Childhood & Early Life
Al Jolson was born on 26 May 1886, in Srednike, Lithuania, which was a part of Russia at that time. He was the youngest child of Moses Yoelson and Naomi Cantor. He had four siblings. His family was Jewish, and his father was a rabbi and cantor.
His family moved to New York for better prospects in 1894. However, Jolson’s mother passed away in 1895, and he was in a somber state for some time. He later attended the St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys in Baltimore.
He was introduced to the show business by Al Reeves, and Jolson soon found himself performing on the street. He was fascinated by theatre and spent his earnings to watch shows at the National Theatre.
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Al Jolson started his career as an usher in 1902 in Walter L. Main’s circus; later, he went on to become a singer there. After that, he joined the ‘Dainty Duchess Burlesquers’ show. However, these shows closed soon. Jolson partnered with his brother Hirsch and they started working as vaudeville performers for the William Morris Agency.
Jolson and Hirsch teamed with Joe Palmer and toured the nation. The lack of popularity for the shows made them start performing in blackface, a form of theatrical makeup used by non-black actors to perform as a black person. This guise became a regular for them as it was an instant hit.
Jolson started performing on his own in 1906 at the Globe and Wigwam Theatre in San Francisco, where he gained more success as a singer. He returned to New York in 1909 and worked as a blackface performer for Dockstader’s Minstrels.
He appeared in the musical comedy, ‘La Belle Paree,’ at the Winter Garden in 1911. This was a tremendous success. The show folded after 104 performances and Jolson’s popularity was at its peak. He later performed in the musical, ‘Vera Violetta’, which was a success too.
Jolson’s tenure at the Winter Garden included several successful runs. He starred as a lead character in ‘Robinson Crusoe Jr.’ in 1916. Next, he acted in ‘Sinbad’. With these two musicals to his credit, he became the biggest star on Broadway.
His play ‘Bombo’ (1921) enshrined his name in history, and a theatre near Central Park was named after him. His success only soared after this, and he went to New York to become a part of the Century Theater.
He soon started acting in films. His second film, ‘The Jazz Singer’ (1926) by the Warner Bros, made him some sort of a legend as it was for the first time that people saw an actor talk on the screen. Since it was the first feature-length motion picture with synchronized music and speech, the audience was spellbound and cheered Jolson throughout.
His next film, ‘The Singing Fool,’ released in 1928 and was even more popular than ‘The Jazz Singer’. The movie held a box-office record for 11 years. He continued featuring in films for Warner Bros., including ‘Say it with Songs’, ‘Mammy’, ‘Big Boy’, and ‘Show Girl in Hollywood’.
Owing to the general shift in public consumption and taste, he decided to go back to Broadway for the show, ‘Wonder Bar’. This wasn’t successful. He made his comeback with the film, ‘Hallelujah, I’m a Bum,’ in 1933.
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Jolson later went on to perform in many movies with the Warner Bros. until his contract ended in 1935. His last movie with them was ‘The Singing Kid’. He later appeared in a Twentieth Century Fox production, ‘Rose of Washington Square’.
He also performed regularly on radio and hosted some radio shows well into the 1940s, including ‘Presenting Al Jolson’, ‘Shell Chateau, and ‘Kraft Music Hall’.
In the wake of World War II, Jolson decided to go overseas and entertain the American Troops stationed there. His request to head an entertainment committee was granted by the United Services Organization. He first performed at a GI base in 1942. He later covered many U.S. Naval bases.
Jolson traveled to Korea during the Korean War, sponsoring his own trip this time. He performed in around 40 shows over 16 days at the Army Headquarters. These performances renewed his popularity among the public in the late 1940s.
His life was portrayed in his biopic, ‘The Jolson Story’ (1946), and became one of the biggest hits. Jolson appeared in a musical sequence and its popularity made Decca Records sign Jolson. The sequel, ‘Jolson Sings Again,’ was released later and remained highly popular. He remained with Decca Records till the end of his life.
Family & Personal Life
Al Jolson was first married to Henrietta Keller in his early days of struggle. They were married from 1907 to 1919, before they divorced.
Jolson then got married to the Broadway actress, Alma Osbourne (famously known as Ethel Demar), from 1922 to 1928 before she divorced him.
He started dating Ruby Keeler, a tap dancer, in the summer of 1928. They soon married in September and adopted a son, Al Jolson Jr. They divorced in 1939.
In 1944, he met Erle Galbraith, an X-Ray technologist, at a hospital in Arkansas where he was performing. They soon entered into a relationship and got married in 1945. They adopted two children, Asa Jr. and Alicia. They remained married until his death.
Death & Legacy
On 23 October 1950, he died of a heart attack in his suite at St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. His trip to Korea had made him physically weak and he suffered from a collapsed lung as a result. Over 20,000 people showed up at his funeral.
His legacy is evident from the awards that were conferred to him posthumously. He has three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs, California, and he was also made a member of the American Theater Hall of Fame.
His popularity continues even today. The United States Postal Service honored his services by issuing a postage stamp in 1994. His music and performances are fondly remembered by the International Al Jolson Society.