The Al Jolson UK Festival 2012
This years Al Jolson UK Festival has proven to be the best ever - and that it would seem is the opinion of many of the Jolson enthusiasts who attended this annual event! I have been receiving phone calls, emails etc thanking us for a wonderful weekend and stating how much they have enjoyed themselves.
Starting on the Friday evening we were delighted to have attracted our biggest attendance yet with 60 people coming along to our ‘meet and greet’ evening with a Jolson karaoke thrown in for good measure. There were a number of first time attendees that joined us on Friday and they entered straight into the spirit of the occasion as if they had been coming along for years.
Saturday and the Festival opened fully at 12 noon with the numbers from the previous night boosted by a further 16 people. The Festival opened with a short audio visual using the voice of Al Jolson singing Rockabye - followed by our formal welcome to the Jolson UK Festival, with special mention to first time attendees. This was followed by a short talk by Trevor Hooper to make people aware of the research he had been doing over the past year on the Houses of Al Jolson, the Cars of Al Jolson and also the Earning Power of Al Jolson. Trevor had created brochures for each of these.
First presentation of the Festival was called “Stars in Burnt Cork - Jolson wasn’t the only one!” This is a presentation that I have been thinking about for a number of years and it told briefly the story of Minstrels from the early days of Thomas D Rice. I have been gathering clips of artists who had performed in burnt cork over the years - stars such as George M Cohan and Eddie Cantor to Eleanor Powell and Doris Day were all featured. Over the next couple of days I was asked where all of the clips came from and if it was possible to obtain copies of the presentation. Guess that went down well then.
The Stephen Longstreet interview from the latest Society DVD Wilde About Jolson was played and this was followed by illustrated talks from, 1) Wyman and Andrea - Beautiful Dreamer(s) about Wyman’s work in the creating the Vilnius Jewish Library in the homeland of Al Jolson, and 2) Desmond McCaffery - Tail of A Singing Fool which told of the influence Jolson had on entertainer Eddie Fisher.
“Go Into Your Dance” was the featured film of the day and this was followed by the musical highlights taken from the film The Jolson Story. With the voice of Jolson ringing in their ears we closed the first part of the days festivities.
After a short break we reconvened for the evening session with The Jolson Cabaret which was opened in great style by our good friend Bill Campbell. Bill gave his usual polished performance and set the level for the evenings entertainment.
Talented Claire Curren followed Bill and gave a spirited act - even roping in her uncle Bill for one of her numbers “Claire Style”
Mel Thomas supplies the comedy routines at these functions and gave us his comedy mime routines which included songs from Jerry Colonna and even a fellow called Jolson!
Popular Stanley Blum followed Mel with a selection of Al Jolson songs sung in his own unique style. Joe Sharman then took us up to the end of the first half of the show. As usual Joe gave a great performance which included his rendition of the song Working Man which has almost become Joe’s theme song.
This ‘should’ have been the finish of the first half but a special item had been planned for two of our non suspecting attendees. Tony Farnfield was celebrating his 77th birthday and although he was not aware of it he was to be part of the closing number! After Jolieanna had sat her ‘victim’ on a chair facing the audience - second victim Trevor Hooper was coerced into the act. Jolieanna positioned Tony and Trevor at the front facing the audience - but they were allowed to hold hands ‘for safety’ Jolieanna then performed Big Spender for the audience and very much to the delight of the two victims! Tony and Trevor will never be the same again!
Before the start of the second half, John Carter was asked to perform his Larry Parks mime to the soundtrack of the deleted scene from The Jolson Story - Cantor On The Sabbath. John performed the song to perfection.
Jolieanna opened the second half of the Cabaret with a highly polished performance of songs that included a beautiful version of Jolson’s Anniversary Song. The song that I always love to hear Jolieanna perform is - The Phantom Of The Opera, which she performed brilliantly.
Mel took to the stage again but this time he mimed to a performance of legendary English performer Max Miller.
Stanley Blum performed for the second time singing three more songs and received a great round of applause.
To close the show Bill Campbell returned and performed his closing routine to our show finishing off with a medley of Al Jolson favorites.
