Tuesday, September 22, 2009

You ain't heard nothin' yet!: When Jolson hit Kansas City

By Steve Crum

AL JOLSON (May 26, 1886 in Lithuania to Oct. 25, 1950) was then and remains now the most talented and idolized singer and comedian of the first half of the Twentieth Century. I could write plume about the songs he introduced and the impact this man had on show business--and on yours truly, but it would take a blog site unto itself to cover it all. 

Jolie was the Crosby, the Sinatra, the Elvis, and The Beatles of his day. From 1911-28, his nine Shubert produced Winter Garden shows were all standing room only hits. Jolson had over 80 best selling records during his career. He starred in 16 national and international touring shows. He headlined several top radio shows, and starred in the first successful talking movie, 1927's The Jazz Singer. A string of Warner Brothers musicals followed. In 1946, Larry Parks portrayed him, lip synching Jolson's pre-recorded songs, in the blockbuster musical biography, The Jolson Story. Parks played him again, and Jolson did the songs once more, in Jolson Sings Again (1949). Jolson was set to play himself in yet a third film about his life, but died after entertaining our troops during the Korean War, in 1950. His death was front page news worldwide. 

From the beginning of the 1900's through the '30s, Jolson toured in minstrel shows, vaudeville, and Broadway productions. In fact, he was the first to take his NYC shows on tour, at his insistence. Where would talking pictures, records, and touring stage plays be today without the great Jolson?

I am in the midst of a labor of true love, compiling text and images I have been working on for some time. After many hours researching Al Jolson's appearances at the long gone Shubert and Grand Theaters in Kansas City, which I found in the archives of my local newspaper, The Kansas City Star (and Times), I discovered photos, caricatures, reviews, and feature stories covering Jolson's triumphant performances here. Eventually, my efforts will be featured in an upcoming Jolson Journal, the impressive publication of The International Al Jolson Society http://www.jolson.org/. Following is a preview of my treasures. 

I used a magnifying glass to transcribe what you read here from the original, which is difficult to read due to age. This review of one of Jolie's hit musicals, Sinbad, was published on Oct. 25, 1920. Jolson was in KC for a week, part of a cross country tour. Since there is no film footage of Jolson actually performing in one of his shows on stage, just reading the description (by an uncredited KC Star reporter) of his performance seems to transport one back nearly 90 years when Jolson was King of Broadway and, as he was billed, The World's Greatest Entertainer.
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JOLSON AS GOOD AS EVER
Capacity House Welcomed Comedian to Kansas City Last Night
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“Sinbad” Won with Its Blackface Star, Its Cast, the Songs, Costumes and Scenery
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Al Jolson won Kansas City at 10:48 p.m. last night. He had finished singing his last song, “Avalon,” and had walked into the wings, and blonde little Virginia Smith was standing bravely on the runway and trying to lead a chorus through “Hold Me.” The noise the girls struggled against was like the pound of the surf on the beach. It must have awakened the residents in Dodson, Mo.

Jolson strolled back on the stage in a red, black and yellow bathrobe that hit one between the eyes. “This is my last season in this sort of stuff,” he told the audience determinedly. “I’m going to keep acting. I don’t know any other business. But next season I’m going to gratify a lifelong ambition. It’s a crazy wish, but somehow or other I’ve always longed to do it. I’m going to come on stage--on a horse.”

Every seat in the Shubert was taken for Jolson’s opening in “Sinbad” last night, including about five rows of chairs in the rear of the house. It was a Jolson crowd, that was plain from the start. When the comedian, as familiar blackface Gus, came on the stage in the second scene, the performance stopped while he bowed and scraped his appreciation.

“Wait,” he told the orchestra leader, “I want to speak to this audience.” Then, in a surprise aside, he said, “Say, for $3.85 they ought to be spoken to.”

HE SANG--THAT WAS ENOUGH

The rest of the evening kept piling up Jolson’s popularity. His first song was “Swanee,” and he had to rely on his old faithful, “You ain’t heard nothing yet,” to still the house when he finished. He got the same results with “That Says It All,” which came near the end of the first act.

His runway monologue, with the usual two songs, came near the close of the performance. The first number was “By the Honeysuckle Vine,” then the talk, which, if it wasn’t pretty extemporaneous, was a masterful piece of acting, then “Avalon.” Then the deluge.

Jolson is the same Al Kansas City knew in “Robinson Crusoe Jr.,” and its predecessors. His comedy seems to have gained and it is delivered so naturally it seems as though Jolson is telling it all to you walking from hole to hole on a golf course, or waiting for the coffee after a good dinner. It is hard to recall former houses almost losing control of themselves as last night’s did when he said, “You have to have a letter from the pope to get into the Muehlebach,” and then described the tea dancers there.

His voice still has the almost prayerful quality he puts into every tone, and he still sings with his mouth, shoulders, arms, hips, legs, feet. He had his own company laughing as hard as the spectators last night, which is the tribute supreme to any actor. In summary, Al still is Al--and there are few entertainers quite like him.

THE PRODUCTION A BIG ONE

As for the production, “Sinbad” is a massive spectacle, girls, music, beautiful scenes, splendid costumes. It must have cost a lot of money to stage and its salary list also should prove a source of profitable investigation to the income tax collector. There is a thread of plot running through the evening, much more clearly defined than in most similar productions, and the two acts and fourteen scenes unfold picture after picture which please.

Among the noteworthy scenes are a street in Bagdad, the palace of Sinbad, the grotto in the Valley of Diamonds, and the Island of Eternal Youth. Meghans’s leaping hounds, dogs that register 100 per cent as an animal act, raise the house to a high pitch of enthusiasm--even before Jolson appears.

A uniformly good cast is in “Sinbad.” Supporting the star are: [Seven cast names follow that are in smaller print and nearly impossible to read.]

There is a chorus which changes costumes many times and wears tights often. It does its work well. There also is Ma-Belle, a good toe dancer; Wilburt Dunn, a very acceptable partner for her; and Eddie Lynn and William Burns, who dance well with Sue Creighton.

There also is Jolson. Now, speaking of Jolson....
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Here is Jolson's original hit recording of Gershwin's Swanee, recorded in 1920 and introduced in Sinbad: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VB5_FScm41Q

1 comment:

  1. Speaking of Jolson .... wander over to the Official Al Jolson Website at www.jolson.org to hear and see even more!
    .. webmaster @ jolson.org ...

    ReplyDelete