Al Jolson Evening in Folkestone, Kent
At the UK Al Jolson Festival of 2011 an idea was hatched between myself and one of our Jolson Society members, John Oliver. John is Chairman of the Capel Church Hall Re-Building Fund (now known as The Friends of St Radigunds) in the village of Capel-le-Ferne which is near Folkestone on the White Cliffs of Dover. The Friends of St Radigunds are raising funds together with the local community to pay for restoration work and to modernise the Church Hall.
The idea of running a Jolson evening as part of the monthly fund raising activity programme was put to the Vicar who readily agreed with the idea and a date was set for the presentation to take place on Friday 8th June 2012.
As Folkestone is quite a long trip from where we live and we wouldn't be finished with the fund raising function until late in the evening it was decided to book into a Hotel for the night. Mary and Trevor Hooper made their way down from their home in Leighton Buzzard and I travelled down with the equipment from Essex. The Hotel we were staying in was just 17 miles from the village of Capel-le-Ferne and we gave ourselves plenty of time for the journey as we had a lot of work to do to set up the equipment in readiness for the evenings entertainment. The earliest we could get in was 6:30pm and the presentation was due to start at 7:30pm - not long for setting up.
The weather was not on our side and driving rain and strong winds blighted the trip. However, we managed to arrive at the venue in plenty of time, we were in fact early and the Church was still locked securely so we did the only thing possible - we drove to the nearest pub for some liquid sustenance! Driving back to the venue, we phoned John who evidently lived next door to the Church and he came out to let us in. Unusually the presentation was to take place in the Church itself rather than the Church Hall which was next door.
The Church interior was delightful and a superb setting for our presentation. The ambience of the room was conducive to the presentation and the acoustics were very good also. Rushing to get set up in time we were nervous to see people coming into the Church from 7pm. The evening wasn’t due to start until 7:30pm and we weren't ready for them. It’s very difficult to set up the equipment and test it out when the audience is already milling around and wanting to ask questions.
Finally we were ready to run, the equipment was all up and working and we were ready for our audience - most of whom were already seated!
John gave a nice introduction by talking from a very personal viewpoint about his love of Jolson and his visit to the graveside of Al Jolson in Hillside Memorial Park. With the appetite of those present wetted John welcomed Mary, Trevor and myself to the Church of St Radigunds to talk about Jolson.
I had been asked to break the evening into two sections, with a break for tea/coffee and the always present fund raising raffle. I therefore intended telling the story of Al Jolson’s life for the first part of the evening and then elaborating on his career for the second part of the evening. The attendees were not particularly Jolson fans - always a difficult task.
The first half of the show ran for 50 minutes and took the audience through the life of Al Jolson from his birth in Shrednic, through the family’s move to America and his early interest in the world of show business. His raise to fame on the Broadway stage was covered as was his groundbreaking role in The Jazz Singer. Jolson’s Hollywood career, his war work and of course his comeback years were all up on the screen with Jolson singing many of his big hits.
The first half of the evening came to an end with that sad October day in 1950 when Al Jolson passed away following his unselfish work entertaining the troops in Korea.
During the break we were inundated by members of the audience coming over to say how much they had enjoyed the presentation and how little they had known about Al Jolson until this event. Mary had set up a table with old Jolson Society Journals on display and many of the attendees crowded around to look at, and take away if they wished, these Journals. There were also very nice compliments made about the way the presentation had been put together and displayed on the big screen. Many thought that they were looking at a film with the seamless cutting together of pictures, video and audio.
During the intermission I was pleased to meet for the first time someone that many UK Jolson members had already known for a number of years - Harry Hall. Harry still owns and runs the pub called Jolson’s in Folkestone (he did try to sell it a few years ago and thought he had a buyer but they backed out and rather than just close down Harry decided to keep it going along with the Castle Inn In St Johns Church Road Folkestone which he also runs). He brought his wife, Mother and Sister over for the evening to support our Jolson event. It was good to see Harry, especially as he was wearing one of the hats and teeshirts that he had produced during the days when the pub was first named Jolson’s and was opened by Clive Baldwin.
Following the break and the drawing of the raffle prizes, part two of the entertainment started. This time it was intended to let the audience hear even more of the Jolson voice and the varied style of the man. To most people Jolson means either Mammy or Sonny Boy. What they got from me was a mixture of songs ranging from the obvious such as Rockabye and Is It True What they Say About Dixie to the less obvious I Got Lucky In The Rain, My Melancholy Baby, My Blue Heaven and When I Leave The World Behind.
The evening finished at approximately 10pm with the song I’ll Be Seeing You, played with a mixture of photographs that gave an overview of the Jolson career that they had learnt about in the first half of the evening.
With a nice round of applause from the audience the Rev Sue White, who was vicar of Capel until Easter this year but has since moved on to a neighboring Parish of Whitfield leaving an interegnum (a period between vicars being appointed) made her way to the front of the Church to wind the evening up officially and to say how much she had enjoyed the talk. She was surprised at how many of the songs she could remember from her own childhood and was delighted that the evening had taken place and how much she had appreciated learning more about the great Al Jolson. There were also requests made for us to make a return visit to Folkestone to talk again about Al Jolson - bring it on!
At least two people commented to John that they had not realised that Jolson was a white man performing in blackface!
Time to pack up the car and head back to our hotel after a long but satisfying day. As we were in such a beautiful part of the country we had decided to stay over and look around the area and so the following day Mary, Trevor and I did just that. Folkestone is a costal Town that was much involved during the last world war in the defense of Great Britain. Hawkinge, a couple of miles away was a well known war time aerodrome where many of our planes flew from to defend our shores and that is where the Battle of Britain Museum is located. After visiting the museum we drove to the Battle of Britain Memorial which is just down the road from the Church in Capel-le-Ferne where we gave our presentation (look it up on the Internet "Battle of Britain Memorial Capel-le-Ferne"). We went into the tea room on site (no, not a pub this time!) and received a quizzical look from the guy serving. He asked if I had been in the area last night and then asked more specifically if I had given a talk on Al Jolson. Small world!
He told me that he wasn't particularly looking forward to the evening but went along as it was a fund raising event. His opinion of Jolson - well he sang Mammy, but that was about all he knew about him. He then went on to rave about the evening and how impressed he was that Jolson was such a diverse entertainer with a range of accomplishments that he had no idea about - until the previous night.
He then said that he wanted to buy a Jolson CD and a DVD of the Jolson Story and would keep an eye out for them. He took note of my email address and will be contacting me for advise on which is the best CD to purchase and where he can purchase The Jolson Story DVD. He also took details of the UK Festival in Bromley and may be joining us for that event also.
All in all the evening had been a great success. I am told that of the fund raising events that that had taken place this year we had the most attendees and it had raised £204 for the re-building fund. There would have been more people there but the weather worked against us. The wind was so strong that Radio Kent had made an announcement suggesting that people avoid the road between Folkestone and Dover that evening and indeed one person phoned John to say they would not be coming. John managed to persuade them that it was not dangerous and they came but no doubt others heard it and stayed home. There were was gale force winds across the Country all that day.
Many of the people attending our Jolson evening had their eyes opened about Al Jolson, some were asking for details about the UK Jolson Festival and others took away the Society membership forms that I had taken along with me. Lets hope that we will gain some new members from the event. Also from word of mouth in the small community of Capel-le-Ferne will no doubt spread the news that Al Jolson is an exciting entertainer that is far more than just the Mammy Singer that they thought he was.