Thursday was devoted mainly to meeting and greeting one another, informally. A large delegation from the UK attended this year's festival, and their enthusiasm was infectious from the start.
Thursday evening started with the customary unofficial Jolson Karaoke which is always great fun. Lots of newcomers joined in this year along with the usual bunch of professional amateurs. Our good friend Mr. John Barleycorn was there to help those of us with stage fright to loosen up a bit and have a go at it! Luckily, nobody taped the proceedings this year, so there is plausible deniability for all who ventured forth with the microphone. (Actually, some of our volunteers were darn good!!)
Our morning and afternoon educational panels and programs were outstanding this year--the best ever, to my mind.
We began by watching and then discussing Jolie's 1939 "Swanee River" on the big screen. Our debate about the film and Jolie's merits in the production was quite lively. That was followed by a sensational audio/visual presentation by our good friend David McCarthy (who leads the UK delegation) entitled "Jolson Sings." And boy, did he ever. David's choice cuts of rare audio tracks matched up with excellent and rare photos covering much of Al's career was just outstanding. David's appreciation of Mr. Jolson is second to none!
I followed David's presentation (boy, talk about a hard act to follow) with my presentation of some of Jolie's most interesting and funny goofs and bleeps from radio, disc and movies.
Steve Rothschild, our star Jolson lip-syncher, followed with a great hour of Jolson tracks--some out of the ordinary and quite fascinating--and, of course, some of the traditional Jolson blockbusters. Steve is a joyful fellow whose enthusiasm flows.
After our cocktail hour,we gathered for the dinner show on Friday night. We began with a touching tribute by our dear friend John Wehrman to his late father. John played a few tracks from a CD by his Dad--who sounded much to me like a cross between Buddy Clark and Bing Crosby. John is a stand-up guy--and has been for decades.
Next: a brilliant recreation of the Lux Radio Theater broadcast of May 22, 1950---"Jolson Sings Again." Starring Tony B. as Al J., it was a follow-up to last year's presentation of "The Jolson Story" in Milwaukee (which you can see on the Society's DVD of the 2010 Festival if you weren't there to see it yourself.) Everyone in the cast was terrific, too. And Cleo Sonneborn did an "Ellen Clark" to make Barbara Hale proud! Now, if only I can find the guy who played Steve Martin...I predict a great future for him in radio drama! Seriously, the recreation (including all the commercials) came straight from the original script, and with the expert help from Peter Belmonte, our audio/visual genius, I actually felt as if I was sitting in a radio studio 61 years ago.
Next on tap came our friend Bill Campbell, whose theme for that evening was, "Bluebirds and Rainbows." With his white gloves and straw hat, Bill got right down to business with "Follow the Swallow," "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows," "Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder," "April Showers," "Back in Your Own Backyard," "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy," and then an a capella version of "I Got Lucky in the Rain" that was breathtaking. Bill is a joy to behold and hear, year after year.
Then came the evening of shared spotlight for Tony B and Richard Halpern. Our own Nigel Dreiner joined in--and the spontaneity and fun and warmth was something special to see and hear. Here's a quick recap of the program:
Richard did "Tootsie," then Tony did "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy," and "Ma Blushin' Rosie" with Society President Jan Hernstat. Richard's version of the 1922 "Stairway to Paradise" was terrific. Nigel did "About A Quarter to Nine" and "Pretty Baby" with his usual verve (he really does get better and better every year!) Tony then wowed the crowd with his "I've Got the World On A String."
At that point in the program, Jan presented Tony with a Society Presidential Award for ten years of service to us. Tony was moved by the gesture--no show-biz shtick here, he really meant the thank-you and it showed. I don't know where the Jolson Society would be without Tony Babino--and I don't want to even think about it!
Next, Tony's "Fly Me To the Moon" was followed by Richard's "I'm in Seventh Heaven." Nigel returned for "Go Into Your Dance," followed by Tony's "My Way." He also recounted a story told by Frank Sinatra about a night 'way back when when Jolie taught Frankie a lesson in showmanship he'd never forget. And Frank told this story to a buddy--who told it to Tony--so it sort of came straight from Ol' Blue Eyes' mouth.
Nigel returned for "For Me and My Gal," and then Richard KNOCKED US OVER with his rendition of "I Want To Be A Lifeguard"--as sung by Popeye The Sailor himself!
The grand finale of the evening: Bill, Richard, Nigel and Tony and Jan singing "New York New York." Absolutely wonderful.
Friday night's show was sensational.
On Saturday morning we began our educational program once again, with "The Road To Seredzius," a video documentary done by Jens Reinke and Andrea Oberheiden, describing a recent trip to Lithuania to visit the little town in which Al Jolson was born. Fascinating information, with more to come as this terrific young team continues their quest to document the life and legacy of Jolson.
