Al Jolson UK Festival 2011

Al Jolson UK Festival 2011

The 2nd UK Jolson Festival put together by the organising group of Trevor Hooper, Mary Hooper and myself (David McCarthy) has taken place and I am delighted to report that it was a great success. The Festival took place at the Bromley Court Hotel over the weekend of 21st - 23rd October and it has proven to be a winner for the second year running. If anything the event went off even better than our first one last year.

This year we extended the Festival to include a karaoke evening on the Friday night, where we were hoping for maybe 18/20 people to join us - we had 35!

The usual karaoke enthusiasts were only too eager to grab the microphone to warble a note or two of their favorite Jolson song. Several new members joined us during the evening and it was the ideal time to make them feel welcome to our UK Jolson family. Interestingly several new members have stated in emails received since the Festival weekend that they felt instantly at home and part of a friendly family. That was VERY pleasing to read!

Without doubt the hit of the karaoke evening was a 13 year old who sang for us - and brought us all to our feet for a standing ovation. Young Claire Curren, who is the niece of Bill and Helen Campbell was a confident young lady with a lovely singing voice - it must run in the family! Claire delighted us with her charm and her lovely singing voice. Not only did she receive a standing ovation from us but also a call from the audience to let her sing again during the Saturday night Jolson Cabaret. It was our pleasure to agree to this request.

What many attendees didn’t know was that as soon as the karaoke finished at midnight, a group of us moved into the main room where our Jolson weekend would take place to start setting it up in readiness for the two day event.

Keeping people out of the main room on Saturday morning was a difficult task - but we did it because we didn't want to spoil any surprises for the attendees. The doors opened on Saturday at 12 noon and people came in to see the room transformed into a Jolson memorabilia room with plenty to see and read about the great Jolson. Pictures, many rare, information gleamed in a year of research, sections dedicated to the war work of Al Jolson and all topped off with the UK and American flags joined together under the banner announcing Al Jolson - The Worlds Greatest Entertainer.

The show started prompt at 1pm with Jolie singing “Let Me Sing And I’m Happy” from the film “Mammy”. We then announced some attendees that had come a long way to be with us and others that worked behind the scenes to keep the name of Jolson alive: Past Vice President Skip Mack, Past President Harry Rhinehart, Trustee Tony Farnfield, UK Publicity Director Reg Reeve and of course the organisers of the event. We then unveiled an 8’ high image of Jolie that would dominate our two day event. This image of Jolie has been used many times in America but never in the UK.

We had a few special occasions to celebrate and congratulations went to Skip Mack to mark his 80th birthday just the month before, Jolieanna and Wayne Davis who were married on 1st October and Arthur and Kay O’Conner who had recently celebrated their Golden Wedding Anniversary and our own Trevor Hooper who reached the age of 65 years - our best wishes to all!

There were a number of presentations on the screen featuring aspects of the Jolson career including one to celebrate the occasion that this December marks the 100 anniversary of Al Jolson’s very first recording sessions. We played Jolie’s first recording and then continued to play a selection of his greatest hits over the years finishing with his very last recordings in 1950. The first day of presentations culminated in a screening of the film Jolson Sings Again. Following this we had a break to allow for the room to be re-dressed in readiness for the evening Cabaret - and for the entertainers to rehearse and do their mic checks.

The Jolson Cabaret started at 7:30pm with Mr Bill Campbell opening our show. Bill walked out in front of the audience before turning and bowing to the image of Jolie - nice touch Bill! He then went on to entertain us as only Bill can.

Second spot up was a total surprise for the attendees. The soundtrack from The Jolson Story started to play - not the music but the sound track from the scene where the young Al Jolson is waiting anxiously in the wings to go onstage for his first Winter Garden appearance only to be told that his spot had been cancelled. The scene finished off with Larry Parks putting his head through the curtains to announce “I’m on next folks” For our version John Carter put his head round the curtain to mime to the words of Larry Parks - John was in full blackface! The response from our audience was wonderful and John took to the stage to thunderous applause. After several songs, John’s section came to a finish with the show stopping “My Mammy”

John was followed by Mel Thomas, Stanley Blum, Joe Sharman, Nigel Lowe, Jolieanna Davis and young Claire Curren who had scored such a tremendous success the previous night. After a short break the second half of the show started and all of our entertainers gave a second round of entertainment. Mel and John teamed up to mime to the Jolson Crosby hits “Alexanders Ragtime Band” and “The Spaniard That Blighted My Life” Jolieanna was on great form and gave one of the best performances of “The Phantom of The Opera” that I have ever heard and Joe received thunderous applause for his rendition of the song “I’m Only A Working Man” (Hope I have that title correct)

Leading up to midnight, all of our entertainers came back on stage together for the grand finale - what a way to finish off a great evening of entertainment.

