A graphical look at the early career of Al Jolson, and the way in which he stamped his name
in show-biz history as "The Worlds Greatest Entertainer". Featuring rare photos of Jolson in
the theater which was know as his own; The Winter Garden.
When Al first stepped onto the stage in 1899, little did he know that he would be known as its number one star right up until 1927 when he left to make the first talking picture The Jazz Singer.
After the death of his mother in 1895, Al was living with his father in Washington, when his older brother, Harry, was to travel to New York, and Broadway in search of fame and fortune. Al of course followed and spent many days and nights sleeping rough and hiding on cargo trains.
In October 1899 Al was lucky enough to be spotted by a scout, looking for Jewish children to take part in the Israel Zangwill play Children Of The Ghetto. It was to be Al's first appearance on the Broadway stage, and took place on 16th October 1899.
Here we can see a scene from the show, which only ran for three nights. Al's part in the show was very small, and almost certainly a nonspeaking role... but at just 13 years of age he had made a start in what would be the most glittering broadway career ever.
Between the years of 1899 and 1911 Al was to undergo the transformation into a solo artist. He would work with his brother Harry as well as several other vaudeville stars, he would adopt the idea of wearing blackface, would coin the phrase, "You ain't heard nothing yet," and would. of course, be the star attraction for the great Lew Dockstader and his Minstrel Troupe.
In 1911 Dockstader's Minstrels were taken over by the immense riches of the Shubert brothers, who were in the process of completing a new theater 'The Winter Garden'. Al was picked to take part in its first production, a show entitled 'La Belle Paree'. His character was named 'Erastus Sparkler' an aristocrat from San Juan. He sang only one song in the show, a song entitled 'Paris Is A Paradise For Coons'....the less said the better. It was hardly an ideal start, his small part only began three hours into the show, when most of the audience were ready to go home.
Jolson can be seen here, sixth from the right. During the run of 'La Belle' Jolson would develop his singing style even greater, his part was made bigger at special request of the Shubert brothers, and by the time the show closed for summer break, Al was being talked about as a star of the future. By November, 1911, Jolson was considered to be a big enough attraction to get second billing, to one of the great performers of the day, Gaby Deslys. The new show entitled 'Vera Violetta' starring Gaby Deslys would open at 'The Winter Garden' on November 20th 1911. At this time of course, microphones were unheard of and some of the lighting was still gas powered, but that had no effect on the Jolson voice booming out from the massive stage. Arte Kleine, Jolson's manager would later recall that he could feel the vibration in the walls of the Winter Garden while Jolson sang...without a mic.
It was before the opening of this show that Jolson placed an ad in the showbiz newspaper 'Variety', it simply stated... "watch me, I'm a WOW". Another newcomer to the scene in 1911 was an eighteen year old Mae West, making her first start as one of the shows many dancers. The name of Gaby Deslys would appear before Jolson on all the credits, but it was clear from an early stage who the star of this production was. The New York Times wrote; "There was Al Jolson in the role of a colored waiter who succeeded in rousing the audience into its first enthusiasm in the early part of the evening, and kept them enthusiastic for much of the time after". Among others, Jolson sang 'That Haunting Melody' and 'Rum Tum Tiddle', and sang then very well by all accounts. Vera Violetta ran for 136 performances
Jolson's next show opened on 5th March 1912, it was entitled 'Whirl Of Society'. Yet again this Shubert show ran at the Winter Garden theater, but this time Jolson WAS the star attraction. It would be the first time that Al played the part of 'Gus', a negro character fitting the Jolson style to a tee! Jolson became so attached to the character that he would often play between himself and Gus when off stage... for example; the song 'Sister Susie as sang by Al in 1914 features a sequence of dialect by Al in which he clark puts on the voice of the black negro character Gus.
Jolson quickly became the king of Broadway, on March 23rd 1912 Variety wrote "The Shuberts may run the Winter Garden, but Al Jolson owns it", his fellow professionals were even in awe of Jolson, so much so that Al and the Shuberts decided to put on what would be known as 'The Sunday nigh concert' at the Winter Garden... it would be a weekly event where Al could let his rivals here him at work.
Whirl Of Society was a show in three parts, Jolson sang hits like 'My Sumurun Girl' and 'On The Mississippi. He also sang his first ever Irving Berlin number, 'Ragtime Sextette'. Al was doing very well in the recording studio too, ever song he released seemed to enhance his reputation and following.
