by Bob Daniels, New York 2 Society Rep
First off, a big thank you is in order to Jim Brockson and Paul Casale, and all the others who had a hand in making the 2006 Philadelphia convention such a swell success. A few days after the convention, Stan Gerloff asked me to write an article about it, for which I felt honored. With 181 people attending the convention, there must be at least that many who have different opinions of the event. My big regret at this gathering was that I had only a short time to spend with the people that I wanted to talk to and be with.
The 2006 Al Jolson Convention was held at the Ramada Inn in Essington, Pennsylvania, which is about 10 miles from downtown Philadelphia. On the afternoon of Thursday, May 18, eager convention attendees began arriving from all parts of the world. In the evening there was "A Taste Of Philly" buffet, followed by singer Alice Boyd, who happens to be our Central 2 Society Rep. Alice sang beautifully while Bruce Bider, out New York 2 Society Rep, and a very accomplished pianist, accompanied her on the piano. Later on, Alice graciously turned the stage over to any would-be singers who wanted to do their stuff, and, believe me, there were quite a few who were ready and willing to perform.
Things started off on Friday morning at 9:00 a.m. with the opening of the Memorabilia Room, where there were records, videos, CDs, sheet music, books, and tons of other Jolson material for sale. At 2:30 p.m. Steven Rothschild put on an entertaining show where he lip-synced to many Jolson songs. At 3:00 p.m. Ed Greenbaum anchored a panel discussion with the expert assistance of Paul Bowers and Doug Galloway, discussing the behind the scenes work that was done to produce the new set of Lifebuoy CDs.
Hemingway once wrote, "to be a writer you need to give to the people the good and the bad, the people and the places, and how the weather was." As I recall, the weather for the four days of the convention was fine. (Actually, it rained like the dickens on Friday morning ... webmaster)
I, on the other hand, believe that one should dwell upon the brightest parts of any endeavor. And there were certainly a good number of bright spots to the 2006 Philly convention. In any life there will always be problems, and a Jolson Convention is no exception. It may be a sound system, the hotel, the food or whatever. The only people who will never experience such problems are the ones watching the grass from from beneath its roots. The enjoyment of watching enthusiastic performers, hearing or seeing material that you have never heard or seen, is only part of it. The best part of any Jolson convention is the opportunity of getting together with other Jolson fans from around the world. It's the things we share in common that make it enjoyable, and it is wonderful when we discover new friends.
The Friday evening dinner was held in the ballroom at 6:45 p.m., I enjoyed my selection of chicken and the rest of the food, but then I'm rartly unhappy while eating. After dinner, the Avalon String Band entertained us with song and dance. Quite a few of our member threw away their inhibitions, got up from their seats, and did their version of the "Mummers' Strut"! This colorful ostrich-plumed marching string band is a pert of a Philadelphia tradition that dates back to the 19th century.
Around 9:00 p.m., our good friends Rudy Wissler (the voice of Asa Yoelson) and Bill Campbell delighted us all with their special brand of singing. Then, the start of the night, Tony Babino, "The Heart of Al Jolson," accompanied by Dave Gross on a grand piano, electrified the crowd with his captivating Jolson voice. With his singing and off-the-cuff stories, Tony B. was a big hit, as he always is at our events. This was not the end of the evening for a good number of us. We adjourned to the bar and lounge for further friendly comradeship, singing, and a wee bit of liquid libation. After the big Friday night, it must have been pretty hard to get up for the 7:30 a.m. Officers' Meeting.
On Saturday morning, the Memorabilia Room again opened at 9:00 a.m. so that attendees could peruse over and buy some outstanding treasures. The new set of six Lifebuoy CDs proved to be a very popular item. At 10:30 a.m., forty of the group took a trolley bus tour into historic Philadelphia, seeing the Liberty Bell, the Betsy Ross House, Independence Hall, and other city sites.
Meanwhile, back at the hotel, local entertainer Bob Kravitz put on a show with his unique regional treatments of Jolson songs. Ed Greenbaum next presented a fascinating program including soundtrack recordings from The Jolson Story. Ed played several tracks with Jolson quips to and about Morris Stoloff, and even a few mild outbursts. The afternoon wrapped up with Society president Jan Hernstat conducting the Society Auction, which raises much needed revenue to keep the Society solvent, and prevent raising membership dues.
Saturday night's dinner was again held in the Ballroom, followed by the evening's entertainment. Jan Hernstat sang a few songs, then invited Alice Boyd to come up and sing a few duets with him. It was almost like having Jolie and Patty Andrews right there in front of us. Then Rudy Wissler followed, singing to the actual sound tracks from The Jolson Story. Needless to say, Rudy brought the entire room to their feet! Next up was Bill Campbell, who sang beautifully. After Bill's performance, a 30 year-old fellow from Greenwood, Indiana, by the name of S. Michael Simms, got up and sang a few songs, and he did a fine job. Young people are the living message we send to a time we will not see. The only long-term future that our Jolson Society has, or for that matter, our civilization, is out young people. Smikes, as he is known, typifies that message.
We then had a surprise guest show up - Ben Franklin in the flesh. Actor Dean Bennett looked exactly like Ben Franklin. Ben gave a humorous fifteen minute talk detailing the many similarities between himself and the great Al Jolson.
One of the many aspirations of our current Society president, Jan Hernstat, was to have a photograph taken of all the living Al Jolson Society presidents. Even though there remains some speculation as to just how "lively" the past presidents are, on Saturday, May 20, 2006, Jan's goal was fulfilled when, for the first time, all the living presidents, past and present, were gathered together on the same stage. This historic moment was captured on film and is now a part of our Society archives.
After a short break, we settled back for the star attraction of the evening, Richard "Mr. Tin Pan Alley" Halpern, accompanied by Richard Daley at the piano. Richard has been a fan favorite of the Jolson Society for many years. This year, Richard devoted his portion of the show to the early songs Al sang on the Broadway stage. As on Friday night, the fun and music spilled over into the bar and lounge until the wee hours of the morning.
Sunday, May 21, the convention started with a buffet breakfast at 9:00 a.m., then the awards ceremony hosted by our president, Jan Hernstat. Ron Wright was the recipient of a 50-year loyalty award. The recipients of 25-year loyalty awards were Jim Brockson, Leon Price, Fred Parcells, and Victor Munt.
The Presidential Award was renamed the Dolores Kontowicz Presidential Award in honor of our founder and first Society president, Dolores Kontowicz. This year's awards went to Jim Brockson, Paul Casale, John Webster, Debbie Eifler, Joe Ciolino, Peter Dilg, Paul Bowers, Ed Greenbaum, Jon Sonneborn, and Brice Wexler. This was Bruce's fourth Presidential Award, a Society record. Vince Williams of Malta and Bob Daniels of New York were awarded the title of Honorary Member. President Jan Hernstat presented the final award of the day, the Irvin Warwick Award, to Stan Gerloff.
Congratulations to you all, you were honored for what you all gave to the Society. After all the awards were presented, we sang "We'll Meet Again" while holding up cards with the names Karen & John. Karen Rendon, the lovely wife of our vice-president, John Rendon, fell ill only a few weeks before the convention, making it impossible for them to be with us this year. A video was taken of the signs, and sent to Karen with wishes for a speedy recovery.
The 2006 Jolson convention at historic Philadelphia is now, itself, history. "I wanted to sing and America gave me my chance to sing. God bless you all, and good night," said Al Jolson on May 28, 1944, when he hosted the Philco Radio Hall of Fame program from Convention Hall, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.