The Jazz Singer at 90, Part III (The life of Al Jolson)

It was hashgacha pratit (Divine Providence) that George Jessel demanded too much salary from Warner Bros. for the lead role of The Jazz Singer. As talented and popular as Jessel was, Al Jolson was the only one with the charisma, star power, voice, and raw personal authenticity to carry the film and make it the first successful sound on film experiment.

Asa Yoelson was born 26 May 1886 in Sredniki, Russia (now Seredžius, Lithuania). Its Yiddish name was Srednik. Thankfully, he was spared the fate of the rest of Srednik’s Jewish community. On 4 September 1941, the Nazis murdered 193 people near Skrebėnai.

Asa was the baby of five children born to Moses Rubin Yoelson (1858–23 December 1945) and Nechama (Naomi) Cantor (1858–6 February 1895). His older siblings were Rose, Etta, a sister who died in infancy, and Hirsch (Harry).

Like many people in that era, he didn’t know when he was born, and chose 26 May 1886. His sister-in-law Margaret Weatherwax, however, claimed he was the same age as her father, born in 1881, and that he was 46 when he married her 18-year-old sister Ruby Keeler in 1928.

In 1891, Asa’s father immigrated to the U.S., and by 1894, he’d saved up enough money to bring his wife and children over. When they arrived, he was working as a cantor at Talmud Torah Congregation (now Ohev Sholom – The National Synagogue) in Washington, D.C.

Sadly, Asa’s mother died in 1895, aged only 37. This sent him into a deep depression and withdrawal, and deeply affected him for the rest of his life. Later, his father remarried a woman named Ida, shown in the previous picture.

Asa was taken in by St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys (now Cardinal Gibbons School), a progressive orphanage in Baltimore. Another famous alum was Babe Ruth, who enrolled in 1902.

Asa and Hirsch were introduced to show business by entertainer Al Reeves in 1897, and began singing for money on street corners as Al and Harry. They often used the money for National Theatre shows.

In 1900, he moved to New York, where his first show was Children of the Ghetto. Then, in 1902, he began working for Walter L. Main’s Circus as an usher. Main was so impressed by his voice, he hired Asa as a singer in the Indian Medicine Side Show.

The circus folded that same year, leaving Asa unemployed. In 1903, he was hired for one show of Dainty Duchess Burlesquers. His rendition of “Be My Baby Bumble Bee” was so strong, he was kept for future shows.

This show too folded within the year, and Asa joined Hirsch, now a vaudeville performer called Harry. Though they gained nationwide bookings, live performances were no longer so popular, thanks to the rise of movies.

In 1904, the renamed Al began performing in blackface, which was a huge boost to his career. Harry left Al and their partner Joe Palmer following an argument, and the duo wasn’t as successful as the trio.

In 1906, Al was left solo. He soon became a nationally successful vaudeville singer. For awhile, he lived in San Francisco (wanting to cheer up earthquake survivors), then moved to New York in 1908 with his new wife Henrietta.

His singing career began growing by leaps and bounds after this move. By 1914, he was a huge star, and by 1920, he was Broadway’s biggest star.

Al went from strength to strength, becoming more popular and beloved with each new show and song. At 35, he became the youngest person to have a theatre named for him, Jolson’s 59th Street Theatre (later renamed the New Century Theatre, and razed in 1962).

In spite of how many modern people don’t understand the historical context and intent of blackface, this method of performing gave him a freedom to step into an alternate persona, disguise his true origins, express the Jewish liturgical tradition and cry of suffering, introduce jazz, blues, and ragtime to white audiences.

His blackface stage persona, Gus, was also smarter than his white masters, often helping them out of problems they’d made themselves. There was no bigotry or racism intended.

Al had many African–American friends, and promoted their careers at a time when Broadway barred them. He also demanded equal treatment for African–American co-stars, and was the only white person allowed into an all-Black Harlem nightclub.

When he learnt Eubie Blake and Noble Sissie, musicians he’d never met, had been denied service by a Connecticut restaurant, he tracked them down and took them to dinner himself. He and Blake became great friends.

The African–American community saw Al as a great friend and ally.

Over the course of his life, Al starred in many live shows and films, entertained the troops, recorded many songs, and starred on the radio many times.

He was married four times, to Henrietta Keller, Alma Osborne (professionally known as Ethel Delmar), Ruby Keeler, and Erie Galbraith. He adopted a child with Ruby in 1935, Al, Jr. He and Erie adopted Asa, Jr., in 1948, and Alicia in 1949.

With Ruby in 1934

With Erie and Asa, Jr., in 1948

While entertaining troops in the Pacific during WWII, Al got malaria and had to get his left lung removed. In Korea in 1950, the dust and dirt of the front clogged his remaining lung and sapped his health.

