His Honorable Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg
Presented by Joseph Ciolino, Asst. Professor, NYU; Lecturer Music History, New School University.
Your Honorable Mayor:
In my capacity as teacher of young people, and, having myself been taught the importance of stimulating and nourishing respect for history and persons of importance and influence, I am writing this “defense” in support of the above-referenced recommendation. In my professional opinion as an educator, music historian, and, in my love for the city of my birth and life-long residence, the greatest city on earth, I am proud to present this case to you and thank you for your attention to it.
I sincerely believe that this honor is long overdue, and that it would be a powerful dynamic in the perpetration of the great legend and prominence of the Broadway stage, and in New York’s unsurpassed status in show business history.
In the lore and legend of American show business there has been no person, personality, or entertainer, of the magnitude or impact of Al Jolson. His story is the virtually the story of popular entertainment itself, for there has been no greater star or one of such legend, or of no more pervasive influence; there has been no career of such length and quality, no single performer as universally lionized by his peers and praised by critics. Yet most Americans alive today do not know his name.
Al Jolson was the singular and most influential stage personality and popular singer of the 20th century. Even a partial list of singers who have pointed to Jolson as being the greatest and as being an inspiration for them is remarkable: they include such names as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Judy Garland, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jackie Wilson, Rod Stewart, and Mick Jagger. The actual list is far longer. During his lifetime he was the acknowledged “World’s Greatest Entertainer,” at a time when the landscape was bursting with fabulous stars.
AL JOLSON AND THE WINTER GARDEN THEATER
Al Jolson began his remarkable Broadway career in 1911 with the opening of the Winter Garden. He was an immediate sensation and over the next 14 years would perform in 11 shows in that theater, shows written and produced specifically for him. In addition to that Jolson became the biggest attraction at the famous Winter Garden “Sunday Evening Concerts.” Where he would entertain primarily, other show business personalities who would ordinarily never get the chance to see him. The overwhelming success of his appearances vaulted his status into what we might call today, “mega-stardom.”
Jolson was the unanimous king of Broadway for close to thirty years. As a result his name was synonymous with the Winter Garden Theater. There has never been a performer identified with a theater in this manner.
So great did Jolson’s status rise that his highest salary (1928) stood as a record for a stage performer for over 40(!) years. Men and women of letters, philosophers, critics, and writers, anyone who wrote or spoke about the experience of a Jolson performance, all had to struggle with words to adequately convey his impact. Such was the nature of his stage presence. Even a cursory glimpse of such reviews and writings astonishes:
The Greatest Comeback in Show Business
As Jolson’s star began to decline in the late 1930’s but his career took a remarkable turn with the release of a film biography, “The Jolson Story.” With Jolson’s voice being heard now by a new generation his career peaked once again. In 1949 he was voted “the most popular male vocalist of the year” by a Variety poll. This at a time when the likes of Crosby, Sinatra, and Perry Como were at their peak! Jolson was re-discovered and re-crowned, “The World’s Greatest Entertainer.”
He was at the time of his death in 1950 as popular, if not more so, that ever, singing songs contemporaneous with the tastes of the day. An analogy would be if Frank Sinatra had released a CD of punk rock songs in the 1990’s and have it be a best seller among punk rock enthusiasts!
A word about Al Jolson, blackface, and race
Blackface: the word conjures up images of minstrelsy and all the negative feelings that those images bring. True, that in the mid-19th century, most blackface minstrelsy contained pejorative elements and these depictions of African-Americans were often negative and harmful to the black race. However, by the turn of the century traditional minstrelsy had disappeared from the theatrical landscape. The use of blackface continued but was no longer associated with minstrelsy: it had become a respected widely used and fascinating convention of mainstream theater, (which, interestingly, it had already been long before minstrelsy) and black performers as well as white used it. Blackface had become a tool, not to belittle a race of human beings but to free the actor and to enable him “take on” the characteristics inherent in the “mask,” as in the traditions of Greek theater and of the Commedia dell Arte. That it was called “blackface” was the only connection to blackface minstrelsy. One need not even be portraying a black person to where blackface. And the black performers who did wear it (Bert Williams, considered the greatest comedian of the vaudeville era, for example) did so to take advantage its “stageness.” As such, Jolson’s use of blackface is more closely and properly associated with Commedia dell’Arte. His stage persona was likened by critics to that of the Harlequin, and was never done for the purposes of maligning the black race but, Jolson and his audience thought, for ennobling it.
Today blackface vilified as being a “racist” a “bigoted” which, of course it would be if it were used today. Our belief systems are NOT those of the 1910’s or ‘20’s. But no quarter is given Mr. Jolson for belonging to a different time and society; for belonging to a world that saw blackface as meaning something entirely different; for excelling with the tools of his contemporaries that reflected their attitudes, not ours.
