Sunday, September 28, 2014

THE KANSAS CITY JOLSON STORY...Part I: Jolson, Palmer & Jolson

By Steve Crum

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):

Baron: "Take a big Broadway show like this on tour? Drag it all over the country--into tank towns? Al’s out of his mind! It’s never been done!"

Martin soon explains Jolson’s motive: "It’s a brand new audience, he says...millions of ‘em, people who never saw a Broadway show and never heard him sing....”  

Moments later, cut to a locomotive barreling down the track, and then to Mama Yoelson (Tamara Shayne) turning pages of her theatrical scrapbook of newspaper stories from around the country heralding her son Asa’s national tour. (The Kansas City Times is included.) Throughout this sequence, Jolson’s robust voice gives out with his traveling music: Toot Toot Tootsie (Goo’ Bye).
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.

What surprises I found! There were, of course, the straight news stories of whatever Jolson show was either coming or currently playing. Then there were the reviews, the revealing and opinionated reviews. In some cases, it was like witnessing an actual Jolson performance. Jolson is often quoted while on stage, and bits of physical business are described. Jolson is also quoted off stage in personal interviews. I found cartoon caricatures of Jolson, photos of Jolson, ads of Jolson. Local record stores promoted Jolson 78’s in ads specifically capitalizing on his being in town. Jolie overload took place, so I had to stop and take some deep breath breaks throughout my exploration. Truly Socko!

Please throw a pity party for me since my eyes suffered as I retyped each and every story to make it easier to read. I had to use a magnifying glass to pour over each word. The microfilm copies had been erratically photocopied with some paragraphs missing sentence portions in creases, as well as blurred or smeared lettering. I had to second guess some of the words since they were virtually missing. In a few cases, I was forced to leave out a section due to incoherent lettering.  

The eye strain was worth it since the end result is a historical document of Al Jolson’s performances in Middle America during the early part of the Twentieth Century. I hope you are as thrilled and excited about this find as I was and still am.  

Even though Jolson never built his house in Kansas City, as Mama Yoelson suggested in The Jolson Story, he definitely built and upheld his reputation in KC as “The World’s Greatest Entertainer.” He loved Kansas City audiences, and KC loved Al Jolson.









1920 & 1921--SINBAD

1923 & 1924--BOMBO

1927--BIG BOY




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. 

Fifth on the vaudeville bill, sandwiched between Susie Fisher, The Phenomenal Baritone (?) and a horizontal bar act, Jolson, Palmer & Jolson are billed as “A Little of Everything.” Unfortunately, no other information about their act was published locally. 

[Next, Part II: Jolson and Dockstader's Minstrels hit KC]

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