Al Jolson can still pack them in the theater, 86 years after ushering in "the talkies" and 63 years after his death.
At least that's the idea with the tribute by The Broward County Film Society (also called FLiFF) to the man billed as "The World’s Greatest Entertainer" at the Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale on Saturday, Feb. 23 starting at 6 p.m.
There will be an outdoor reception and book signing on the Paradiso Patio with the legendary star's daughter-in-law Victoria Jolson - who lives in Weston - followed by rare film clips shown inside the theater in a presentation hosted by Victoria and Chuck Prentiss, star of the "Jewish Broadway" series on Jewish Life Television (JLTV).
They're aim is to re-introduce the entertainer who conquered burlesque, vaudeville, Broadway, radio and movies to a new generation who may only know him from performing in blackface.
"The blackface, that's the elephant in the room," says Victoria, whose book "Beneath the Laughter" (Wilshire Press, 2007) chronicles her relationship with Red Buttons and her rise from Rockette dancer to opera star to Big Band singer. "But you have to remember that it was something that in those days no one ever thought about. Bing Crosby did it. Judy Garland did it. They weren't demeaning anyone. As for Jolson's true political believes, well that was something entirely different: He was the first white [Broadway performer] to entertain with a black man on the same stage at the same time. That man was Cab Calloway. Jolson went into a famous restaurant – and remember this was long before Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin did it – and he brought in his friend Lionel Hampton. He told them that if they didn't serve his friend, then they weren’t going to serve him."
Jolson went on to introduce jazz to a white audience, paving the way for everyone from Irving Berlin and Mario Lanza to Fats Waller and Jackie Wilson. Some say he even invented the catwalk, wanting a long thin thrust stage so he could be closer to a larger part of the audience.
But Victoria, who in 1981 met Jolson’s adopted son Albert "Asa" Jolson Jr. in Nashville where he owned a recording studio, says it wasn't all bright lights and sunshine with the entertainer.
"Yeah, he could be abrasive," she explains, remembering family stories. "And some people hated him. But he did his job. He died in 1950. [Albert] was only 3 years old. But everyone in the family said that his father had a ton of energy. To look at this man right before he died, you would never know that he would have passed away from a massive coronary. He died in his hotel room in San Francisco."
"A Tribute to Al Jolson" begins at 6 p.m. at Cinema Paradiso, 503 S.E. 6th Street in Fort Lauderdale. Tickets are $20 general admission; $15 for seniors/students and $12 for Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival members. To order, call 954-525-3456, ext. 1; 954-760-9898, ext. 111 or visit FLiFF.com.