Next, our good friend and film historian Jon Sonneborn treated us (with a capital "T") to some of the delicious new material--visual and audio--that he has recently acquired. Photos, posters and rare visual materials were accompanied by a few NEVER BEFORE HEARD TRACKS. One, of Jolson bursting into a recording being done by Eddie Cantor in 1932 was just amazing as were two never-before-heard tracks from a 1938 Lifebuoy program, along with excerpts from a 1934 Kraft show that's new! Best of all, Jon has graciously and generously donated all of these tracks (and others) for the Society to distribute soon. Jon will be in Milwaukee next year to dive into Al's movie career--good and bad--in a lecture you're sure not to miss next May.
After Jon came Professor Paul Bowers' stunning audio/visual presentation of "Jolson's Early Shubert Years." Using photos obtained from his visits to The Shubert Archive in New York, and using audio tracks done by stars who appeared with Al in his earliest Shubert stage shows, he brought us through a time machine back to opening night at the Winter Garden 100 years ago. Paul's research skills and production values for his presentation were on a graduate school level. The presentation was the best I've ever seen--anywhere--on the career of Al Jolson.
The program had just one more item to go before we would break to get ready for the evening function, and that was Jan's "IAJS Auction." Of course this is not an ordinary auction as Jan takes great pleasure in milking each item on sale for all its worth.
Another Cocktail hour got everyone in the mood for the evening's festivities, which started at 8 p.m. The entertainment got off to a somewhat somber start with a tribute to the late Dolores Kontowicz, founder of the IAJS, which comprised of showing part of the Jolson Society DVD, "Remembering Dolores." Anyone who wants a lasting memory of this wonderful lady should get this DVD, available from the Video Department of the IAJS. It has lots of wonderful and touching memories of Dolores.
The Saturday entertainment had a few surprises for us, one being a young lady called Olivia, who was introduced by pianist Dave Gross. Olivia could only be around the 10 to 12 age group but she had us all on our feet applauding as she sang Jolson songs for us with all of the energy and confidence of someone MUCH older.
Another addition to the talents of Tony, Richard, Bill and Nigel were two of the UK contingent. Talented Jolieanna Green was asked to repeat part of her Thursday karaoke performance by singing a beautiful version of "The Anniversary Song." Jolieanna is a very talented singer and the audience really appreciated her performance. John Carter followed with his truly amazing recreation of Larry Parks in The Jolson Story. John gave us "You Made Me Love You" and, as with Jolieanna, he scored a tremendous success.
The rest of the evening just flashed by with Tony, Richard, Bill and Nigel giving their all to entertain us. Tony sang one of my personal favorites "Mammy, I'll Sing About You."
Sunday morning is known as the Annual Business Meeting with President Jan Hernstat giving us a run down on the Festival and thanking all of the many people that help keep this wonderful Society running.
At these events a number of awards are handed out and these always go down weIl-especially if you happen to get one!
Although not present it was announced that member Wallace "Freddie" Richards received a 50 year Loyalty Award. There were 25 year Loyalty Award presented to eleven members: John Dawson, Leon Friedman, Randy George, Ernie Giordano, Harriett Hesselson, Sigmund London, Jim Rubin, Anthony Cattani, John Edwards, Patricia Hughes, and entertainer Richard Halpern.
Next came the Dolores Kontowicz Presidential Awards which were presented to: Sandy Gerloff, Stan Gerloff, Dave Greim, David McCarthy, Dick Bonesteel, Sheriy Hernstat, Jon Sonneborn, Debbie Eifler (I'm sure this was meant for Cagney also), John Webster, and entertainers, Bill Campbell, Richard Halpern, and Tony Babino. An Honorary Award was given to Professor Joe Ciolino, and a special lifetime award went to Honorary Member Jim Brockson.
Finally two special awards were presented to Andrea and Jens in recognition fortheir efforts in furthering our knowledge of Al Jolson's origins by their travels to his homeland in Lithuania. Jens was delighted to accept both awards on behalf of him and Andrea.
The 2011 Jolson Festival was now at an end and I think it safe to say that it was a great success. Our thanks forthis year's Festival goes to the hard working team of Stan and Sandy Gerloff who were the organizers for this year's Festival. As you would expect with anything organized by Stan, it was planned and executed with a high degree of efficiency and great care to all details. Even the M&M's which we all tucked into were personalized with the Festival details. Thank you Sandy, I understand this was your gift to us.
All that is left now is to thank ALL of those involved with the 2011 Festival. We can now look forward to the next Festival, which will be in Milwaukee in May 2012.
Ed Greenbaum and David McCarthy