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The Jazz Singer 70th Anniversary

Much has been said and written of the negotations which resulted in Al Jolson starring in The Jazz Singer. Here is a historical glimse into another star of the production, as told by his son, the late Rabbi Dr. Samuel Rosenblatt, z'l, of the Beth Tfiloh Congregation, Baltimore, Maryland.

excerpted from
Yossele Rosenblatt
Samuel Rosenblatt
Farrar, Straus and Young New York © 1954

Chap 36: Pioneering the Talkies

All this recognition and acclaim could not prevent the gradual decline of that new source of income that had been the cause of the temporary upturn of my father's fortunes. By the irony of fate he himself unwittingly had a part, minor though it was, in helping reduce the importance of vaudeville as the most popular form of amusement, next to the cinema, of the American masses. The Warner Brothers, who had lost a fortune in the silent movies, and were virtually bankrupt, were just then toying with a new idea. They were going to produce pictures which, in addition to doing pantomime, would have the actors speak and sing. For their first presentation they chose "The Jazz Singer," an assured Broadway success in which George Jessel had starred with great credit. Based on the life of the black-faced idol of musical comedy, Al Jolson, it is the story of the son of a cantor who became a singer of popular dance music. My father had once been asked for his opinion on the authenticity and effectiveness of the play and had given it his enthusiastic endorsement. It now occurred to the Warners that if Josef Rosenblatt could be induced to take the role of the cantor in this first "talkie," or "Vitaphone picture" as they called it, it would be a sure hit. Who wouldn't go to see it? Everybody, Jew and gentile, would be attracted by the name and voice of the principal star, and they, the producers, would be on their feet again. The only question in their minds was: "Will Josef Rosenblatt accept?" They knew of his religious scruples, of his having turned down on previous occasions the most flattering offers to enter the opera because it would have involved a little bit of acting. But perhaps this time, on account of his financial troubles, which had made him amenable to entering into vaudeville, he might be induced to stretch a point and sing for Vitaphone.

So one day in the spring of 1927 they sent three of their agents to speak to my father in person at his home and sound him out in regard to their plans for him.

"Mr. Rosenblatt," they said, introducing themselves, "we are a committee representing Warner Brothers."

"The moving picture producers?"


"And to what do I owe the honor of your visit?"

"You are no doubt familiar with the play 'The Jazz Singer.'"

"The one George Jessel starred in?"

"That's right. What do you think of it?"

"An excellent play."

"Well, our company is thinking of producing it on the screen with sound effects. The actors would not only be seen, but heard as well, and we were wondering whether we couldn't induce you to take the part of the father and sing some of your own liturgical compositions. We are willing to compensate you well for your efforts. There would be hardly any acting involved for you. All you would have to do is stand before the pulpit or sit at your table, as you are accustomed, and sing."

"I feel highly complimented and flattered by your offer, gentlemen. But you know what my position in these matters has always been and remains. The answer is 'No.'"

"Mr. Rosenblatt, we have been authorized to go as high as $100,000 if you could see your way clear. Think of what it would bean for raising the prestige of the Jew and his faith if a man like you were to be held up as its representative to the non-Jewish public."

"There is no use talking, my friends. I appreciate your good intentions as well as your generosity. But there isn't enough money in the world to make me profane my sacred calling by putting on an act anywhere, whether it be on the screen or the stage. Besides in order that my face might photograph well, I would have to use some make-up, and that is definitely out."

Seeing him so unalterably opposed to any active role and eager to find some tie-up for my father with the proposed talkie so that their plan might not fall through altogether, the Warner Brothers' emissaries made another proposal. "We see that we can't make even a little bit of an actor out of you, Mr. Rosenblatt. But how about just letting us have the use of your voice, without your being seen, in selections like let us say, 'Kol Nidre' and 'Umipnei Chatoeinu'? That might be of some help to us in our plans."

"Did you say 'Kol Nidre,' that hallowed prayer that is chanted by the cantor at the inauguration of the holiest day of the year? Under no circumstances would I permit that to pass my mouth anywhere except in a house of G-d."

"Is there then nothing that you could do for us?" pleaded the negotiators.

"I am afraid there isn't, gentlemen," said my father firmly, and it seemed for the last time.

The Warner agents left crestfallen, disappointed, their mission unfulfilled. Later, as a result of negotiations back and forth, something was worked out. My father agreed, provided he was not photographed, to sing Rachem and several other such non-liturgical Jewish melodies for the Vitaphone production. But even that necessitated his presence in Hollywood in order to make certain that there would be no snag in the synchronization. The Warner Brothers could not afford to leave anything to chance in their first talkie. And so for eight weeks during this summer and in return for $10,000 plus expenses, my father came, accompanied by my mother, Leo and Doris, to Los Angeles as the guest of the Warner Brothers.

After reading the above, I asked Josef Rosenblatt, the Cantor's grandson and namesake, if it were true. He indicated that while the story sounds good, the truth is that the Cantor is in the picture. The figure on the stage in the Cantorial Concert scene is Cantor Rosenblatt. When asked why his father might have written otherwise, Josef's response was that, in all probability, Rabbi Rosenblatt may have never seen The Jazz Singer, as he did not commonly go to the movies.
Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt  z

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Updated 11 Jul 99