I just arrived home after spending one of the most enjoyable weekends I've ever had. The Toronto convention was a huge success by anyone's yardstick. Everything just clicked. (I'd give a 9.5)
Thursday evening's informal karaoke session became a show in itself -- Jan brought along his excellent portable sound system, and on an ad hoc stage with a seated audience of about fifty or so of us, we had what turned out to be a full-length Jolson song marathon. Tony Babino thought he'd get away with a tune or two (since his real show was scheduled for the next night) but he wound up wowing the crowd with a full repertoire of Jolson standards and topping them off with a version of "Mack The Knife" that had to wake up sleepy Toronto. And what an impersonation of Sir Harry Lauder!
President Jan Hernstat sang -- and quite well (really) and invited as many brave souls to the stage as time allowed. From our favorite gal, Debbie Eifler's outstanding (and unique) version of "Swanee" to Robert E. Lee's "My Mammy," from Steve George to our own "Smikes" -- and on and on -- the spontaneity of fun of the night was infectious.
Even Dr. Dorothy Greenbuam dragged her poor husband up onto the stage to do a duet of "Who Paid the Rent For Mrs. Rip Van Winkle?" which was the shock of the night (to her husband!!) How the blazes did she know the words???
All this -- and the convention had not yet officially begun!
Friday afternoon's high spot was a 2½ hour tribute to the late Norman Brooks, hosted by Ed Greenbaum truly and accompanied by Norman's daughter AaLia Kesari, a very talented young lady with a BIG voice. AaLia's sadness at her father's loss is still very fresh, and it was difficult to stop the tears, but she loved her dad very much and was deeply appreciative to the Jolson Society for this fitting tribute.
After the presentation, AaLia reached for her guitar and sang for the standing room only audience as a tribute to her father. She sang three tunes of her own compostion and frankly there wasn't a dry eye in the house. (I'm not kidding, it was a very powerful experience. You could hear a pin drop.)
AaLia took questions, posed for pictures, and sat with the many well-wishers who came up to meet and greet her.
It was a memorable experience. Norman was a star for forty years -- and his daughter's got a lot of his best in her.
A special thanks here to George Hudson for his help in getting AaLia to and from the hotel for us. George went beyond the call of duty in many ways for a long time to get this event on board, and despite his often semi-rough exterior, underneath it (actions speak louder than words) he's got a big heart. (He'll never admit it, but he does.)
Our sweet Debbie presented AaLia with a new CD of her father's work, and Jan presented her with a copy of the new Jolson Journal which contains a beautifully written article about Norman Brooks by his biggest fan, Maynard Bertolet.
Friday night's big show was terrific.
A few quick musical appetizers provided by Bill Campbell, Steve George and Richard Halpern warmed the audience up (and there were over 150 people in the room). Then Jan presented the Society's musical tribute to Norman Brooks, starting with his own rendition of Brooks' "Congratulate Me." Jan then presented a lovely video presentation on the big screen, including Brooks' cameo as Al Jolson in "The Best Things In Life Are Free." He then showed Pat Phillip's lovely Brooks video montages.
The star of the evening, of course, was Tony Babino. Accompanied brilliantly by his friend Dave Gross, their show -- about two hours long -- was electric. Many of the guests had not seen Tony in person until that night and were blown away by his performance. He did familiar Jolson standards -- and many that were not as familiar, such as "Nearest Thing To Heaven," "A Tree In the Meadow," "Among My Souvenirs," and a great combination of "Rip Van Winkle" and "Robinson Crusoe" which brought everyone to their feet.
Tony then sang his own tribute to the two great showmen we lost this year -- Norman Brooks and Rudy Wissler. Rudy's lovely wife and daughter (Elaine and Stacie) were there throughout the weekend, which added to the bittersweetness of Tony's tribute.
On a lighter note, Tony now whistles like Jolson! And his Eddie Cantor and Dean Martin impressions were a delight. Tony B. gets better year by year. His poise, confidence, spontaneity and warmth were in full bloom Friday night. Ed's wife (a VERY tough sell) was charmed by Tony's performance -- and now considers herself a fan -- no small feat!!
His "About A Quarter To Nine," while escorting our Hara Benjamin around the room (much like Al and Ruby in the film) was another highlight. And Hara ended the song by placing her arms in the 8:45 position on a clock--just as did Ruby in "Go Into Your Dance" in 1935. That one even surprised Tony! (Well done, Hara.)
Saturday afternoon began with a discussion by Professor Paul Bowers, who deftly presented two new Jolson treasures to the audience. First, he officially debuted Al's Lifebuoy track of "Thanks For The Memories" -- an new one on us! A great tune, sung by Jolson with great feeling and emotion. It is now included on Paul's Lifebuoy CD which was is available from the IAJS Audio Department on the website and by mail.
Then a very special surprise. Thanks to Doug Galloway, Paul has worked for months in remastering a never-before released Jolson Decca recording from 1950---"My Mother's Rosary." Those who are familiar with the later released version were blown away by the premiere of this version, taken from the only surviving test pressing in Jolson's private collection.
The song will be released in the not-too-distant future on a special CD produced by Doug and Paul for the Jolson Society. This one is NOT TO BE MISSED! (Just ask the folks in the room Saturday afternoon).
After Paul completed his part in the presentation, Ed played a number of never-before-heard tracks from The Jolson Story and Jolson Sings Again. Out takes, rehearsal takes, goofs and all -- a most enjoyable way to spend an afternoon. (Even when Jolson was bad, he was good!!)
Saturday night's show included a beautifully moving video in memory of Rudy Wissler. Our German friends Andrea and Jens, hard at work on their Jolson documentary, made this DVD to be played at the Toronto convention. It was a powerful piece. When it ended, the entire audience gave a standing ovation to Rudy's wife and daughter in loving memory of a fine gentleman who was a friend of the Jolson Society.
And our "Smikes" -- S. Michael Simms -- knocked our socks off with his 1913 arrangement of "You Made Me Love You." (Smikes, you made us proud of you -- as usual.)
Bill Campbell, fighting a bad cold (but it was hard to tell, honestly) was next on the stage. He was delightful, as always. The special moment of his performance -- (you HAD to see this to believe it) was his rendition of Jolson's 1916 "Wearing of the Green" unreleased private party record. Those of you who have heard it knows how funny and clever it was -- but now we had Bill, doing the tune as Al did in a vaudeville Yiddish dialect! And you know what?? Bill pulled it off! Beautifully -- and hysterically!
Richard Halpern then presented his Al Jolson - The Road to The Jazz Singer tribute. Richard was clever and in full control as he sang tunes from 1919 to 1927. "Blue River," "You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet," "Steppin' Out," and others of the era.
Richard topped it off with re-enacting the scene from The Jazz Singer in which "little Jakie" sings "Blue Skies" to his "Mama." Richard performed the scene dead-on perfect, for which he got his well deserved standing ovation.
Encores included "Sister Susie's Sewing Shirts For Soldiers" and a wonderful Eddie Cantor impersonation, singing "Josephine, Please No Lean-a On the Bell."
I've seen Richard many times -- but Saturday's night's performance was his best yet. Kudos, Richard.
Sunday morning's activities included the giving out of special awards, political speeches by those running for Society office -- and yet another standing ovation for Rudy's wife and daughter.
We're looking foward to next year's convention in Orlando, Florida.