Wednesday, 25 March 2015

The Other Jolson

When Al Jolson died on October 23, 1950, he was known as “The World’s Greatest Entertainer.” He’ll never be considered that ever again, unless blackface becomes acceptable once more.

Jolson was already famous when he was catapulted into the entertainment stratosphere with the release of the historic picture “The Jazz Singer.” His popularity waned until he was propelled into the spotlight again with the the release of “The Jolson Story” (1946, full release in January 1947). And he stayed there until his death. Anguish and memorials filled the entertainment and editorial pages to mark his passing; Jack Benny wanted to cancel his TV show to go to Jolson’s memorial service (he was finally convinced not to).

There’s another Jolson story, and we don’t mean the movie sequel “Jolson Sings Again” (1949). It’s the one given to the Associated Press’ Hollywood reporter not many days after Asa passed away.

Harry Jolson had the unkind fate of being an entertainer who was completely overshadowed by his younger brother. He was a veteran entertainer and, even in vaudeville, unable to handle what life dealt the Jolson brothers. The Troy Times of September 9, 1921 sniffed that Harry’s act would be far better if he stopped sarcastically yelling “I’m Al’s brother” during his performance (which was greeted by the audience sitting on its hands). And if he wanted to stop the comparisons, it didn’t help that he also worked in blackface (in one 1916 ad, he was billed in terms that would be grossly offensive today).

The bitterness remained after his brother’s death. At least, that’s what I take away from his interview with the AP. That’s even though Al finally put him on his payroll; whether he performed any duties is unclear. The column appeared in papers beginning November 3, 1950.

Al Jolson's Brother Tells Of Family Feuds

HOLLYWOOD—(AP)—When Al Jolson died, many people learned for the first time that he had a brother.
But to the people in show business, the story of Al and Harry Jolson is a legend. I called on Harry at his comfortable home in the Hollywood hills to hear about the long and stormy association of the Jolson brothers.
“People are surprised to learn about me, because I wasn’t in the Jolson pictures,” said Harry, who bears a resemblance to the late star. “I always tell them that while Al and my mother were playing their scenes in our dining room, I was out in the kitchen washing the dishes.”
Also not shown in the film biographies were the two Jolson sisters, now dead. Harry corrected other misconceptions in the pictures.
“That stuff about Al going to a Catholic school,” Harry cited. “Al was only there a few days.”
He added that the film version of how Al entered show business was incorrect. “I got Al into show business,” said Harry. "Since we were rabbi cantor’s sons, we sang in the choir and were used to appearing before the public. I was older than Al and I was the black sheep. I was always getting singing jobs at the burlesque show, singing and selling stuff between acts.
“Like all kid brothers, Al followed my example and I helped him get started. When I ran away with a show, he got the same idea.”
Al, who had a “beautiful little soprano,” returned home when his voice changed, Harry related. The older brother, who was doing well in vaudeville, suggested they team in an act.
“But I can’t sing; my voice is changing,” protested Al. “You can whistle, can’t you?” Harry replied. And so the team of Jolson and Jolson began. Later they wore joined by an older vaudevillian named Joe Palmer. Harry showed me some yellowed theater programs billing “Jolson, Palmer and Jolson” in the early 1900s.
“It was Palmer who suggested Al try blackface,” Harry said. “Since Al was from the south (Washington, D.C.), he talked with a southern accent. Palmer thought he’d get more laughs if he blacked up.”
When Harry fell ill in New Orleans, Al deserted with Palmer, Harry said. That was the end of the brother act. Harry went on as a single act and was successful, especially in England. But he was always in the shadow of his younger brother’s fame.
When Al made a hit in the talkies, Harry was signed by Universal. But he never made a picture. Harry believes that Al’s movie boss convinced Universal that it would have trouble finding theaters for films starring another Jolson.
When vaudeville started to die, Harry’s singing career faded. He became an actor’s agent and handled Al and Ruby Keeler for seven years.
“Then Al walked out on me,” he recalled. “My friends persuaded me to bring a lawsuit for the money he owed me, but later I dropped it.”
His agency business folded and he turned to selling insurance. During the war he was a timekeeper at aircraft plants here. Recently he had been on salary at Al’s office. From the estate of millions, Harry received $10,000.
“Some people say he should have left me more,” sighed Harry, “But Al was like that. I am not going to worry about it. I have my health, my house is paid for, and somehow I will find a way to take care of my wife and her two children. I don’t want millions. I don’t want to be the richest man in the casket.”
Harry cleared up the matter of Al’s age, which was listed in the obits from 62 (as Al claimed) to 69. “He was three years younger,” said Harry. “I am 68, He was 65.”

Harry Jolson died on April 26, 1953. The AP ran the story four days later; I’ve found a newspaper that devoted one line to it. That was it. Al Jolson had topped his unfortunate brother one final time.


  1. Given the stories about Al running the water in his dressing room so he couldn't hear the applause for the other performers, the family envy problem apparently was genetic.

  2. Regarding Yowp's first paragraph on Al Jolson, he'll always be "the world's greatest entertainer" on this blog to us.:)SC

  3. Al Jolson's greatness as an entertainer is no more linked to the acceptability of blackface than Fred Astaire's greatness as a dancer is linked to how fashionable we find white tie and tails.

    1. Excellent point! To paraphrase Tina Turner: “What has blackface got to do with it?”