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Al of Two Cities

Jolson Was the Son of a D.C. Cantor & Father of Hollywood's Talkies

By Neil A. Grauer
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 17, 1997; Page G04
The Washington Post

This year Hollywood is celebrating -- appropriately enough -- a myth.

Oct. 6 marks the 70th anniversary of "The Jazz Singer," the movie that revolutionized the film industry and often is hailed as "the first talkie." The revolution was real enough; the "first talkie" part is the myth.

In fact, the technology for making all-sound films had been in use since 1922, and "The Jazz Singer" was something of a hybrid, being basically a silent movie with subtitles and a recorded musical background. It was the magnetic performance of its star, Al Jolson -- the son of a Washington, D.C., cantor -- that made "The Jazz Singer" such a momentous hit.

In one magic moment in the film, Jolson was preparing to perform his first big number, "Toot, Toot, Tootsie, Goodbye," when he blurted perhaps moviemaking's most famous ad-lib: "Wait a minute! Wait a minute! You ain't heard nothing yet!" Those in attendance at New York's Warner Theatre on Oct. 6, 1927, were electrified, as were audiences everywhere. "The Jazz Singer," produced by the then-financially-wobbly Warner Bros., ultimately made $3.5 million, and the other studios -- demonstrating a Hollywood herd mentality still common today -- scrambled to convert to sound. Essentially, the movies really began to talk only when money did. And Jolson made the box office roar.

"The Jazz Singer" was the tale of the errant son of an Orthodox cantor who runs off to become a stage star but returns to the synagogue for one night, Yom Kippur, to substitute for his dying father and sing the moving "Kol Nidre."

In many ways, the movie mirrored the real-life story of Jolson, the Lithuanian-born son of Moses Yoelson, an Orthodox cantor who immigrated to Washington when his youngest son, originally named Asa, was about 8.

Jolson's boyhood penchant for running away from home led to his becoming an unlikely Orthodox Jewish alumnus of Baltimore's legendary St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys -- which also had been home to another obstreperous youngster destined for fame: George Herman Ruth Jr. Babe Ruth loved to tell reporters years afterward that he had first met Jolson at St. Mary's, a probably apocryphal anecdote that Jolson was happy to perpetuate.

Some details of Jolson's boyhood are sketchy. The exact date of his birth is unknown, but he later settled on 1886 as the year. He, four older siblings and his mother, Naomi, came to Washington in 1894, after his father had moved here and become the first rabbi and cantor of the Talmud Torah Synagogue at 467 E St. SW. The old synagogue was torn down in 1959 and the congregation now is known as the Ohev Sholom Talmud Torah Congregation, located at 7712 16th St. NW.

At first the family lived above a flour and feed store at 208 4 1/2 St. SW. (Neither the building nor the street's fraction survives.) Jolson's mother died shortly after the family arrived in the city and is buried in the Ohev Sholom Talmud Torah Cemetery in Anacostia. His father remarried, had three children by his second wife, and moved the family to a home at 482 School St. SW. He lived to see his son become internationally famous and wealthy enough with earnings from "The Jazz Singer" to buy him a home at 1787 Lanier Pl. NW, in what now is known as Adams-Morgan. The elder Jolson died on Christmas Eve, 1945; his second wife, Hessie, died in 1951. They, too, are buried in Anacostia.

As a youngster, Jolson first performed in public at his father's synagogue but had no desire to become a cantor. Vaudeville entranced him. He and his older brother Harry, another would-be performer, would haunt the city's vaudeville houses. Jolson then sang vaudeville songs in front of the old Raleigh Hotel on Capitol Hill, earning applause and coins from hotel guests and passersby. He was an occasional student at Jefferson Public School on Sixth Street SW.

As biographer Michael Freedland detailed in his 1972 book "Jolson," the future star ran off to New York when he was about 12 to follow Harry, who also had fled the strict atmosphere of their boyhood home. After visiting a relative in Yonkers, Al was put on a train to Washington but got off in Baltimore. There, members of the Gerry Society, an independently operated morals squad, picked him up and handed him over to the Roman Catholic monks who ran St. Mary's, which housed up to 800 boys. Its remaining buildings now are part of Baltimore's Cardinal Gibbons High School.

