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.
As Long As I've Got My Mammy
Who Was Chasing Paul Revere?
Keep Smiling At Trouble
If You Knew Susie
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.
January 8, 1925
January 26, 1925