Thank you, Jazz Singer!

by Susie Hodgson

It was the 1920s and Warner Brothers (WB) was located on what was called “Poverty Row,” which was slang for a part of Hollywood, around Gower Street, known for producing B-movies. WB had been doing pretty well with its “Rin Tin Tin” series, but interest in the German Shepherd was waning. Warner Bros. found itself on financially thin ice. What to do?

One of the four Warner Brothers knew just what to do. Sam Warner poured all his energy, time and money into the making of a revolutionary new film – a talkie. Which talkie?

Once Upon a Time, a New York writer named Samson Raphaelson happened to see a sensational new talent perform. That sensation was none other than Al Jolson. Jolson, born Asa Yoelson, was part of a religious Jewish family. Jolson was torn between living a religious life versus his true love – jazz. The new age. Modern music. Raphaelson wrote a short story based on Jolson’s dilemma-filled life. (Trivia: Some years later, Raphaelson went on to write what many think of as one of the finest movies ever made, Shop Around the Corner.)

Meanwhile, Raphaelson’s short story was made into a hit Broadway play called The Jazz Singer. Do you think Al Jolson starred in it? Think again.

The Broadway hit, The Jazz Singer, starred another famous comedian at the time – George Jessel. That’s who Warner Brothers wanted in their movie – even though, remember, the Jazz Singer’s very story was based on the life of Al Jolson! Jessel considered himself a great star and demanded much more money than WB was willing to pay. So WB turned to the “real” Jazz Singer, Al Jolson himself. Jessel’s career was never the same and one-time friends Jessel and Jolson did not speak again for years.

The Jazz Singer was a huge success. Most people think it was the very first talkie. It actually wasn’t, but it was the first to make a tremendous splash and forever change the film industry. It included the electrifying Jolson singing six popular songs, including “Mammy” – which Jolson performed in the now-controversial blackface. Al Jolson started performing in blackface in 1904. He stopped in 1931. During the 1920s, virtually all Broadway musicals were performed in blackface. At the time, it was commonplace, and some say that blackface meant that whites were paying homage to black music and the minstrel sound. Others have claimed for decades that it was and is demeaning, racist and mocks blacks. It is jarring to watch today.

Al Jolson was the highest paid entertainer of the 1920s and The Jazz Singer made more money for Warner Brothers than any other film to that date. But it came at a price. Do you recall how this movie was Sam Warner’s baby? His project? How he poured every ounce of his soul into it..? Well, he paid for it. He was so busy working on The Jazz Singer that he neglected his health. He developed abscessed teeth which led to infections which turned into pneumonia. Sam was only 40 years old and he died on the day before the premiere of The Jazz Singer. None of the Warner Brothers could go to the New York premiere. It was a horrific shock.

Although Jolson was the most magnetic entertainer ever seen in the 20s, by the 30s his own career slowed down. It picked up again when World War II broke out and Jolson went out to entertain the troops, paying his own way. In 1946, the movie The Jolson Story starring Larry Parks came out and interest in the real Jolson surged again. (Not long after that, the acclaimed Larry Parks was blacklisted and disappeared from the silver screen.) During the Korean War, Al Jolson went overseas to entertain again – on his own dime, working far too hard night and day.

Al Jolson was married four times, including once to actress Ruby Keeler, star of the beloved Busby Berkeley classic 42nd Street. He made famous such songs as "Swanee"; "California, Here I Come"; "Top of the World"; "You Made Me Love You"; "When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob Bobbin Along", "Sonny Boy" and "There’s a Rainbow Round My Shoulder."

He died shortly after returning from Korea, exhausted. He was just 64. They say the USO shows killed him. But that’s the way he wanted it.

One last thing. Warner Brothers made so much money from The Jazz Singer that it finally got itself off of Poverty Row and bought land right here in Burbank. So, thank you, Jazz Singer! Is there more to the story? Sure there is! As Jolson himself famously proclaimed, “Wait a minute, you ain’t heard nuthin’ yet!”

Want to learn more about Burbank? Come visit us!

The Burbank Historical Society/Gordon R. Howard Museum
Located in George Izay Park, right next to the Creative Arts Center
Phone: (818) 841-6333
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