Al Jolson Diamond Jubilee Festival
23rd & 24th October 2010
A revamped Jolson meeting took place at Bromley in Kent over the weekend of 23rd & 24th October and those present seemed more than happy with the new style format.
The annual Jolson event in Bromley had been dwindling in numbers in recent years and this was a worrying trend that needed to be reversed. A new organising group consisting of Stan and Val Ball, Trevor and Mary Hooper and myself decided to give the whole event a shake up and turn what was a Saturday evening get together and a Sunday Jolson meeting into a full weekend of Jolson. The weekend was therefore extended to a two days Jolson Diamond Jubilee with a new style Jolson Social on the Saturday night where we could be entertained and also join in and ‘sing’ if we wished.
The five strong organising team wanted a number of changes to make the weekend different and hopefully better than in previous years. Starting with the layout of the room we wanted to change to a cabaret style of seating instead of the old theatre seating with rows of seats facing the front. We also wanted to re-introduce exhibits of Jolson related items, something that hadn’t been done since we moved to the Bromley Court Hotel thirty years ago.
The organisers arrived at the hotel on Friday afternoon and together with help from Tony and Margaret Farnfield set about laying out the room how we wanted it. Mary Hooper had come up with the idea of setting the room up cabaret style and what a difference this simple layout made to the look and feel of the room. It was no longer just a room that looked uninspiring with rows of seats where you came and sat down to watch a movie, it was now an inviting room where you could sit down with a cup of tea or coffee or indeed something stronger and chat with friends both old and new in-between watching and listening to Al Jolson.
After setting up the room and equipment we decided to finally relax and retire to the bar area. Others had the same idea and we were met by Skip and Lois Mack, Bill Campbell, Trish Elkins, John King and many others. Someone, and I think I know the culprit, said that with 20 of us arriving like this on the Friday we should arrange another social evening! This was how the Saturday nights had started off and I really HOPE it was a joke as the thought of stretching the weekend even further is scary to say the least.
Saturday saw the doors of our new style Jolson weekend open at 12 noon and it wasn’t long before we had about 60 members and friends settled down to listen to the wonderful voice of Al Jolson. We started off our two day Jolson Diamond Jubilee with a number of presentations about Al Jolson leading up to the screening of the film The Jolson Story. Member Victor Lane from Guernsey closed the first half of day one with an illustrated talk about early films putting the performance of Al Jolson into context with other early talkies.
After a very short break we started again at 7.30pm with the new style Jolson Social, an evening of music and entertainment mostly in the Jolson style. In previous years this had started off with a few people gathering on the Saturday night and having a bit of a singsong. It grew and members such as Bill Campbell and Mel Thomas entertained with some of the members joining in and singing karaoke. It was also a running joke that no singing was allowed until after 9pm – did we shatter this old concept!
This year we planned out the entertainment and the regulars were to be joined by Nigel Lowe and Stanley Blum. To ensure everything ran smoothly one of our organisers Trevor Hooper was ‘volunteered’ to act as Master of Ceremonies. Trevor’s job was to make sure all of the featured performers were able to entertain while still giving others the chance to ‘sing’ if they wished – and oh how they wished to sing!!!
Regular favourite Bill Campbell was the first of our entertainers to perform and of course he gave his usual excellent performance. Bill returned later in the evening to sing a duet with Jolieanna – more about this young lady later.
For comedy you have to go a long way to beat Mel Thomas with his skilful blend of comedy mimes to recordings from such stars as Jerry Colonna and Jimmy Durante presented in his own inimitable way. Nigel Lowe, who had also supplied some of the audio equipment for the Saturday Social gave us his routine singing many Jolson songs – and of course this was mixed with some humour as you would expect from Nigel. Last of the featured performers was Stanley Blum who entertained us with his magnificent base baritone voice. With the amount of requests being called out I think that Stanley could have continued all evening long.