In later years, Jolson embellished the story of his confinement in St. Mary's, claiming that his "good papa" had decided he "was just a `bummer' " and personally handed him over to St. Mary's, telling "the priests what a lowlife I had turned out to be and asked that Catholic lickings be tried where Jewish lickings had failed."

While such a scenario was improbable (Freedland pointed out that Jolson's father was unwilling even to enter a church), another aspect of Jolson's account of his time in St. Mary's rings true: He was so unruly that the priests put him in solitary confinement in a monk's cell. In 1949, on what probably was his last visit to Baltimore, Jolson took his wife to see St. Mary's and told her: "I remember bars all around. Once I hit a boy on the stairs, coming down from chapel. They put me in solitary. That's bad enough. But to look out the window -- and watch the others play -- well, honey, I screamed and hollered until I ran a temperature. So they had to let me out."

Although a 1,000-member International Al Jolson Society strives to perpetuate his legacy (and held its annual convention in Rockville last May), Jolson today is somewhat unfairly remembered for his then-common but now-embarrassing performances in blackface. Yet he once was an entertainment giant. A vaudeville headliner and Broadway star, his charismatic personality and dynamic singing style helped launch the songwriting careers of both Irving Berlin and George Gershwin, as well as almost single-handedly changing motion pictures.

Efforts to combine sound with sight had been pursued virtually since the creation of motion pictures. A full 20 years before "The Jazz Singer," Thomas A. Edison and his staff achieved moderate technological success synchronizing early movies with sound recorded on separate discs. By 1922, inventor Lee DeForest succeeded in recording sound directly on the film. He distributed short subjects to the few theaters that displayed any interest in installing sound equipment.

In his classic 1975 book, "The Silent Clowns," the late drama critic Walter Kerr recalled that the early sound shorts shown at his boyhood movie house "were simply regarded as mechanical -- and hence inferior -- versions of the same vaudeville acts that had always appeared in film theaters by way of prologue to the silent feature." They were something to be endured before "the serious business of the evening," the silent movie.

The artistic hearts of audiences may once have been with the silents, but their allegiance changed quickly when Jolson came on the screen. In 1929, his second movie, "The Singing Fool," was even more popular than "The Jazz Singer," setting the record as the most successful film of all time -- a feat that wasn't eclipsed until 10 years later by "Gone With the Wind."

In January 1928, three months after the debut of "The Jazz Singer," only 157 of the estimated 20,000 movie theaters in the nation were wired for sound. By the end of 1929 -- after "The Singing Fool" -- some 8,741 movie theaters were able to show sound movies. The film industry never looked back.

For a while, Jolson never seemed to look forward. His performance style never changed, and his popularity waned. Many in show business considered him a has-been by 1946, when he stunned the motion picture industry again by producing "The Jolson Story," an immensely successful biographical film starring Larry Parks, an unknown actor, who mouthed the songs Jolson dubbed. A 1949 sequel, "Jolson Sings Again," earned more millions, and Jolson once again was on top with hit records and a popular radio show.

Jolson was intrigued by television and even signed a million-dollar contract with CBS to star in his own show. It never aired. He died in San Francisco of a heart attack on Oct. 23, 1950, at the age of 64, just after returning from an exhausting trip to Korea to entertain U.S. troops there. He left 90 percent of his $4 million estate to educational institutions, hospitals and charities -- Catholic, Protestant and Jewish.

He is interred at Los Angeles' Hillside Memorial Park in a large, four-columned tomb, embellished with a tiled waterfall and elaborate even by Hollywood standards. It sits atop a hill overlooking the San Diego Freeway. Millions of motorists see it each year without knowing who rests there.

@CAPTION: Hollywood and Washington may have forgotten him, but Al Jolson is embedded in both their histories. Washington's 4 1/2 Street SW, above, is the neighborhood where Jolson grew up, and his mammoth tomb in Los Angeles' Hillside Memorial Park, below. Jolson with his real-life father, Rabbi M.R. Yoelson in 1931, left, and in "The Jazz Singer" with May McAvoy, bottom left.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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