The theme of this year's Festival was to celebrate the 60th Anniversary of our Society--and to celebrate the life of it's founder, Dolores Kontowicz. Both aims were accomplished over the weekend with dignity, class, tears and fun. Dolores is in very ill health--yet mustered the strength to join us for the Saturday night festivities, accompanied by her beautiful family. I must say that there was tears flowing all over the place that night. Our Webmaster, Dr. Marc Leavey caught almost all of it on video and he will be editing it into a great DVD so that all who could not make it to Milwaukee can have the opportunity to share in the celebration.
Best ideas is to detail in chronological order the events of the weekend. First, on Thursday night, the Society held it's unofficial Jolson/karaoke party, which was a lot of fun. Some of the participants can sing pretty well, many can't hold a note, and a few seem to singing something from another galaxy---but it didn't matter. Lots of good laughs, lots of orange aid and fruit juice swallowed with glee and lots of catching up on info about folks we last saw in Phoenix. Tony B. stopped by for a song or three--and for the first time all night, you could hear a pin drop.
The program itself began early Friday morning with a showing of "Hallelujah I'm A Bum." I introduced the film with it's back story, then after the viewing opened the audience to Q & A about it. Great audience participation. Many folks in the room (and the crowd was quite large) had NEVER seen the film before--which added to the excitement that morning.
After lunch, Paul Bowers presented his audio/video presentation of "Jolson's Shubert Years"--which was an updated version of the one he presented last year in Phoenix--and it was absolutely wonderful. It included sights and sounds that I have NEVER seen or heard before--and I've been around the block a few times. Paul's special relationship with The Shubert Archive has provided him with access to this thrilling material that nobody else has had. It was jaw-dropping. (I know, this sounds over-the-top praise--but just ask who saw it on Saturday--and they'll tell you!)
Following Paul's program we were glad to have a special presentation by the new UK Society Representative, David McCarthy who discussed "The Voice of Al Jolson" with some prime examples of said voice!
Friday night's festivities began with our good friend Bill Campbell's tribute to Al--but with a Scottish flavor. Wearing the real thing--kilt and all--Bill was in very fine voice, singing "Annie Laurie" as well as a number of Harry Lauder favorites.
Next: A full and accurate recreation of the 1948 radio adaptation of "The Jolson Story" on Lux Radio Theater. Our own Tony B. played Al, while some talented friends of the Society took all the other roles. Dr. Leavey is working on a tape of the show--so I'll leave many of the surprises out of this review until you see or hear it for yourself. Using copies of the actual Lux script--commercials and all--the large Friday night audience witnessed a very special and delicious hour. After the program ended, Tony, of course, "did a Jolson," and held us in the palm of his hand for a few encores. I know that I say this every year, but I just have to say it again--the guy gets better and better! And when he dropped the Jolson voice--and gave out with "I've Got The World On A String" and "O Sole Mio" a la Babino--we were nailed!
I presented "Mammy" to our audience (many of whom had not seen the movie before) with a discussion of it's creation and back story--and after the movie we had Q&A about Al's acting and other questionable aspects of the film. A few of our UK friends had not yet seen the Technicolor scenes until then--and it was great to hear their comments about them.
After lunch, I presented some rare Jolson vocal tracks which are always great fun to listen to. Then Doug Galloway, our "Varietyguy" Forum friend, presented us with an opportunity to ask anything we wanted to about Erle Jolson Krasna and her years with (and years after) living with Al. Nobody on the planet had as special a relationship with Erle as did Doug and his wife for decades--and his honesty in discussing family matters was refreshing, informative and eye opening Doug promised to be back next year to continue the discussion.
Jan's Grand Auction followed---and for those who have seen it yet, well, "You ain't see nothin' yet!" (For those who say that vaudeville is dead, well, just watch Jan auction off Jolson items to help build the Society warchest using his New York street smarts and humor!) Many of the items this year from donated to the Society from Dolores' personal Jolson collection--and some of the items auctioned were TRULY one-of-a-kind! For example, I myself won a copy of "Mistah Jolson."--autographed by Harry Jolson himself!
The Saturday night show was in tribute to Dolores, as I described earlier. Starting with Bill Campbell, who this time performed many Jolson rarities for Dolores (an us) including, "Here's Looking At You," "Lucky in the Rain," "March Winds and April Showers," "Someone Else May Be There While I'm Gone," Are You Lonesome Tonight?" and "Hallelujah I'm A Bum." Bill was splendid--and bowed to Dolores at the end of his act--bringing the audience to its feet.
Bill was followed by Richard Halpern, dressed in white tie and tails--who did a tribute to Jolie's 1930 movies. He sang, "Let Me Sing And I'm Happy," "Rip Van Winkle" (including a rarely heard second chorus!) ""Liza Lee," "Tomorrow Is Another Day," "Night Boat To Albany," and "To My Mammy." Richard was outstanding.
He then brought up "The Sunshine Boy"--our own Nigel Dreiner--who wowed us with "I'm In Seventh Heaven," "I'll Say She Does," and "Never Again." The audience loved him---he has come a long way from the youngster we first met a few years ago. Posed, confident, with terrific stage presence and a good voice--his enthusiasm explodes! Nigel is 24 years old. Just you wait until he's 30---and he'll be on Broadway. You heard it here.
Richard retook the spotlight and took requests, which included, "Mr. Radio Man." "Sister Susie," "Who Played Poker with Pocahontas?" "Alabamy Bound" and "Ma Blushin Rosie!" Then a duet with Jan on "Carolina in the Morning," and then Richard's version of "Yoo-Hoo." When he requested Dolores to name a song for him to close with, she asked for "Rock-A-Bye. " And he rocked the place with it.
The grand finale: Richard, Bill and Nigel did "For Me And My Gal."
All in all, a terrific Saturday night program--which even included a beer commercial (from 1949) sung by you-know-who!! Sunday morning's farewell meeting gave Jan the opportunity to give out all the well-deserved awards for the weekend, with very special thanks, of course to Skip and Lois Mack who ran the whole shebang throughout the weekend with class and dignity.
Next year: On to Philadelphia.
Oh, one more memory. A newcomer to the Society, a gent named Victor from the British isles, when hearing that Jan was about to croon Irving Berlin's immortal "Say It Isn't So" during the show, commented that the title ought to be the audience's theme song! (Sorry Jan--you know we love ya!!)