While attending the 2010 Al Jolson Festival in Milwaukee, a germ of an idea was discussed between Stanley Blum and myself. Stanley had seen the presentation I had given the previous day, and he asked if I would be interested in giving an illustrated talk on Al Jolson at his Synagogue. And—would I be interested? —YES, I would!
Time went on and although Stanley and I discussed the presentation again nothing was really happening until he came back to me and said that his Synagogue was interested - well at least some of those that made the decisions were interested. A date was finally settled on for Sunday 11th September so I then set about putting together a suitable presentation. I have been putting together presentations for the UK Jolson Society members for many years now and I have been pleased to do the same at the last two USA Jolson Festivals. This was going to be different though. At the Jolson Festivals I have been talking to diehard Jolson enthusiasts but now I would be talking to people that probably weren’t necessarily Jolson enthusiasts so I had to put a different spin on the presentation—this time I needed to promote Jolson to an unknown audience.
I always find the hardest thing about putting together a presentation is the beginning. Trying to get ‘that’ song, ‘those’ pictures that will set the scene for the rest of the presentation is always difficult. There were actually four different openings for the Synagogue presentation and each in turn was my favored one at one time or another. With the presentation in its ready state I wanted to show it to the two people that were going to help me with the setting up in the Synagogue—Mary and Trevor Hooper. Thinking I had at last the final presentation all ready for viewing, I drove up to Linslade to see Mary and Trevor, and on the way there I thought of yet another way to start it all off. A quick adjustment and I was finally happy to show the presentation and as Mary and Trevor didn’t make any disparaging remarks I was ready for the audience.
The trip to the venue was about 60 miles away, though it was the last five miles that caused us trouble with slow moving traffic. Slow moving—I thought we were parked at one point! We finally made it to the venue and unloaded the equipment into the room. Everyone at the Synagogue was very helpful and couldn’t do enough for us. Society table set up, screen erected, projector and sound system checked and ready and with the laptop loaded and ready to deliver the presentation—it looked like everything was ready to go. Now all we needed was an audience.
Slowly a few members of the Synagogue started to turn up and of course I was pleased when my friend, and the person that started all of this off, Stanley Blum arrived on the scene. Stanley had been given the task of introducing us, and that that made me happy, it’s always good to have a friend doing the introduction.
At the advertised time for the presentation the room looked about half full but they didn’t seem too bothered about starting on time and as people were still slowly arriving, the start was delayed briefly. Someone even phoned through and said not to start as they were just parking and would be with us in a couple of minutes. Finally, with the room now full Stanley called everyone to attention and gave us a nice introduction—now it was my turn. A quick thank you for inviting me and then I was underway with the presentation, which after a swirling text announcing “Al Jolson - the World’s Greatest Entertainer” I started off with the lush music from the opening of the film “Jolson Sings Again” accompanied by a selection of pictures of Jolie up on the screen. There were a few smiles on people’s faces as they recognized the familiar strains of “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody.” As the music evened out I was able to give a brief voice over intro about the man we were going to be talking about - the legendary Al Jolson before fading the soundtrack up again in time for the voice of Jolson to sing the last few bars of the song. The beginning of the film “The Singing Kid, “with the brief medley of famous Jolson landmark songs followed this. That seemed to get them in the mood and I was able to go on to talk about the early Jolson years and his days in Washington DC.
The rest of the presentation kept the story of Jolson moving along as we went through his rise to stardom with his many Broadway Shows, his singing of some of the biggest song hits of the time, his historic work on the first talking picture and the wonderful biographical films “The Jolson Story” and “Jolson Sings Again”. Not to be missed out there were also sections on his unselfish work entertaining the troops during WWII.
During my section on Jolson’s comeback in “The Jolson Story,” I spoke about the missing scenes: Sonny Boy and “The Cantor on the Sabbath”. Praising the Jolson Society for searching for rare Jolson finds I then screened the missing scene of “The Cantor on the Sabbath.”
With the end of the presentation looming I talked about Jolson going overseas at his own expense to entertain in Korea and for affect I played the song “Rock-A-Bye” from the closing minutes of “Jolson Sings Again “ accompanied by a kaleidoscope of photographs of Jolson in Korea.
As the last strains of the song died away there was a good round of applause. The Rabbi’s wife came to the front to say a few words, but before she could say anything several people started calling out questions. Looking round I was confronted with a sea of raised hands and people calling out their questions. This had not been arranged and not knowing if I was breaking protocol I asked the Rabbi’s wife if it would be OK to answer a few questions. As she nodded approval the questions started to flow and I was surprised at the amount of questions from these non-Jolson enthusiasts all wanting to ask about Al Jolson.
The issues of young Al running away from home, his use of blackface, his children etc were all asked and their questions answered. One person said that she had heard a talk about Al Jolson several years previously and Jolson the man had come over very differently from the Jolson the man that I had put up on the screen. The previous person had spoken about Jolson being an unpleasant person that was rude and unfaithful to his wives. But I explained that two of his former wives, Ruby Keeler and Erle Jolson Krasna, had repudiated that, saying that Al was always a faithful husband. What can you say about that other than well yes Jolson had an ego but it was that very ego that made him such a magnetic and charismatic figure on stage. I also spoke of the many occasions of Jolson’s generosity and his unselfish war work, which showed him in a totally different light to what she had been told before.
The questions and answers came thick and fast and finally the Rabbi’s wife called a halt to the proceedings and I could relax again.
The Rabbi’s wife had asked me if I was going to claim any expenses and in a moment of generosity I had declined—I have these moments at times! I was delighted however when she gave Trevor and me each a bottle of vintage Israeli wine, and also a donation to the UK Jolson Branch. As we had just invested in a new projection screen for our yearly Jolson Festival this was a welcome donation and even though it goes nowhere near paying for the screen we were delighted with the generosity.
It was now time to break down the presentation equipment and pack it back into the car. This shouldn't have taken very long but we couldn't get down to doing it because we were all being inundated with further questions about Al Jolson and the Society. Mary and Trevor were both being asked questions about the Jolson Society and the up-and-coming UK Jolson Festival and I was getting similar questions plus requests for my contact details. Several people asked if we would I be interested in talking at other Synagogues and Groups. Oh yes, I’m up for that.
Now it was the Rabbi’s turn to ask questions, and what a fascinating man he was. His wife had told us that she was familiar with the song “The Cantor on the Sabbath,” because her husband was known to sing it. Known to sing it—he sang it to both Trevor and myself and then proceeded to explain what it was all about and what was being said. We gave him cause for laughter when we tried to ask him what some of the phrases meant and our poor; VERY POOR attempts to pronounce the Yiddish wording had him laughing at out lame attempts. He answered all of our questions and did so with great enthusiasm.
With the car packed up we said our farewells to Stanley Blum and the people that were still milling round before making our way back to Linslade, and then for me it was a further drive to get home.
It had been 16 months since Stanley and I had first discussed this presentation (in the hotel bar - where else) and now it was over. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this will be the first of many Jolson presentations to Synagogues in the area, or indeed any other group that wish to hear about the legend that was Al Jolson.