Al Jolson Home Page|His Works|Broadway | Big Boy

After his status as King of Broadway was firmly established, Al Jolson returned to the Winter Garden in January, 1925, with Big Boy.

Big Boy represented a new type of Jolson show. Composers, with the help of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), had achieved the right to control the scores of their shows. No longer would shows be a loose pastiche of disconnected songs. The book musical was born, which would ultimately result in 1927's Show Boat, generally cited as the first book musical. But, just maybe, that honor should go to Big Boy.

With a book by Harold Atteridge, Music by James F. Hanley and Joseph Meyer, and lyrics by Buddy DeSylva, the show was reportedly born in a conversation between Harry and Al Jolson, on the way home from the races. Basing the story on Cahrles T. Dazey's play, In Old Kentucky, the show began tryouts in Pittsburg in November, 1924. When it came to New York, in January, 1925, Al Jolson's 59th Street Theatre was showing The Student Prince, so Jolson returned to The Winter Garden with this production.

Reprising his role as Gus, the show places the character as a stable worker on a Kentucky plantation. Big Boy is a horse, cared for by Gus, and set to run the Kentucky Derby, with plans to throw the race to benefit local gamblers. The highlight of the production had to be the horserace in the second act, staged with four live horses running on a treadmill. Jolson's comment about the horse's contribution to opening night, "It's a good thing he's not an elephant," was far from exaggeration.

As to the nature of Jolson's performance in that show, we can refer to Robert Benchley, the humorist who would join Jolson on the Colgate Radio Program almost twenty years later, as he wrote:

    A while ago we intimated that some one (we forget who just now) might take Al Jolson's place. We were just crazy, that's all. We doubt whether anyone could ever take his place. Certainly no human being. We can't imagine what we were thinking of to have said such a thing.
    To sit and feel the lift of Jolson's personality is to know what the coiners of the word "personality" meant. The word isn't quite strong enough for the thing that Jolson has. Unimpressive as the comparison may be to Mr. Jolson, we should say that John the Baptist was the last man to possess such a power. There is something supernatural back of it, or we miss our guess.
    When Jolson enters, it is as if an electric current had been run along the wires under the seats where the hats are stuck. The house comes to tumultuous attention. He speaks, rolls his eyes, compresses his lips, and it is all over. You are a life member of the Al Jolson Association. He trembles his under lip, and your heart breaks with a loud snap. He sings, and you totter out to send a night letter to your mother. Such a giving-off of vitality, personality, charm, and whatever all those words are.

Al Jolson's songs during the run of Big Boy included:

Hello, 'Tucky

As Long As I've Got My Mammy

Who Was Chasing Paul Revere?

Keep Smiling At Trouble

If You Knew Susie

Miami

Nobody But Fanny

It All Depends On You

One O'Clock Baby

Click on the songs highlighted as links to hear Jolson's recording of some of these songs.

Certainly the most notable of the songs is "If You Knew Susie," which Jolson introduced during the run of Big Boy, but felt that it did not suit his style. Other than performing it on the radio with Cantor, Al Jolson did not record the song. While several other entertainers included it in their shows as well, the song became a standard of Eddie Cantor, with whom the song is forever linked.


Ultimately, Big Boy became the only Jolson theatrical vehicle to be recorded on film fairly closely to the original. His show Wonder Bar was quite different than the film of the same name. While the original score was gutted for the film, it remains one of his most vibrant screen performances, one done entirely in blackface, save the final scene. Here is a look at the film version of Big Boy.

The New York Times review of "Big Boy,"
January 8, 1925
The New York Times story on "Big Boy,"
January 26, 1925

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This listing and material Copyright © 1995-2017 Marc I. Leavey, M.D. Baltimore, Maryland
Updated 13 Jan 08
Updated 14 Nov 10
Updated 01 Jan 17