American Vaudeville Museum

All material © 1998-2010 American Museum of Vaudeville, Inc.  Page 8

Al Jolson

1886 (?) — 1950

Perhaps no one enjoyed entertaining as much as Al Jolson. For him it was the reason to live. He lit up the stage with his energy and desire to seduce an audience. For this and for his talent as a singer and light comedian, Al Jolson was more often called the greatest entertainer of his era.

Jolson’s heyday was in the 1910s when he starred in a string of popular revues for the Shuberts at the Winter Garden. After each show made its hit in New York, Al toured with it across America. He even worked on his days of, hosting and dominating a series of Sunday night ‘concerts’ at the Winter Garden. As a teenager in vaudeville, Al had switched early to blackface and kept his minstrel persona through up into the Depression years, long after most entertainers had eschewed corking up to impersonate African Americans.

Al was not as popular with his fellow entertainers. Many found him too egotistical, even by show biz standards, too opportunistic and insensitive. But Al was not without champions, those who knew of his quiet charity.

With the film version of The Jazz Singer, Jolie transformed himself from a Broadway fixture into a silver screen fixture in a series of 1930s movie musicals. At the same time he extended his career by becoming a popular recording star and the singing host of network radio shows. As soon as the GIs trouped off to fight WWII and the Korean Conflict, Al Jolson was with them to sing and tell jokes. His career capped in the late 1940s with a movie musical based on his life. So successful was The Jolson Story that the studio made a sequel, Jolson Sings Again. Jolson was back on top, making hit records, entertaining the troops and mulling television offers when he died of a heart attack.