By JAY MAEDER
Daily News Staff Writer
ven as Al Jolson's triumphant comeback
as a radio star was wowing everybody in the late '30s, one still
usually spoke of the old duck in the past tense. "He was to popular
show business what Dempsey was to the ring or Babe Ruth to
baseball," wrote New York Daily News columnist Ed Sullivan in
February 1938, respectfully enough, to be sure, but there it was:
"Was." Jolson had announced his retirement a half-dozen times
already, grumbling about the youngsters and how the whole world had
changed. But always he came back, again and again, because that's
what troupers did when they could no longer bear the silences.
He was only in his early 50s. But he
was old as the hills. The thing about Al Jolson was that he had
always been an old-timer, as long as anybody could remember. His
career went back to the Spanish-American War; by the time "The Jazz
Singer" revolutionized moving pictures in 1927 with its single
scratchy line of dialogue, the biggest of Broadway stars was already
on his way to relicdom as a new generation of silky-voiced crooners
came along to displace such ancient rafters-shaking shouters as
himself. In his day, a man had to belt out a song just to make
himself heard over the San Francisco Earthquake. These modern kids,
Jolson sneered, they had to hang microphones on their tonsils.
For all that, the fact remained that he was an old-timer. "Once
you slip," he had reflected once, "the descent is swift, and nothing
can stop you."
He'd said that years earlier, back in 1931, backstage at the
Winter Garden, and he hadn't had a show since.
But hadn't he been the hot cats once upon a time. He was born Asa
Yoelson, son of a sixth-generation Russian cantor whose heart he
broke when he kept running away to the bright lights of the New
World; as a kid he sang for coins on the sidewalks of New York, and
as a young man he toured for years with blackface vaudeville acts,
and he was a seasoned professional minstrel by the time he got back
to the city in 1911 and J.J. Shubert put him into a show called "La
Belle Paree" at the new Winter Garden.
There at the Garden he headlined for years — in "Honeymoon
Express" and "Dancing Around," in "Robinson Crusoe Jr." and in
"Sinbad"; by 1922 he was the greatest star of the vaudeville stage,
America's most popular entertainer, and his new show, "Bombo," was
playing in a 59th St. theater that bore his own name. All the nation
sang his songs, mawkish, sentimental, heart-wrenching things that he
fell to one knee to sob out as whole rooms sniffled and bawled. By
1924 he was making a new hit record every two weeks.
And then Hollywood called.
Later it would be popularly imagined that "The Jazz Singer," a
treacly little tale of a cantor's son who broke his father's heart
when he kept running away to the bright lights, was Jolson's life
story. It wasn't — George Jessel had starred as Jackie Rabinowitz
for two seasons on Broadway, and in fact Warner Bros. offered Jessel
the film version first and he turned it down — but it might as well
have been. In October 1927, when "The Jazz Singer" premiered at the
Warners' Theatre in New York, Jolson was in the audience and tears
were streaming down his face as he watched himself sing Kol Nidre,
the Hebrew prayer of atonement.
Signing now with the Warners for a series of speakies, Jolson
made "The Singing Fool" — another tearjerker, the story of a driven
entertainer who insisted upon going on with the show even as his
small son lay dying — and its signature tune, "Sonny Boy," became
the first American record to sell 3 million copies. In September
1928, two days after the picture opened, Jolson married Ruby Keeler,
a 19-year-old dancer he had wooed away from a Broadway torpedo, and
they sailed for Europe. On their return a month later, the newlyweds
gave up New York and settled in California. And in January 1929,
Jolson announced his retirement from the stage.
But he couldn't stay away from Broadway. After making a few more
pictures, he opened in "Wonder Bar" at the Bayes Theater in March
1931, his first show since "Big Boy" in 1925. "It was wonderful to
see an audience again," he told reporters. "The old applause has
been missing. I like to hear it again." There were indeed tremendous
ovations, for a while, but then it became plain that the old
slide-trombone voice wasn't there anymore, and the star quit the
show after a couple of months and retired again. He had one more
picture to make, he announced, and after that he'd spend his days at
the track like a gentleman.
But this picture, released in February 1933, was Ben Hecht's
"Hallelujah, I'm a Bum," which was successful enough that he was
persuaded to sign on for a few more, including "Go Into Your Dance,"
co-starring his wife, who was frankly a bigger draw than he was at
this point. Jolson was a surprise radio hit by now, regularly a
guest on the network variety hours, but his Hollywood star was
fading fast. Late in 1939, his marriage to Ruby Keeler ended and he
came back East. In September 1940, he tried one last show, "Hold on
to Your Hat" at the Shubert; after a few months, pleading illness,
he quit this one, too.
He was 55 now. He had no career left. All he had in front of him
was the war, whose front lines he toured for a couple of years,
singing for the soldiers, until he came down deathly sick. Flat on
his back in a field hospital in the Far East, he overheard a nurse
report that his temperature was 103. This brightened him
considerably, and he sat up. "What's the record?" he inquired.
After the war, entertainment columnist Sidney Skolsky produced a
film version of Al Jolson's life, "The Jolson Story," and Jolson
himself sang all the old favorites — "Mammy," "Sonny Boy," "April
Showers," "Avalon," "Carolina in the Morning," "Toot Toot Tootsie" —
as actor Larry Parks lip-synched. The picture was a huge hit, and
suddenly the old-timer had a new generation of fans — teenagers, for
heaven's sake, unimaginably all rushing out to buy his records and
sniff, as the Herald-Tribune put it, "the faint lavender odor of old
times." Astonishingly, he was a recording star again. He was back on
the radio, taking over the "Kraft Music Hall" after Bing Crosby's
departure from that venerable institution. He was back on top.
All this lasted for just a couple of years. Late in 1948 he
retired one more time. Producer Mike Todd tried to get him to do a
nostalgia show at the Winter Garden, reprising his old triumphs, but
he said no. He had seen too many old-timers trying to re-create
their golden days, he said, "like old chunks of Camembert cheese.
That's not for me." And out he went again, for good.
And then back he came yet again, and this time it killed him. In
September 1950 he persuaded President Harry Truman to let him go
sing for the troops in Korea — "Oh, well, I can't get a job on radio
or television," he joked to reporters — and the tour was grueling.
On Monday night the 23rd of October, just back from the war zone,
set to tape a segment of Crosby's radio program the next day, he was
playing gin rummy with a couple of pals in a San Francisco hotel
room when his trouper's heart suddenly stopped beating. "Well, this
looks like the end," he said, and then the curtain fell.
Three years later, Danny Thomas remade "The Jazz Singer," and
critics marveled that such a hoary, hokey, wheezing, whiskered story
could ever have entertained anyone, even in a time long ago and a
place far away.
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