Thus, today, Al Jolson is heinously and viciously ridiculed for his use of blackface, he is accused of being a “bigot” (usually by people who know nothing of him or his time) and has become a sort of “poster boy” for intolerance and racism. It has even been taught in schools that he was a “white man who made millions of dollars making fun of black people.”
There is, of course, absolutely no justification.
In point of fact, Al Jolson was always something of a hero in the black community during his lifetime. Some reasons why:
Covering the Jack Johnson—Jim Jeffries boxing match of 1910 for Variety he was of very few reporters who had the courage to say that Johnson won the fight on his own merit and boxing ability. Other reporters, more concerned about the fighters color, made excuses for Jeffries, refusing to give Johnson full credit for his victory. Jolson was one of very few reporters to accurately credit Johnson’s superior boxing talents. This is forgotten or ignored.
As early as 1911 Jolson fought for equality on the Broadway stage. On his return from San Francisco, he brought with him to New York the black dance team of Johnny Peters and Mary Dewson, whom Jolson wanted to feature in his next show. The Shubert Brothers, his producers, said “No.” This is forgotten or ignored.
Perhaps as a result of this, perhaps not, but it remains that Al Jolson was the only white man allowed into Leroy’s, an all black nightclub in Harlem. This is no small honor. This is forgotten or ignored.
In the 1920’s, Garland Anderson, a porter who was a fledgling playwright, approached Jolson about a play he had written. He was a black man. Thanks to Jolson’s efforts on his behalf the piece became the first drama with an all-black cast ever produced on Broadway. This is forgotten or ignored.
In 1919 Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle were refused service in a Connecticut restaurant. Jolson heard about this and promptly tracked them down and told them that he would take them back there and he would “punch anyone who tried to stop us.” Blake and Sissle never forgot Jolson’s thoughtfulness, and they remained his friends for the rest of his life. Noble Sissle represented the Negro Actor’s Union at Jolson’s funeral. This is forgotten or ignored.
Al Jolson’s final resting place and memorial were designed by a prominent black architect.
If you had asked a black person during Jolson’s lifetime if they thought Al Jolson was a “racist” they would have laughed.
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AL JOLSON, PATRIOT
The accomplishments elucidated above would be enough to merit Mr. Jolson’s being honored by people of New York City. But Mr. Jolson’s efforts on the behalf of the armed forces urges us to place him among the greatest of American Citizens.
Today, thanks largely to the visibility of the Bob Hope USO shows, we take the USO for granted. But there would be no USO had it not been for the tireless efforts and petitioning of the War Department by Al Jolson.
Al Jolson often spoke of his love of entertaining American armed forces and his record in his commitment to them is unsurpassed. As a child in Washington, D.C. he entertained troops that were headed for battle during the Spanish-American War. He was among the first to entertain during WWI and performed in benefits at a time when he could have been earning a great salary at the Sunday evening Winter Garden concerts. During WW II he toured US camps, South America, Alaska, North Africa and Sicily where he contracted malaria. After his recovery he continued to entertain troops in the US at camps and benefits. So highly appreciated was he by the Armed Forces that he was awarded the Civilian Medal of Merit and was given an honorary officer’s rank, the only civilian able to wear an officer’s uniform. He was the first big name star to entertain troops in Korea, at time of ill health and against doctor’s orders. His performance schedule would have been hard enough for a young and healthy man, giving about 40 shows in 7 days, roughly 6 shows a day. But such a schedule took its toll on his already failing health and upon his return to the United States, Al Jolson died. President Harry Truman declared him a “casualty of war”. Such a record of voluntary service and dedication to American troops is unequalled by any civilian, let alone one who was a superstar entertainer.
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On the day of his death the lights of Broadway were turned off for 10 minutes in tribute to its greatest star.
Over 50 years after his death Al Jolson’s recordings can still be found on the stacks at record stores, now in CD form. No popular singer born in the 19th century (!) stills sells recordings to any extent comparable to Jolson’s. His personality and legend continues to enchant those who will listen.
Al Jolson deserves a statue on Broadway greater than that of George M. Cohan’s. He deserves, based on his extraordinary achievements, influence, and sacrifice, honors befitting that of a hero. And yet, there is not a statue, nor plaque, nor even a sign to the memory of his extraordinary and life. Most of all, society itself is in need of remembering and recognizing this man, as a means of preserving his true legacy, and to inform those who may only believe the worst of him, (of which there are many) and to inform those who have never heard of the name of Broadway’s greatest showman, a uniquely gifted performer, and remarkable human being.