Al Jolson (1886 - 1950)

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Al Jolson Biography & Family History

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Al Jolson was a Lithuanian-born U.S. singer, songwriter and actor who performed in vaudeville and minstrel shows and starred in The Jazz Singer.
Al Jolson was born on May 26, 1886, in Srednike, Lithuania. He made his first stage appearance 1899 in Washington, D.C., performing in vaudeville before joining a minstrel show in 1909. In New York City, he was featured in musicals and known for his high-energy act. In 1927, Jolson starred in The Jazz Singer, the first feature film with synchronized speech. He died in California in 1950.
Early Life
Al Jolson was born Asa Yoelson on May 26, 1886, in Lithuania. His family immigrated to the United States when he was 7 years old, and Jolson and his three older siblings were raised in Washington, D.C. At a young age, Jolson began singing and dancing on the streets for money. Frustrated by his cantankerous relationship with his father, a conservative Rabbi, Al and his brother, Harry, changed their last name to "Jolson" and moved to New York City, soon beginning a vaudeville act together. Jolson began performing on stage in 1899 and, a decade later, he joined a minstrel troupe. A few years later, he began performing his own act in San Francisco, California.
Success on Stage
Jolson starred in multiple New York musicals, including Sinbad (1918). The musical included the George Gershwin song "Swanee," which became Jolson's hallmark song. In 1921, he introduced the song "My Mammy" to the public via the show Bombo. Jolson's records sold millions of copies.
(Today doing anything in blackface is considered racist and hostile. So his stage work was stained by controversy, as Jolson frequently wore blackface on stage. His vaudeville act became known for its use of dark facial makeup and white gloves. While critics saw Jolson as a racist egomaniac, others maintained that his fame was well-deserved, thanks to his enthusiastic stage presence. His performances were marked by interaction with the audience, fervent gesturing and vibrating his voice. Jolson was so beloved by audiences that New York City's Imperial Theatre was named after him in 1921.
Film Career
Jolson's most famous performance came in the 1927 film The Jazz Singer, the first feature in history to include synchronized speech. The film marked the end of the silent movie age and began Jolson's film career. Though he was middle-aged and not the most talented actor, Jolson's singing made him a magnetic movie star. He went on to appear in films such as The Singing Fool (1928) and Swanee River (1940), and provided the voiceover for a movie based on his life entitled The Jolson Story (1946).
Personal Life and Legacy
Jolson married four times and had three adopted children. He was very supportive of American troops, performing for soldiers in World War II and the Korean War. He died of a heart attack in San Francisco on October 23, 1950. His gravesite in Los Angeles' Hillside Memorial Park features a large monument to his career, a life-sized statue of Jolson genuflecting as if he just finished a performance.
The announcement of his death came over the radio on my and my twin brother's birthday. My older brother and my mother and my twin and I cried.

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From an article in The New York Times:

He [Jolson] has been to more Army camps and played to more soldiers than any other entertainer. He has crossed the Atlantic by plane to take song and cheer to the troops in Britain and Northern Ireland. He has flown to the cold wastes of Alaska and the steaming forests of Trinidad. He has called at Dutch‑like Curaçao. Nearly every camp in this country has heard him sing and tell funny stories.[60]

Some of the unusual hardships of performing to active troops were described in an article he wrote for Variety, in 1942:

In order to entertain all the boys... it became necessary for us to give shows in foxholes, gun emplacements, dugouts, to construction groups on military roads; in fact, any place where two or more soldiers were gathered together, it automatically became a Winter Garden for me and I would give a show.

After returning from a tour of overseas bases, the Regimental Hostess at one camp wrote to Jolson,

Allow me to say on behalf of all the soldiers of the 33rd Infantry that you coming here is quite the most wonderful thing that has ever happened to us, and we think you're tops, not only as a performer, but as a person. We unanimously elect you Public Morale Lifter No. 1 of the U.S Army.[64]

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Al Jolson died on in California United States

Cause of death: heart attack

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heart attack

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1886 - In the year that Al Jolson was born, on June 13th, the "Great Vancouver Fire" destroyed most of Vancouver, British Columbia. A small brush fire got out of control and spread to the rest of the city. Dozens of people died and it was only after the fire that money was raised for a fire hall. The local Squamish tribe rescued people who had jumped into bodies of water to escape the conflagration.

1903 - Al was 17 years old when the United States Department of Commerce and Labor was created by President Theodore Roosevelt to control the excesses of big business. Renamed the Department of Commerce 10 years later, many departments concerned with workers were transferred to the Department of Labor at that time. Another spin-off, the Bureau of Corporations, became the Federal Trade Commission.

1927 - Al was 41 years old when in September, the Columbia Broadcasting System (later called CBS) became the second national radio network in the U.S. The first broadcast was a presentation by the Howard Barlow Orchestra from radio station WOR in Newark, New Jersey.

1944 - Al was 58 years old when on December 16th, The Battle of the Bulge began in the Ardennes forest on the Western Front. Lasting for a little over a month, the battle began with a surprise attack by Germany on the Allied forces The U.S. suffered their highest casualties of any operation in World War II - 89,000 were casualties, around 8,600 killed - but Germany also severely depleted their resources and they couldn't be replaced.

1950 - In the year of Al Jolson's passing, in February, Joe McCarthy gave a speech alleging that he had a list of "members of the Communist Party and members of a spy ring" who worked in the State Department. He went on to chair a committee that investigated not only the State Department but also the administration of President Harry S. Truman, the Voice of America, and the U.S. Army for communist spies - until he was condemned by the U.S. Senate in 1954.

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Al Jolson Obituary

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Al Jolson passed away on October 23, 1950 in California at 64 years of age. His family lists the cause of death as: heart attack. He was born on May 26, 1886. There is no information about Al's family.
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