In 1909 Art Klein signed as Al Jolson's manager and when the renowned theatrical impresarios the Shubert brothers took over Dockstader's Minstrels he encouraged them to change Al's role.

 

Jolson was under contract to Dockstader till 1913 but Klein got him released early and opened negotiations with the Shuberts for his client to appear in the opening production of a new Broadway theatre.

 

The Shuberts were definitely interested in Jolson but told Klein : "He's from vaudeville Art, this is going to be the classiest theatre on Broadway." Al Jolson would certainly not have disagreed with this description, the theatre was going to be called the Winter Garden.

 

Blackface had never been featured in a legitimate show before and 25 year Al was understandably nervous on the opening night of the Winter Garden's first production La Belle Paree on 20th March 1911.

 

By the time he went onstage his stomach was a knotful of butterflies as it always was on opening nights but after waiting 3 and a half hours he was more nervous than usual. Jolson's first appearance on Broadway was a failure as Art Klein recalled : "Jolson was very,very sad about this. He told me I had no right to sign him for such a big place. He was happy in vaudeville and making more money there to." 

 

The Shuberts though gave Al a better position on the bill for the next performance and the Jolson Broadway legend began to take shape. Singing He'd Have To Get Under he mesmerised the audience.

As Art Klein recalled : "In those days you must remember there were no microphones. But this man had the most resonant voice of any human being I ever knew. I stood at the back of the theatre with my hands on the wall and I could feel the bricks vibrate. The bricks shook with this one voice and with no microphone to help him."

 

Al Jolson's reign as the King of Broadway had began. Right from the start he showed he wasn't going to be like any other actor in a Broadway, like the ones who simply read their lines or sang the songs written for the show. He would sing the songs he wanted to sing and even change the way he delivered them in subsequent performances. He told Green Book magazine in 1915 :

 

"I've never given the same performance twice for three reasons : I'm always trying something new, I'm a believer in spontaneous humour and I'd go insane if I had to do the same thing every night."

 

Al suggested they take the show on the road and the Shuberts seeing more dollar signs before their eyes agreed. So people in small towns who had never seen a Broadway got a chance to see the great Jolson at the peak of his powers.

 

It was just the beginning of a succession of Broadway hits : Vera Violetta (1911), The Whirl of Society (1912), The Honeymoon Express (1913), Dancing Around (1914) and Robinson Crusoe Junior (1916). None of them were masterpieces of musical comedy but it really didn't matter as Charles Hastings wrote in the magazine Motion Picture :

 

"Jolson never had a flop on Broadway and some of his shows were pretty bad. Some of them had little else but Jolson in them but that was enough because Al sang in a way that rattled your backbone and made you want to jump up and dance."