and Jolson was barred from the set. Jolson Sings Again (1949) took as many liberties with Al's life as the first film had. Jolson's singing voice sounded sensational in sixteen numbers – fewer than the first film but still far more than the average musical. Jolson toured the country to promote the film and soak up the kind of audience acclaim he had always relished.

Jolson's minstrel bookJolson licensed his name out to this 1949 collection of old minstrel songs and routines.

Offers poured in, and Jolson signed up for a new film and a series television specials. But he put everything on hold to go entertain soldiers fighting in Korea. When the Defense Department said it had no budget for entertainers, Jolson paid all expenses himself. During seven days in September 1950, he gave 42 concerts, carrying on despite a cold that would have silenced anyone else.

On his return to California, Jolson looked tired and admitted to reporters that the trip had been difficult. On October 23, 1950, he was in San Francisco preparing for another appearance on Bing Crosby's radio show. While playing cards with friends in his hotel room, he complained of indigestion. When two doctors arrived, Jolson was in bed He joked with them and belittled his symptoms. Suddenly, he felt for his own pulse, said, "Oh, I'm going," and went limp. The "World's Greatest Entertainer" was dead.

At Jolson's funeral days later, his friend (and sometime nemesis) George Jessel gave a eulogy that remains a show business legend in its own right –

And not only has the entertainment world lost its king, but we cannot cry, "The king is dead, long live the king!" For there is no one to hold his scepter. Those of us who tarry behind are but pale imitators, mere princelings." . . . Jolson was synonymous with victory – at the race track, at the ball game, at anything that he participated in, he would say, "I had the winner, ha, ha, why didn't you ask me?" This was not in bravado alone: this was the quintessence of optimism. Whatever game you're in, whatever game you play, feel like you are the winner.
- quoted in Goldman, Jolson: The Legend Comes to Life, pp. 301-302.

About a year later, Jolson's widow reburied his remains in on of the most spectacular tombs Hollywood has ever seen. It still stands in Hillside Memorial Park, with a statue of Jolson on one knee amid marble columns and an illuminated waterfall. It is a fitting monument to a man who once enthralled the world with his larger-than-life talents.

Al Jolson’s fame has dimmed with time, but no review of the popular culture of the 20th century can afford to overlook his presence. Who else could claim a career that spanned stardom in minstrelsy, vaudeville, Broadway, Hollywood and radio? He was one of the greatest stars show biz will ever know – and would have been the first to insist that history should remember him.

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