Another major step Al took in this show was the introduction of the runway, an extension of the stage going right down the center of the theater. It allowed Al to get even closer to his audience and almost make them feel part of the show. Whirl Of Society toured the States and enjoyed major success, by this time Al's reputation all around the world was growing. When the show closed in early 1913 it was simply to allow Al to take his place at the palace 'The Winter Garden' for a brand new production, one which would be his biggest attraction yet.
'Honeymoon Express' was a two act spectacular featuring some of Jolson's greatest hits. On the opening night Jolson did something that had never been done before in the history of broadway; the show was almost two thirds of the way through, and it was clear that the curtain would be coming down at least an hour late.... so Jolson called to the audience "do you want me or the show?" of course the answer was "you" and Jolson stopped the show in its tracks and sang for another hour.... and not just the songs from the show, he had the audience call out requests and also sang big hits of the day.... Jolson had well and truly won Broadway over!
1914 Was to witness the opening of the appropriately titled 'Dancing Around'. Al again played the negro character Gus in what would be another winter Garden smash! Dancing around ran for 145 performances, and included 'When The Grown Up Ladies Act Like Babies', 'It's A Long Way To Tiparari', 'I'm Glad My Wife Is In Europe' and 'Everybody Rag With Me'. When the show completed it's run at the Winter Garden, Al took the show on a national tour which included Washington D.C and a private performance for the president (of the United States).
In 1916 'Robinson Crusoe Jr.' Al was billed, for the first time, as 'America's Greatest Entertainer', a title which would soon be rephrased 'The World's Greatest Entertainer'. The show would run for 139 performances and would of course not only play the winter Garden, but would be taken on a national tour. It was the only show Jolson had taken part in which seem to have anything like a decent plot, of course it soon became clear that each performance would simply be another 'Jolson concert'. Al sang 'Yaaka Hula Hickey Dula', 'Where Did Robinson Crusoe Go With Friday On Saturday Night?', 'Where The Black Eyed Susans Grow' and any song he felt like singing. At one point in this show Al introduced a negro choir and performed a medley of spiritual songs... 'The Old Folks At Home', 'Swing Low' and several other Stephen Foster songs. At one point Al was taking home an estimate $2,500 per week, this including his Sunday night shows and any other work the Shuberts could get him involved with. Things were very different for Al's brother Harry, who was being paid $25 per week by Al to stay OFF the stage.
14th February 1918 was the opening of Jolson's biggest hit 'Sinbad'. In this show Jolson was given his best numbers yet; 'N' Eveything', 'I'll Say She Does', 'Chloe', 'Rockabye', 'Mammy' and the immortal 'Swanee' written by George Gershwin and Irving Caesar. The Winter Garden show had Al playing Sinbad The Sailor as Gus, and in a strange twist included a sequence with Al playing the front end of a talking mule! By this time Al's records were selling like hot cakes and his sheet music was outselling all the other Broadway stars. Late in 1920 Al decided that Sinbad had done enough, and he closed the show.... but only to open a new show in 1921 entitled 'Bombo'. For once the Winter Garden would not be the venue, this time the newly opened 'Jolson Theater' would house the production. It was a 1,681 seater theater, and on the opening night in October 1921 not an empty seat was in sight. During Bombo Al would sing his most popular hits 'Mammy' and 'Swanee' as well as introducing new ones such as 'April Showers' 'Dirty Hands, Dirty Face' and 'Toot Toot Tootsie', songs which would live in the memory for many years, and be brought back to life in the 1946 biography 'The Jolson Story'. Bombo would tour the states and be Al's biggest ever success, earning him more money than ever before, and more fans. The show would not close until 1925!
The final show before Al took the leap into talking pictures was 'Big Boy', a play which would later be transferred onto the big screen with Al giving what many described his best acting performance. Big Boy included 'Keep Smiling At Trouble', a major hit of the day. Had Al not closed the show due to bad health, it would without a doubt be his longest running performance. Not wanting to be outdone by any other show, Al refused to have a false horse on stage, and instead included a real life horse in the production.
In 1927 Al took the leading part in 'The Jazz Singer' with Warner Brothers, and created what would be a monster set to eat him up...the talking picture. Few could imagine the impact of his words when he ad libbed "You ain't heard nothin yet"...the rest as they say, is history.