Just back from Phoenix where the 2009 Jolson Festival was a delightful success. Enthusiasm abounded--especially from some of our newer Society members who'd never before attended a Jolson convention.
Here's a quick review of the weekend:
Thursday night's Jolson Karaoke was held in the middle of the hotel's lobby. Each room in the hotel faced the lobby, so the unfortunate guests at the Embassy Suites Biltmore who were NOT part of our group had to enjoy (?!?) our crooning and bellowing until the 'wee hours! Our two huge sound system speakers blasted our volunteer singers's singing talents to the far corners of Phoenix---but it really was great fun, as usual. It was a fine way to begin the weekend.
Video of the Festival by Nigel Dreiner
Next door to that room, "Go Into Your Dance" was projected on the big screen. It was attended by our usual gang of veterans, but also some "newies" who had not seen the film before. Sitting in the dark theater, sharing the laughs and spontaneous applause from the audience watching the movie was a thrill. No matter how many times I've watched the flick on my TV screen at home, nothing compares to the joy of sharing the experience with a roomful of like minded souls. After the film ended we engaged in excellent Q & A about Al, Ruby, the Warners and the movie itself.
After lunch, it was Steve Rothschild's turn to entertain--and his Jolson lip-synch act was wonderful. Steve doesn't just move his lips, but swings and sways and bounces around the room (much like you-know-who did so many decades ago!) Steve did many Jolson standards, of course, but tore the house down with his "Celito Lindo"--(Al's 1936 Shell Cateau version of the tune)--which included Spanish, Yiddish and Hebrew!!
Next up was Paul Bowers' state-of-the-art big screen multi media presentation about Jolson's Shubert years. Paul presented never before seen photos and documents he culled from the Shubert Archives (at which he has exclusive access) in describing the Jolson career from Dockstader through post-"Jazz Singer." Along with the photos, there were snatches of song from Al's Broadway co-stars Stella Mayhew and Gaby Deslys. A photo of Lew Dockstader in full costume as Teddy Roosevelt accompanied a bit of Lew singing, too. (Wait until you see it!)
Paul showed color costume sketches from "Bombo" and reminded us that despite all of our old photos--the shows were indeed in color! Just imagine what those Shubert extravaganzas really looked like.
Great shots of Al cavorting in all of his Shubert shows, accompanied by snips of the appropriate recordings filled the hour. Paul's narration throughout the video presentation was first rate, truly a college level seminar of this vital aspect of Al Jolson's career.
I have never seen anything like this before. I boast of having a pretty good knowledge of Jolie's career, but I saw and heard things I'd never seen or heard before as was as enthralled by Paul's presentation as everyone else in the packed room. Kudos to you Paul---now, how do you follow that next year?
After Paul's presentation I played some Jolson audio tracks for the audience that were new to many in the room and (I hope) were exciting and fun.
After a lovely dinner on Friday night, it was finally show time. First up was a ceremony to honor Jolson's wartime efforts conducted by a local veteran's group. It was a dramatic and serious way to start the evening, for sure. The vets presented Society President Jan Hernstat with a plaque for the IAJS to commemorate the tribute.
Then the entertainment:
Brad Zinn, a terrific comedian did a dead-on impersonation of George Burns that was uncanny and then followed with Red Skelton, Jack Benny and Groucho Marx. Brad was sharp, clever and very funny. If you ever get a chance to see this guy, don't miss him!
Next up was our old friend from Scotland Bill Campbell who came on the stage dressed in Jolie's costume from "The Plantation Act." Bill did a show based around the concept. A particular knockout was his "Green Pastures" (much as Al did on Shell Chateau) and Stephen Foster songs. Bill was wonderful--a talented man who is also a true gentleman (a rare combination these days).
Then came commercial time: and two delicious Jolson/Crosby radio ads for Philco were played. I don't know how many "1201s" were sold as a result, but it was GREAT to hear the two pros at their comedic best in 1947!
And then it was time for Tony Babino. Those of you who have seen his performances at Jolson festivals (and elsewhere) over the years already know just how powerful his personality is and how his singing (in his Jolson voice--and then his own voice)is thrilling. He is all-pro. That evening there was a challenge--the sound system went a bit kablooey--but despite that Tony turned this disadvantage into an advantage by sheer showmanship. The temperamental microphones now became part of the show--and the audience loved it! His spontaneity, warmth and heart (sounds like that Jolson fella, too) made for an unforgettable night.
Here are some of the highlights of Tony B's show: In keeping with the theme of Al Jolson 'way out west, he opened with "Boots and Saddles" and "Celito Lindo." Then he did some Jolson standards accompanied by Norman Bergen on the piano. (Norman is a brilliant pianist who can play just about anything on the spot. He was a great addition to the weekend's entertainment--more about that later). Tony did "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" "Isn't It A Lovely Day," "All My Love" among others with Norman, and then, accompanied by Morros Stoloff's orchestra he belted out most of Jolie's greatest hits from "the Jolson Story" and "Jolson Sings Again." Dozens of tunes--sheer joy!