On 23 October 1950, he collapsed of a massive heart attack. His funeral was one of the largest in show business history.

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The Jazz Singer at 90, Part II (What inspired the story)

Samson Raphaelson (30 March 1894–16 July 1983) was the writer to whom we owe The Jazz Singer. A native New Yorker, he attended the University of Illinois and worked as a journalist and ad writer after graduation. His dream was to become a published short story writer.

When he was a successful ad executive in NYC, he wrote a short story based on Al Jolson’s early life, “The Day of Atonement.” It was published in Everybody’s Magazine in January 1922.

His secretary encouraged him to rework it as a play, and showed him a play manuscript so he could see the style needed. She said he’d dictated more than that in two hours yesterday, and volunteered to dictate over the weekend.

By Sunday evening, they’d produced a complete draft of a play, The Jazz Singer. The play débuted by Broadway’s Fulton Theatre (razed in 1982) on 14 September 1925. Between the Fulton and Cort Theatres, it gave 303 performances, till 5 June 1926.

A 1927 revival by the Century Theatre ran for 16 performances.

Raphaelson got the idea on 25 April 1917, when he saw 30-year-old Al Jolson in the musical Robinson Crusoe, Jr., in Champaign, IL. He was struck by how Jolson sounded not like a jazz singer, but a cantor. Raphaelson also knew Jolson’s dad was a Lower East Side cantor.

Raphaelson’s story is about a young man who breaks from his religious roots to become a jazz singer, with a conflict between father and son about the proper usage of God-given talents.

Nine-year-old Jakie Rabinowitz breaks his gang’s code by not responding to the taunts of an Irish boy from a rival gang. Because he didn’t answer to the anti-Semitic insults, another member of his gang, Joe, beats him to a pulp. Jakie is so angry, he spews the same anti-Semitic insults at Joe.

At home, Cantor Rabinowitz (of Hester Street Synagogue) beats him too, after he says he doesn’t want to become a cantor. His Hebrew school teacher also beats him.

Cantor Rabinowitz agrees to a compromise, in which Jakie will sing in shul on Shabbos and the High Holy Days, while working as a ragtime singer the rest of the time. But when Jakie neglects his religious duties, his dad kicks him out.

Jakie reinvents himself as Jack Robin and begins building a successful musical career. He falls in love with a Gentile dancer, Amy Prentiss, the daughter of a Boston lawyer. Jack hides his Jewish origins out of fear of rejection, and this inner turmoil affects his singing, as does the alcohol he’s begun imbibing.

When Jack finally tells the truth, they get engaged. His parents are horrified he’s intermarrying.

As Yom Kippur approaches, Mrs. Rabinowitz asks him to attend services, the same night Jack’s Broadway show opens. Before he dies, Cantor Rabinowitz begs his wife to get Jack to chant Kol Nidre.

In Act I of the play, Jack Robin visits his parents on his dad’s 60th birthday. His dad is an Orthodox cantor on the Lower East Side, from a long line of cantors. Needless to say, Cantor Rabinowitz highly disapproves of his son’s career as a blackface jazz singer.

After a fight, Jack is kicked out.

In Act II, Jack gets ready for his Broadway début, which he hopes will majorly launch his career. Word is relayed to Jack that his dad has fallen very ill, but he refuses to leave rehearsals.

In Act III, Jack visits his parents’ home before the show, only to find his dad has been taken to hospital. This differs from the film, where Cantor Rabinowitz remains at home the entire time.

Now it’s up to Jack to decide if the show must go on above all else, or if he’ll go back to shul to chant Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur.

The star of the show was renowned entertainer George Jessel (3 April 1898–23 May 1981). Among his many claims to fame was being one of Broadway’s most popular leading men. He, not Al Jolson, was originally slated to star in the film adaptation. More on that in future posts.

The cast list for the play is much larger than that of the film, though it’s possible all these characters are also in the film but are just unnamed. There are a number of background characters and extras amid the main players.

George Albert Jessel

The Jazz Singer at 90, Part I (Plot summary)

Welcome to my long-awaited series on The Jazz Singer on its 90th anniversary! I’m going to be covering topics including the source play, Al Jolson, the history of blackface, the history of Jewish-themed films, the transition from silent to sound film, debunking myths about this era (e.g., the claim that most silent stars had horrible voices), the history of sound-on-film technology, the making of the film, and so much more.

Let’s get started with a general plot summary and review of the film itself!

The story opens in the Lower East Side (described as “the ghetto”), where 13-year-old Jakie Rabinowitz longs to become a jazz singer instead of following in his cantor dad’s footsteps. It’s Erev (the eve of) Yom Kippur, and Jakie still isn’t home to sing with his dad in shul.