Day one was finally over though you wouldn't have thought so as  Jolson enthusiasts remained in the room chatting and laughing - always a good sign. We had to finally chase the last stragglers out of the room so that the staff could clean up and get ready for the next day. I understand that one group was still in the reception bar until well gone 3am. I know that to be true because I was with them until 2am when I left them to put together the Festival finale - and they were going strong at that time!

Day two and the doors opened again at 9:45am. These events used to be for just the Sunday and many of the long time supporters still come along for that one day so there were plenty of old friends to meet and greet. 

One of the delights was to welcome back long time Jolson enthusiasts Bob Marsden and Dennis Sykes. It had been several years since these two gentlemen been with us and we welcomed them back with open arms. 

Once again Al Jolson opened the second day, this time by singing “Who Said That Dreams Don’t Come True” accompanied by pictures of Jolie through the years. Several more presentations took place before the main feature which was a beautiful print of “Swanee River” This feature film led us up to 12:30pm and the lunch break.

While the lunch-break was taking place the raffle tickets were drawn by Trustee Harry Rhinehart. A complete change to the way we held our raffle took place this year. In the past we had lost a lot of time by calling the raffle in the outer room and then having people milling round the raffle table to choose their prize. This year was totally different and the tickets were sold in sealed envelopes with 15 tickets in each. As the numbers were drawn by Harry during lunch each was attached to a prize. All the members had to do was to supply the corresponding ticket and pick up their prize. It worked well and nice comments were received about this new version of the raffle.

Back to the Jolson presentations. As many of you will know, we lost one of our dearest friends last year - Kristine Buglear. It was fitting to pay tribute to this wonderful lady and we were delighted that Kristine’s husband Mike and her son Kriston could be with us for our tribute.

I spoke about the loss that we all felt deeply and then Mary Hooper spoke of her as a ‘new’ friend of Kristine. Mary spoke of the warmth she felt when she met Kristine for the first time last year. To balance this Harry Rhinehart then spoke of the Kristine that he knew for many years. Following these two personal memories it was my turn again and with the help of Al Jolson I showed a kaleidoscope of pictures of Kristine on the screen with the accompaniment of Al Jolson singing “Memories” This presentation can be seen on YouTube by following this link

Before attendees had finished wiping their moist eyes we went into a short tribute to Sybil Jason who had passed away earlier this year, and finally we had another Jolson member to say goodbye to - Ray Jackson.

With pictures of all three departed Jolson friends on the screen we stood for a minutes silence as a mark of respect for our departed friends.

Back to the presentations we heard from our friend from Germany Jens Reinke who spoke about the Vilnius Library and the Jolson connection.

The afternoon continued with further presentations including the playing of the lost Kraft Music Hall Show that has been recently discovered. This was the first time in 74 years that this recording had been heard and members sat enthralled listening to the Jolson performance. 

Our Jolson auction took us up to our afternoon break. For the second year we held a Jolson auction and though many items went unsold we had to smile at one particular Jolson item - a Jolson statuette. Bidding was steadily building up and it soon became apparent that two people really wanted the item. New member Neil Baker was the lucky winner beating others to obtain the statuette.

The end of the Jolson Festival was looming close as we screened the Southbank Show - a tribute to Al Jolson from 1986. A last presentation showed the way several members were keeping the name of Jolson alive by posting YouTube presentations of Al Jolson for others to enjoy. The YouTube presentations had been put onto YouTube by Paul Bowers, Pat Philips, Nigel Dreiner and myself. My thanks to Paul, Pat and Nigel for giving me permission to show their work.

The final presentation of the day has been reserved for several years now for Al Jolson to sing us out to the song of “I’ll Be Seeing You” featuring photographs of the attendees of this year’s UK Jolson Festival. 

A final thank you to everyone who had made the weekend such a success and that was it - over again for another year.

As the Festival came to an end the organisers, Trevor, Mary and myself were inundated with both new and long time members crowding round us to say thank you and even offer a few suggestions for next year. Great to have such an outgoing of interest from everyone. This has not stopped in the week following the Festival as we are getting daily emails and phone calls thanking us for the weekend. This really does make it all worth while.

We are now moving on and believe it or not the organisers have our first meeting booked for the second week in November at which time we will discuss the 2011 Festival and start the arrangements for the next UK Jolson Festival which will take place on the weekend of 19th to 21st October 2012. I understand that some members have already booked their hotel accommodation for next year - that’s dedication for you.

All that is left to say is a big thank you to everyone that came along and made the UK Jolson Festival such a wonderful success.

View Festival Photographs

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