Then some surprises: Tony and Richard Halpern did a duet of "I Love To Sing-A"---you can only imagine how much fun that was! (Ask anyone there). Then with Bill Campbell on board, the trio did "All By Myself." Later, the duet of the night---Tony and Jan! (I'd like to tell you how terrific Jan was, but my typewriter just ran out of ink). (OK, sorry, couldn't resist it. Too easy!)
During the show Jan presented Tony with a Society award for all he's done to promote Al's legacy. Tony seemed very moved by the gesture--and spoke for a few very serious moments about what Jolson has meant to him personally.
Tony is a class act, a class guy. We're VERY lucky to have him as a friend of the Society.
After the show, many of us retired to the hotel bar to discuss the important issues of the day. That took about 4 seconds, then we turned our conversation to Jolson.
"The Singing Kid" was projected and once our again spontaneous laughter and applause just added to the fun. The film was followed by Q & A about Al's life and career and two different versions of "Here's Looking At You" and a great (rare) radio track of "Save Me Sister" were played.
After lunch, Doug Galloway's presentation about his years with Erle Jolson Krasna began. Paul Bowers and I peppered Doug with questions about Erle's memories of Jolie, and Doug's intimate knowledge about those years was thoroughly enjoyed by everyone in the room. Many audience members had their own questions, too--and Doug answered each one of them. He also brought along two photo albums of every picture he took of himself, his wife Noriko and Erle all together (22 years' worth)which he shared with us. Great photos of a great lady.
Doug's presentation was a unique glimpse into the real Jolson story--a flesh and person just like us in many ways---warts and all. His stories and memories of his years with Erle were funny, moving--and memorable.
That evening, after dinner, the big show included:
A tribute to Jolie's military service provided by The Sweet Adelines--a barbershop quartet (actually 20 singers!) whose harmony was outstanding.
Then Bill Campbell's special salute to "Jolson Sings Again." Bill sang many of the best tunes from the film, including "For Me and My Gal," "I Only Have Eyes For You," a special "GI Medley," and a great finale with "Rock-A-Bye." Bill--a performance all the way.
Rick Rogers then did his impersonation of Eddie Cantor. That may be the wrong word--he WAS Eddie Cantor. Not just in his singing, but in his mannerisms and facial expressions, too--he WAS Cantor! Rick did some of Eddie's biggest hits, of course, but also threw in Cantor rarities as "That's the Kind of A Baby For Me"--a very funny--and somewhat naughty ditty from Cantor's early years. I'd never seen Rick work before and I was very impressed by his clever act. (Next morning at the hotel breakfast he did an impression for the five of us eating our corn flakes of Jolson singing The Big Bopper's "Chantilly Lace" ---much to our delight (although the couple at the next table, obviously locals, seemed somewhat thoroughly confused an somewhat frightened!)
After Rick's turn Saturday night, it was Richard Halpern's spot.
Richard's theme this year was a tribute to the tunes in "Say It With Songs" on the 80th anniversary of the film. He did great vocals of them all, and his "Little Pal" ended with special lyrics in tribute to the late Davey Lee. It was an unexpected and powerful moment. Richard is an exciting performer, very clever and spontaneous. If someone drops a spoon,he's all over it---with quick gags and lines that are appropriate to the moment and hysterical. I love the guy---a real showman!
He spotlighted "I'm Ka-Razy For You," "When the Little Red Roses Get The Blues For You," and "Liza." Next, request time: and Richard was prepared (as usual)--and did ""Sister Susie," "Who Played Poker with Pocahontas?" "Mr. Radio Man," "Hello 'Tucky," and a delicious "When the Grown Up Ladies Act Like Babies."
Then an unannounced guest joined Richard: our own Nigel Dreiner, who debuted at last year's Orlando festival. Nigel is very impressive---at 22 he has huge stage presence, lots of confidence, a fine singing voice and spark--lots of spark--and the audience just adored him. He did 3 tunes, "Robinson Crusoe," "That Haunting Melody" and "How're You Gonna Keep 'em Down on the Farm?" all accompanied by Norman Bergen on piano. Nigel is a big part of the future of this Society--no doubt about it! (I have shoes older than him)--
Richard then invited Rick Rogers and Bill Campbell back onstage to do a rendition of "Wah Hoo"--great fun. And then Jan came up and did "Carolina in The Morning" with Richard--in harmony.
The grand finale: Richard Halpern, Bill Campbell, Brad Zinn, Nigel Dreiner and Rick Rogers together did "You Made Me Love You"----and the audience did!
Sunday morning: After breakfast, Jan presented Society awards to those who worked so hard for this Phoenix weekend, all well deserved. And Skip Mack came up to the mike to invite all for next year's festival in Milwaukee.
A very special thanks to the Rothschilds, the Freemans and everyone else who made the Phoenix festival a resounding success. If you weren't there, you missed a good one!!