Surprise hit of the evening was a young lady named Jolieanna Green. Jolieanna (yes her father was a Jolson fan and named her after him) is an accomplished professional singer and she entertained us with a somewhat different style of singing to the Jolson style! Apart from having a great voice let us just say that Jolieanna is also a very attractive young lady and her costume for the evening was ….. ‘appreciated’ by all of the men in the room! Jolieanna was followed by her Dad, Joe Sharman who was a pure delight to listen to.
Many of our members like to have a go at singing and a karaoke took place in-between our featured acts. Member John Carter surprised us with an amazingly accurate mime of Larry Parks in The Jolson Story. John was so good with his mime that we wanted him back for an encore, which he was happy to give us.
At 10.35pm we stopped the show to pay tribute to the passing of Al Jolson exactly 60 years ago that night. Following a minutes silence we raised our glasses to drink a toast to the memory of Al Jolson. Following this tribute it was back to the entertainment which ran until midnight. It is fair to say that our Jolson Social Evening was a total success with members not wanting to leave the room – always a good sign. We finally got the last person out of the room at about 12:20am.
Sunday 24th October saw the second day of our Jolson Diamond Jubilee. The early part of the day had members entertained by a number of presentations about or featuring Al Jolson. Some of these presentations were supplied by absent members such as Pat Philips, Les Kaye, Paul Bowers and Nigel Dreiner – for which we thank you all.
A special short tribute was screened in memory of Society founder Dolores Kontowicz. Many members present in the audience personally knew Dolores and this short tribute combined pictures of Dolores taken at the Milwaukee Convention earlier this year accompanied by Jolie singing Rock-a-bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody. The song had special significance as Dolores had requested it to be performed at Milwaukee. This short tribute bought a round of applause from those present – and a few moist eyes.
Following on from the Dolores tribute we screened the recently issued film Mammy complete with colour sequences. Although Mammy had been screened in America several times since the colour sequences had been put back in it had never been shown outside of the USA in this format so we were pleased to be able to show it to our members for the first time.
After the film the meeting broke for a midday meal for those that had booked it. Those not having a meal were able to stay in the main room and watch a series of short items screened by Jack Martin. Jack also opened the second half of the day with a 15 minute talk about the Jolson birth certificate and the Jolson family’s emigration to America.
The American Conventions always feature an auction and this year we decided in addition to the raffle run by Stan and Val Ball to hold our own auction. Trevor Hooper our Master of Ceremonies from the previous night showed his talents as an auctioneer and we had some fun while selling items kindly donated by Reg and Margaret Reeve. I’m sure that at least one person was bidding against himself – but of course I could be mistaken.
Getting towards the end of the day we announced a World Premier, and so it was. We were delighted to have Andrea and Jens join us from Germany. They gave us a wonderful presentation on the birthplace of Al Jolson following on from their recent visit. We cannot thank Andrea and Jens enough for taking the time to visit us to give this talk, especially when we realised that they had driven for two days to get to us, and of course would now face a similar drive home.
Various people had contributed to this our reinvented Jolson meeting and it was finally time to say thank you to them before allowing Al Jolson himself to wrap up the event and say goodbye to the attendees for this year. Last year we introduced a signoff item by screening ever changing photographs of people taken during the Jolson event with Jolson’s voice singing “I’ll Be Seeing You” We repeated this signoff this year with over 30 photographs taken during the weekend being projected up on the screen and accompanied by the wonderful voice of Al Jolson.
As we started to pack up we were approached by many of the Jolson enthusiasts who had joined us at Bromley and they thanked us for putting together a great weekend of Jolson entertainment. Some had only arrived for the Sunday, but are now saying that they wish to come for the full weekend next year and join in all of the fun. I hope that they do.
Our first two day Jolson UK meeting had taken many months of hard work and finally it was over – at least until next year! My personal thanks go to the organising team of Trevor & Mary Hooper and Stan & Val Ball for all their hard work and support over the past year. If they hadn’t joined me to organise this new style Jolson weekend then it just would not have happened.
A quick note for all of your diaries – Saturday 22nd and Sunday 23rd October 2011. We are going to do it all again and we hope that this new style Jolson event will keep the Jolson name in the public eye for many years to come. Hope to see you all there.