From Tuesday through Sunday, a lavish musical about Al Jolson is scheduled to run at the Lyric Opera House in Baltimore. It's a little-known footnote that Jolson, an Orthodox Jew and the son of a rabbi, is an alumnus of the Catholic-run St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys.
Jolson (1886-1950) is remembered for his performances in blackface. As Mel Watkins wrote in his landmark 1994 history on black humor, "On the Real Side," when Jolson and other performers - black and white - donned burnt cork, they created a "caricature that for many whites defined black Americans on and off the stage for more than a century."
Judged by today's standards, these caricatures are offensive, but in Jolson's time ethnic and racial stereotypes were accepted comedy routines. Jolson played stereotypical Jewish and Irish characters before putting on burnt cork in 1903, according to one biographer. Jolson said he donned blackface in 1912 after a black stagehand told him he would be funnier if he blacked his face.
Prone to performance jitters, Jolson found blackface makeup to be a protective shield. It was "the passport to a completely new world," wrote biographer Michael Freedland, adding, "When that makeup was on his face, he never seemed to worry. It was like a mask behind which he could hide his problems."
Adopting an exaggerated Southern dialect also helped him cover up traces of his own Lithuanian-Yiddish accent, Freedland wrote.
Having scored his first successes wearing blackface - and then garnering his first starring roles in the popular Dockstader Minstrel show, which in turn propelled him onto Broadway - Jolson stuck with blackface.
The blackface controversy obscures the fact that Jolson was an entertainment giant. As a Broadway star, his charismatic personality and dynamic singing style helped launch the songwriting careers of Irving Berlin (whose "Alexander's Ragtime Band" Jolson popularized) and George Gershwin (whose "Swanee" he made a hit).
Jolson changed motion pictures. In 1927, his starring role in "The Jazz Singer" elevated "talkies" from an unsuccessful novelty into the wave of the future. In one magic moment, Jolson blurted perhaps the most famous ad lib of all time: "Wait a minute! You ain't heard nothin' yet."
"The Jazz Singer," erroneously hailed as the first talking movie, was the tale of the errant son of an Orthodox cantor who ran off and became a stage star. In some ways, the plot mirrored the life story of Jolson, the Lithuanian-born son of Moses Yoelson, an Orthodox cantor who emigrated to Washington, D.C. The movie earned $3.5 million and saved financially wobbly Warner Bros. Silent movies were dead - and the movie industry never looked back.
The details of Jolson's boyhood are sketchy. His exact birth date is unknown, but he settled on 1886 as the year.
Jolson, four older siblings and their mother arrived in Washington in 1894, after his father had become the rabbi and cantor of the Talmud Torah Synagogue, now Ohev Sholom Talmud Torah Congregation.
Jolson performed in his father's synagogue, but he didn't want to become a cantor. Vaudeville enticed him. It was Jolson's penchant for running away that led to his brief stay at St. Mary's, which later housed another obstreperous youngster destined for fame: George Herman Ruth Jr., who became better known as Babe Ruth. (Jolson was some 10 years older than Ruth, and by the time the young Ruth entered St. Mary's in 1902, Jolson was on the stage.)
Jolson fled to New York when he was about 12 to follow his older brother Harry, another would-be performer. They visited a relative in Yonkers; afterward, Jolson boarded a southbound train but got off in Baltimore instead of Washington. The youngster was nabbed by members of the Gerry Society, an independent band of do-gooders, who handed him over to the Roman Catholic priests who ran St. Mary's, which was located at Caton and Wilkins avenues and housed about 800 boys. Its remaining buildings are part of Cardinal Gibbons High School. In later years, Jolson embellished the story of his confinement at St. Mary's. He claimed that his father had decided that he "was just a 'bummer'" and turned him over to the priests.
It's unlikely that Jolson's father would have sent him to St. Mary's, because his religious beliefs were so strong that he wouldn't enter a church. Eventually, his father took his wayward son home.
In 1948, on what was probably his last visit to Baltimore, Jolson took his wife to see St. Mary's and told her, "I remember bars all around. Once I hit a boy on the stairs, coming down from chapel. They put me in solitary."
On that last visit to St. Mary's, Jolson also sang to an enthusiastic audience of the facility's residents. He called it the "happiest personal appearance I ever made."
Jolson died of a heart attack on October 23, 1950, at 64, after returning from an exhausting trip to Korea to entertain troops there. He left 90 percent of his $4 million estate to charities - Catholic, Protestant and Jewish - and made small bequests to family members in Baltimore and Washington. His $48,000 tomb, embellished with a tiled waterfall, is elaborate even by Hollywood standards. It sits atop a hill overlooking the San Diego Freeway. Probably millions of motorists have seen it without having a clue as to who rests there.
Neil A. Grauer is a Baltimore writer.
Pub Date: 11/22/98