I must also mention Trevor Hooper. Trevor was the compere for the Cabaret and he handled it brilliantly - throwing in some of the worst jokes that you have every heard, some he tells me were from the stage routine that Al Jolson used before his rise to fame on Broadway.
Sunday is always pure Jolson all the way which is why we always have associated talks like the one on Eddie Fisher on the Saturday.
The difficult thing with these Festivals is that attendees always ask for something new, which is not an easy task considering that Jolson has been gone for over 60 years! So what I do is try to find either interesting ‘new’ items or I present some older material in a different manner. The first presentation of Sunday was titled “Al Jolson - The Warner Brothers Years” and allowed me to talk about the films of Al Jolson and play clips from each film.
Following the Warner films of Al Jolson came the presentation “Al Jolson - The Man and His Music” which ran until the break for lunch.
During lunch we were able to set up the room for our “Al Jolson Mastermind Quiz” which was hosted by popular broadcaster and Jolson biographer - Michael Freedland.
Four contestants had put their names forward to take part in the Quiz and Michael enjoyed putting them through their paces. Michael put together the questions, which had the contestants racking their brains for the answers. You could see that the contestants really were under stress as they tried to answer the questions to a strict time limit. Winner of this Jolson Quiz was Chris Mumford and he received our special Al Jolson Mastermind Quiz Award.
Mastermind was followed by the Al Jolson Top Ten. We had asked attendees to vote for their favorite Jolson song. The winner was “April Showers”.
As the theme for our Festival was the 85th Anniversary of The Jazz Singer it was appropriate for the musical highlights of the film to be shown. I will always get pleasure in watching the classic My Mammy being performed by Jolson in this film.
After a short break for refreshments we started on the last lap of the Festival, and we started on a sad note as we paid tribute to two ‘Jolson’ people that had passed away during the course of the year. Well loved entertainer Max Bygraves had been a big Jolson fan and nearly always had a Jolson song or two in his shows. Max had passed away just a couple of months ago. Apart from Max we also lost George Carter just a short time ago. George had been to just one of our Festivals but he was a delightful man and he made a lasting impression on those of us that met him last year. The delight and pride on George’s face when his son John Carter performed for us at last year’s Cabaret in blackface was wonderful see. Both Max and George will be greatly missed We paid our respects with a minute silence.
The second feature film of the Festival was “Hallelujah I’m A Tramp” This was of course the English version of the film which had to have some scenes re-shot because of some of the words in the film. Words such as ‘bum’ had to be changed to ‘tramp’ for the sensitive ears of 1930s Britain. How times have changed.
John Carter had mimed brilliantly to the song Cantor On The Sabbath during the Cabaret on Saturday and that was done to link in with the Sunday screening of the actual out take from the Jolson Story. After getting a spirited description of what the song meant from a Rabbi in a London Synagogue I decided to add subtitles to the film so that we can all enjoy the meaning of the song.
The penultimate presentation of the Festival was titled “Memories of Erle” by a guest speaker. The guest speaker was Doug Galloway who we linked up with via the Internet from his home in Los Angeles. Doug and I had first put this idea together over 9 months ago. It was a bit of a nightmare making it all happen but it was well worth it. It was a pleasure to have him speak to us about his friendship with Erle - the 4th Mrs Al Jolson. After some brief questions from me we opened up the microphone to the audience so they could put questions to Doug. Doug even lifted up and showed us a special chair that Erle had given him. It was the chair that Al used to sit on when he tied his shoe laces.
After a good 30 minutes it was time to say goodbye to Doug and to say our thanks to all of the people that had helped us out over the course of the Festival - and there were many to thank!
Finally, and this has become the traditional way to finish off our Jolson Festivals, it was time for our Jolson Sign Off Presentation. As always Jolson gets the last word by singing the song “I’l be Seeing You” to a kaleidoscope of photographs taken during the Festival. This year was slightly different inasmuch as I extended the presentation to show more photographs and to do this I used the Jolson recording of Auld Lang Syne with Jolson saying goodbye right at the end of the song.
The end of another Al Jolson UK Festival and I can honestly say that everyone that came along had a wonderful time, so much so that many made their hotel reservations for 2013 before leaving.
Dates for your diaries if you want to come along to the 2013 Al Jolson UK Festival are - Friday 18th, Saturday 19th & Sunday 20th October