The Jolson Story (Columbia Pictures, 1946) includes dialogue which speaks of Al Jolson’s desire to perform to a live, nationwide audience. A particularly telling scene in the musical biography occurs when Jolie’s Winter Garden Theater extravaganza, Robinson Crusoe Jr., is completing a two year run, and “still sockaroo.” Jolson alone (implied in the movie--with no evident input from the brothers Shubert) decides to take his Broadway hit on tour across America. Producer Tom Baron (Bill Goodwin) is exasperated at Jolson’s plan, as he speaks to Jolson’s manager, Steve Martin (William Demarest):
Sure The Jolson Story, like most movie biographies, mixes fact with fiction, so it is doubtful whether Jolson alone made the decision to tour. Nonetheless, Al Jolson did perform his Broadway shows in virtually every major city in the United States. He was certainly used to touring, something he had done since 1898, in the days of his brief stint with the Walter L. Main Circus. He continued touring when he performed with the Victoria Burlesquers, on through vaudeville, Dockstader’s Minstrels, and finally with his legendary Broadway musicals.
Much has been said, rightfully so, about Al Jolson’s home theater, The Winter Garden in New York City. Kansas City (Missouri) was but one of dozens of cities Jolson played to during tours that stretched over 25 years. It was a true labor of Jolie love to spend hours that turned into weeks at the Kansas City, Missouri Main Library, pouring over yellowed Kansas City Star and Kansas City Times newspapers stored on microfilm. (Incidentally, at that time there were two newspapers published by the same firm; The Times was the morning edition, and The Star, the evening edition.) Thanks to Herb Goldman’s magnificent biography, Jolson: The Legend Comes to Life, I was able to pinpoint exact dates of Jolson’s shows in KC. It made my search much easier.
Published Oct. 29, 1905, this small display ad is the earliest reference to Al Jolson performing in Kansas City I could find. Jolson, Palmer and Jolson toured the vaudeville circuit from Oct. 31, 1904- Nov. 11, 1905. Their last five dates of the tour, Nov. 20-30, were without Al’s brother Harry, who had quit the act. That left Al alone, supporting Joe Palmer. The ad ran the day before Jolson, Palmer, and Jolson played KC (Oct. 30-Nov. 4) at the Orpheum Theater. After their next stop in New Orleans, the act would be renamed Palmer and Jolson.
[Next, Part II: Jolson and Dockstader's Minstrels hit KC]