Dame Fortune once more smiled upon Al. One of the greatest strokes of good judgment, foresight, genius or whatever one may call it, had taken place.

Sidney Skolsky, a Hollywood columnist, must be given the major share of the credit. He never had lost faith in Al, and believed that a motion picture based on the life of my brother would be more than ordinarily successful. He conceived the idea of having a young actor impersonate Al, and having the real Jolson sing the songs. It seems simple and feasible today, but it was not easy to convince picture producers that this was a practical idea. Finally Columbia Pictures Corporation decided to make the venture, and Sidney Skolsky was given the pleasure and honor of being the producer.

The story began in Washington, D. C., when Asa Yoelson was twelve years of age. The son of a cantor, he was subjected to rigid discipline.

 

One day he slipped away from his father, who waited for him in a synagogue. He took his small girl friend, Ann Murray, to a burlesque show. Here he attracted attention by singing from the audience. The
comedian, Steve Martin, learned who the boy was and went to the Yoelson home. Here he shocked Cantor Yoelson by offering his son a place in his act The Cantor's consent was refused in no uncertain terms.

 

One night Asa slipped out of the house and caught a ride on a freight train to Baltimore in order to join the troupe. The police found him, and sent him to Saint Mary's Home for Boys. Again he attracted attracted favorable attention by singing in the choir. When Cantor Yoelson and Steve came to get him, Asa pleaded to go with Steve. The cantor finally consented after an understanding priest interceded for the boy.

 

Asa went with the troupe, singing from the audience. Later he persuaded Steve to let him appear on the stage. Asa changed his name to Al Jolson.

 

When eighteen years of age, he appeared in blackface in the place of Tom Baron, one of the singers, who had been celebrating with too much enthusiasm. In the audience were Lew Dockstader and Oscar Hammerstein. They were enthusiastic over the boy's performance.

Al was urged to join the Dockstader Minstrels, but refused to leave his friend, Steve. Then, by a ruse perpetrated by the unselfish Steve, Al was forced to become a member of the Dockstader Minstrels.

 

As a minstrel he was moderately successful. Not being satisfied with the old songs he was singing, he became interested in jazz as it was played by colored musicians in New Orleans. He was so enthralled by this new and unusual music that he committed the unforgivable sin by missing a performance. Dockstader promptly fired him.


Repentant and chastened the boy returned to his home in Washington. He promised his father, mother and Ann that he would give up the idea of going on the stage, and that he would go into business in his home city.

 

While they were deciding on a future career, a telephone call came from Tom Baron, now a director for the famous Shuberts. He told Al to come to New York for a show. Al promptly accepted, forgetting all about a career in the business world and his former good intentions. Next he appeared in blackface and sang Mammy. He was a sensation. Backed by the Shuberts, Al went from one successful musical to another.

A fine touch is interposed when Al finds his old friend, Steve, broke and out of employment. He succeeds in inducing Steve to take over the job of being his manager. Al was in the money now. His records were selling by the carload. His shows were sensations.

 

He received an offer from Warner Brothers to go into talking pictures. At a private performance he met the lovely Julie Benson and fell desperately in love. She refused to marry him as she was in a Ziegfeld show, and was more interested in a career than in wedding bells. Al parted from her sadly, and went forth to a great career in pictures. When he finished his first picture, The Jazz Singer, he dashed to New York for Julie's opening night. He inspired her to a wonderful performance, and she consented to marry him. They went to Hollywood and she found a career in motion pictures.

Trouble came when Julie wanted a home far from the madding crowd where she and Al could be together. Al promised everything she wanted, but the lure of the theater was too strong. An opportunity came for Al and Julie to have their own picture company, but Julie insisted that Al give up the theater and live according to her ideal. They, together with Steve Martin, retired to a home in the country.

 

Al suddenly remembered the wedding anniversary of his parents, and grieved because he had not invited them to visit himself and Julie. Julie had not forgotten, and she and Steve brought the Cantor and his wife to California as a surprise.

They had a perfect day by spending the evening in a Hollywood night club. People recognized Al, and insisted that he sing. Again he was the perfect showman; dynamic, forceful, magnetic; with the golden
voice that carried the audience into a frenzy of applause.

Julie realized that the theater was Al's only home, and that he never could be content in any other. Quietly she walked out of the club, leaving Al forever.

When I first saw the picture I thought the trite line should be added; "Any similarity between this picture and the true Jolson story is because of coincidence and not by design."


Probably no one who had anything to do with the picture felt it would be more than ordinarily successful. It proved to be one of the greatest surprises in all the history of motion pictures. Older people, who had
heard Al in former days, rushed to the box offices. Again they were spellbound by that golden voice. They could not believe that it still held its former magic and power. The generation that had sprung up since
Al's enforced retirement, found a new hero to worship.

 

More than $10,000,000 were poured into the box offices for The Jolson Story. Only one picture exceeded it in pulling power, and that was Gone With The Wind.

The forgotten Al Jolson had come back with vengeance. He made personal appearances in a number of cities, and was greeted with greater enthusiasm than even he had ever known.

An album of Jolson songs reached a new high of 1,200,000. More than a million records were sold of the Anniversary Song, which was written by Al.

My brother was again sitting in the high places of the entertainment world. This time he did not neglect his home. He gloried in his lovely wife and the two children they adopted. Never, I believe, had he found such complete happiness.

 

Excerpt from Mistah Jolson (1951) by Harry Jolson