The Jolson Mystique

by John Kenrick

He was billed as "the world's greatest entertainer," and critics invariably concurred with this claim. Al Jolson won acclaim in every entertainment genre of his time – stage, screen, radio and recordings. However, when watching his films or listening to his recorded performances today, many are left wondering what all the fuss was about. Jolson's oversized emotions seem corny, and his frequent use of blackface makeup strikes us as offensive. What was the secret was to Al Jolson's appeal? Although Al Jolson came to fame barely a century ago, America's cultural mindset was vastly different from ours.

A Night With Jolson
Try to see yourself catching Jolson in one of his hit shows. It is March of 1916, and you've just come in from the clamor of Times Square to the posh warmth of The Winter Garden, so named because its spacious interior suggests the open air rooftop gardens theatergoers frequent on summer nights. The crowd around you is certainly posh, with tuxedoed men and bejeweled, satin-gowned women packing the main floor and the mezzanine above. A blend of exotic perfumes and cigar smoke fills the air – smoking in theatres is, after all, quite legal.

A quick look at your program tells you the show is called Robinson Crusoe Jr., but the title hardly matters. Same goes for names of the authors, as well as the songs and skits they've written. Everyone packing the house tonight is here for just one reason – Al Jolson. Ever since he made his Broadway debut on this same stage five years ago in La Belle Paree, he's been the toast of New York. Everybody who is anybody has come here to see what all the fuss is about, and they invariably wind up cheering for this little man who smears his face with burnt cork and belts songs all the way to the back rows. Those who see his shows multiple times delight in the new gags and songs he interpolates to keep things fresh. Many have caught him sans blackface in one of his Sunday night concerts, where his solo turns often hold audiences in thrall for an hour or more. No one ever complains – when Jolson sings, time is irrelevant.

The house lights dim, and you settle in to enjoy the show. There's a quick overture and the usual disposable opening chorus number, but no one pays much attention. Its far more fun to note which celebrities are on hand, and to see which are accompanied by someone other than their wives. Suddenly, the energy on stage changes, and Jolson makes his entrance to tumultuous applause. He stands, basking in the sound, the broad line of white around his mouth accenting his shameless grin. But it's the eyes that get you. Without saying a word, the jolt of his glance hits everyone in the room, and the cheering somehow gets even louder.

At moments like this, you've seen him set the script aside and simply sing the night away, but it's still too early in the evening for that. After all, everyone will want to see what predicaments Jolson's resourceful character "Gus" will have to get himself out of tonight. He's a millionaire's chauffeur in Act One, but when his boss dreams of being the fictional castaway Robinson Crusoe, Gus turns into faithful man Friday. They then pass inexplicably (this is a dream, after all) from tropical island to a castle, a pirate ship and even a harem where Gus masquerades as a girl named Fatima. There are plenty of opportunities for laughs, and Jolson makes the most of every one of them

Most of the music is by Sigmund Romberg, who had a big hit last year with Blue Paradise. But Jolson has never relied on a show's offical composers to provide him with showstoppers. All his best numbers tonight are by other songwriters.