Busybody Moisha Yudelson reports he saw Jakie “singing raggy time songs” by a beer garden. Ignoring the fact that Yudelson was in such a supposedly sinful place himself, Cantor Rabinowitz storms over and drags Jakie home.

Jakie’s mother Sara begs her husband to be easy on the boy, but Cantor Rabinowitz declares, “I’ll teach him better than to debase the voice God gave him!” Jakie says he’ll run away and never come back if he’s whipped again, and he indeed does just that.

By the Kol Nidre evening service, Cantor Rabinowitz says he no longer has a son. During the chanting of Kol Nidre, Jakie (who’s quite a mama’s-boy) sneaks back home to pick up a picture of his mother.

Ten years later, Jakie has reinvented himself as Jack Robin. After he wows the crowd at a cabaret with a few songs, he’s introduced to dancer Mary Dale. She offers to help him with his career, and says he’s got a tear in his voice, unlike many other jazz singers.

Jack’s big break comes when Mary helps him to get a leading role in the musical April Follies. He’s very excited to be going back to New York, his home. Best of all, he’ll get to see his mother again.

Mrs. Rabinowitz is ecstatic to see her boy again, and Jack promises all sorts of wonderful things, like moving her to the Bronx and buying her a big house. Jack has also brought a birthday present for his dad. But when Cantor Rabinowitz comes home, the happy mood is crushed (and the dialogue reverts from sound to title cards).

Once again, Jack tries to explain his love of modern music and why he feels it’s more important to him than old traditions, but his father will have none of it. Cantor Rabinowitz banishes him again, and on his way out, Jack says he came home with a heart full of love.

Two weeks later, and twenty-four hours before the opening of April Follies, Cantor Rabinowitz falls very sick. This is also Erev Yom Kippur, which means he won’t be able to chant Kol Nidre. Now, in a decision reminiscent of Sandy Koufax and the 1965 World Series, Jack has to make the difficult choice between his faith and his career. Will he sing in the show or take his father’s place in shul?

This isn’t one of the all-time classic greats of film history, but I’d give it a solid 4 stars. The blackface might make some modern people uncomfortable, but it’s only in two scenes, one towards the end and the other at the end. I was really nervous about that the first time I saw it, but I ended up not taking any offense.

As I’ll discuss in future posts, the use of blackface is actually integral to both this specific story and Al Jolson’s life and career. It wouldn’t be the same story, with the same impact, if it were taken out.

Everyone should see this important piece of film history at least once.

WeWriWa—A new kind of atonement

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. This week’s snippet comes from my WIP, The Strongest Branches of Uprooted Trees, and is the conclusion of the first section of Chapter 29, “A New Kind of Atonement.”

It’s September 1945, and my characters have recently moved to Budapest from Abony so they can be in a much larger Jewish community. They’re attending services at the Great Synagogue of Budapest on Dohány Utca (Street), in the uniquely Hungarian Neolog denomination. It’s sort of like liberal Modern Orthodoxy or very, very old-school Conservative Judaism.

Parts of the synagogue are in ruins (along with 80% of the entire city), and about 2,000 people who died in the Budapest Ghetto are buried in the courtyard. There’s also the chilling knowledge that during the occupation, Eichmann had his office in the women’s gallery. Needless to say, the autumn holidays haven’t been very happy so far.

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Dohány Utca Synagogue, Copyright Gabor Dvornik

The sounds of Kol Nidre commingled and competed with the sobs and shrieks they’d come to expect here.  Beyond remembering all the people who’d been with them last year at this time, surely many people were thinking of the promises, vows, and oaths they’d made in the best of faith but been unable to keep because of the forces of evil.

Eszter thought back to one of the film festivals she’d gone to with Mirjam, before the war, when foreign films were still allowed.  The climactic Yom Kippur scene from The Jazz Singer came into her head, as Al Jolson’s character chose his faith over his career, at least for that one night.  He sang with a tear in his voice, his soul and identity laid bare, in spite of his attempts to hide behind blackface and a de-Judaized name.

Perhaps Kálmán was right, and they’d be better-off in their own homeland, without having to resort to similar hiding measures and make the Gentiles think they were better, different, more modern than those people who lived in self-imposed ghettos.  The cataclysm they’d just lived through had struck everyone, the insular as well as assimilated.  Now it was up to them to rebuild the remnants and replant the uprooted trees.

Next autumn, I’ll be doing a series on The Jazz Singer at 90, exploring a lot of different topics related to the film, the transition from silent to sound film, and so much more. I’m really looking forward to researching and writing this series.

Halloween-themed posts begin next week!