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The First Superstar
Born Asa Yoelson in Lithuania, circa 1886 (his exact date of birth is uncertain), the man who was later to be billed as The World’s Greatest Entertainer, emigrated with his family to America, where the Yoelsons set up home in Washington DC at the end of the 19th century. The family lived in impoverished circumstances, in common with most other immigrant families, while Asa’s father followed his calling as a cantor at a local synagogue.
Together with his older brother, Hirsch, young Asa ran away from home in his early teens, hoping to pursue a career as an entertainer. The two boys changed their names soon after, appearing in vaudeville in the early part of the 20th century as Harry & Al Jolson. After many years spent learning his trade in the rough and tumble of American show-business, during which time he and his brother went their separate ways, Al Jolson finally achieved success when he won a part in the 1911 Broadway production, La Belle Paree, at the Winter Garden Theatre. Starting with just a bit part in the show, he scored such a success that he was starring in the show by the time it eventually closed.
The leading light of the Broadway musical stage from 1911 through to 1941, Jolson starred in the first ‘talking picture’, The Jazz Singer, in 1927, leading to a successful second career in movies. With the closing of his final Broadway show, Hold On To Your Hats, in 1941, Jolson went into semi-retirement. However, his work entertaining troops during World War II, and the release, in 1946, of the enormously popular biopic, The Jolson Story, catapulted him back into the limelight, resurrecting his recording and broadcasting career. The story of his life was continued in a second film, Jolson Sings Again, in 1949. As recently as 1995 a show based on Al Jolson’s life, Jolson: the Musical, opened in London’s West End, enjoying a successful run of eighteen months and winning the Laurence Olivier American Express Award for Best Musical in 1996 before moving on to Toronto in 1997. Versions of the show subsequently toured America and Australia. In 2009 a more modest production, Jolson & Company, toured the UK after a successful run in New York, winning plaudits from theatre critics.
Divorced in 1939 from his third wife, showgirl Ruby Keeler, Jolson married for the fourth time in 1945. He died in October 1950, shortly after returning from entertaining UN troops in Korea.
A staunch patriot, his contribution towards bolstering the morale of front line troops in this conflict and during the two world wars, was recognised by the posthumous award of the American Medal of Merit. During an era marked by conflict and depression, Jolson’s ebullient good humour, and the unfailing optimism expressed in his art, quickened the heartbeat and lifted the spirits of ordinary people everywhere.
Despite the years that have elapsed since his passing in 1950, Jolson is still fondly remembered by millions, including many of today’s popular entertainers who readily acknowledge his influence upon their own careers. His memory is perpetuated by a thriving fan club, The International Al Jolson Society.
This picture and article compiled and reproduced by kind permission of Reg Reeve, UK Publicity Director & Honorary Member of The International Al Jolson Society,
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