Al Jolson still popular with some music fans

September 10, 2010 by JIM MERRITT / Special to Newsday

Singer Al Jolson takes his classic pose in

The crowd at the Al Jolson Festival in the Oceanside Knights of Columbus Hall ballroom is primed for their sing-a-long.

Leading them is Jolson impersonator Tony Babino, 53, of Staten Island, who is also known for his Sinatra-like vocals on the Long Island AM radio station WHLI. He doesn't wear blackface, the dark makeup for which Jolson was famous -- and for which he is infamous among critics.

Instead, Babino faithfully re-creates Jolson's soaring baritone to instrumental backtracks originally made during the 1940s. He belts out "April Showers." And "California, Here I Come." And "Sonny Boy."

Singer Tony Babino srikes an Al Jolson pose
Now Babino croons, "You Made Me Love You." And, on cue, the fans sing in unison: "I didn't wanna do it, I didn't wanna do it."

The first gloved one

Al Jolson probably needs no introduction to Act2 readers. Before his death at age 64 in 1950, he was adored by fans and billed as "The World's Greatest Entertainer." Rolling his eyes, wearing white gloves decades before Michael Jackson made one glove emblematic, he starred in "The Jazz Singer," one of the first "talking" pictures, and was a hit on the radio and the stage.

But Jolson's popularity has waned considerably since the '60s, when he was posthumously criticized because he used black makeup to imitate African-American entertainers.

"In the eyes of critics, particularly those who are familiar with African-American history and cultural trends, his work would fall within the stereotypes of blackface performers who were perpetuating negative images," said Jermaine O. Archer, assistant professor of American Studies at SUNY Old Westbury. "I think it would be offensive today, and was offensive then."

But Jolson's defenders, including Long Island fans who have supported this annual tribute to him for the past 14 years, say blackface is a misunderstood theatrical convention that was a part of entertainment history. They applaud Jolson as a philanthropist who helped black performers start their careers.

"Jolson was the furthest thing from a racist," Babino said in a telephone interview after his festival performance last month. "He was the first to use an all-black cast in one of his shows on Broadway."

Herbert G. Goldman of Manhattan, author of "Jolson: The Legend Comes to Life" (Oxford 1988), a speaker at the festival, noted that blackface also was worn by African-American performers in its heyday.

"More telling was the fact that he did help people," Goldman said of the entertainer. For instance, in 1925 Jolson helped the black playwright and philosopher Garland Anderson get his play "Appearances" onto a Broadway stage.

And in 1919, Goldman said, Jolson stood up for the songwriting team of Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake after they were turned away from a segregated Connecticut restaurant. When the songwriters declined to return to the restaurant, Jolson bought them sandwiches from a delicatessen. "They ate in the car, and he put on a show for them," Goldman said. Decades later, Jolson recorded their song, "I'm Just Wild About Harry."

Jolson remains popular among some older Americans, who saw his official film biography "The Jolson Story" in theaters in 1946. The movie, in which actor Larry Parks lip-syncs to Jolson's voice, was one of that year's biggest hits and helped the singer make a late-in-life comeback.

Songwriter Ervin Drake, 91, of Great Neck, another speaker at the festival, said that in his youth he listened to Bing Crosby, and then Frank Sinatra, but not Jolson. (Drake wrote "It Was a Very Good Year" for Sinatra, and other hit songs.) However, Drake said, "You couldn't ignore Jolson," and he learned to appreciate the singer's "bravura, virile sound."

A TV movie staple

Long after Jolson's death, the singer gained a new generation of baby boomer fans who grew up watching "The Jolson Story" on television, frequently shown on WOR's Million Dollar Movie.

"Like a lot of 50-year-olds today, I saw the movie on TV," said Jan Hernstat, 52, of Oceanside, president of the International Al Jolson Society ( "The voice was just magic, and most Jolson fans are affected that way. He was a true superstar before the word was even coined."

The society counts 1,000 members worldwide, two-thirds in the United States, Hernstat estimates. Many in this fan club are in their 70s or older and some even saw Jolson perform when they were very young.

In the United Kingdom, "they are crazy about him," Hernstat added. While most of this year's festivalgoers were from Long Island and the five boroughs, about 25 percent were out-of-towners, some from Ohio and Kansas City, Mo.

Among the younger fans attending was Philip Harwood, 46, of Long Beach, who said, "I'm a big Jolson fan." Harwood recalled finding the singer's recordings among his parents' LPs when he was 10. "Jolson, for me, was electrifying," he said.

Even today, some blacks recognize some of the qualities that made Jolson a household name.

Marvin Dendy, 77, of New Hyde Park, who attended the festival as a fan, said he has had to defend his musical taste. "I had a big discussion with a girl who doesn't think I should like Jolson," said Dendy, who is black. , he "I heard the music as a kid. I loved it. I enjoyed it. It grabs me."