Al Jolson was born on May 26, 1888 in Seredzius, Lithuania. He rose to international acclaim as a star of stage, screen, and radio. Jolson and his family emigrated to America when he was still a young boy. His father, the cantor and rabbi Moses Yoelson, tried to groom both his sons for careers in the synagogue, giving them voice lessons as soon as they could talk.
Jolson and his brother Harry were drawn to the theater and began their careers performing in the streets of their hometown, Washington, D.C. In their teens, the boys ran away to New York numerous times to try their luck in show business. Al was luckier, or more talented, than Harry and made his first stage appearance in 1899 in Israel Zangwill’s play, Children of the Ghetto.
Jolson went on to work the vaudeville circuit, working up acts with his brother and other performers. It was during these years that he adopted the “blackface” minstrel act for which he became known. It was when he was working solo in San Francisco, after the 1906 earthquake, that Jolson’s career began to take off. He relished the adoration he received from the San Francisco audience, and it was there that he came up with one of his trademark lines, “All right, all right, folks, you ain’t heard nothing yet.”
Jolson continued to tour the country until 1911, when he got a spot on the opening night bill of the new Winter Garden Theater in New York. He electrified audiences night after night, transforming every Broadway show in which he performed into an Al Jolson show. He would stop performances in midact and ask the audience whom they had come to see. They always responded with wild shouts of requests for him, after which he would perform solo for hours, varying his routines from show to show.
Jolson’s career was at its height in 1927 when Warner Bros, asked him to appear in The Jazz Singer, the first full-length talking picture. The film, which told a story similar to Jolson’s own life story, made a profit of over three million dollars. Jolson’s next talkie was The Singing Fool, in which he sang the ever-popular “Sonny Boy.” These talking pictures were big hits and ultimately revolutionized the movie industry.
Jolson called the White House himself and asked to be sent overseas to entertain and lift the morale of the troops. It was at a time when his popularity was on the wane, and the shows during World War II were just what he needed to boost his image.
After the war two films, The Jolson Story and Jolson Sings Again, immortalized the self-proclaimed “World’s Greatest Entertainer” on screen. Larry Parks played Jolson but the songs were dubbed by Jolson himself. In 1950 Jolson performed what were to be his last shows for the troops in the Korean War. His health was beginning to fail when he began the tour, and when he returned to the United States, he suffered a fatal heart attack. His will left nine-tenths of his three million-dollar estate to be divided equally among Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant organizations.
Member of a mob in The Children of the Ghetto, at Herald Sq.
Jolson worked almost unceasingly after he became a hit on Broadway. He began a recording career, met with presidents, and later starred on radio, but he was never happier than when in front of a live audience. He was addicted to the devotion and applause and would jump off the stage and sing in the aisles to be closer to his public. Jolson’s obsession with his work, no doubt, led to his status as superstar, but it also destroyed three of his four marriages and eventually harmed his health.
Jolson was a man of "firsts:” first talking movie, first radio program whose format used monologue and song, and first performer to go overseas with the United Service Organization (USO).