Re: Was Jolson's persona racist?

From: David P. Hayes
Newsgroups: rec.arts.movies.past-films
Date: Sunday, April 12, 1998 9:40 AM

Kim <> wrote in message
>The fact that Black performers were forced
>to use the makeup, and that Jolson won fame, money and acclaim for ape-ing
>Black performers does nothing to excuse him or the times.

Hasn't it occurred to you that Jolson won fame, acclaim and money for having a dynamic singing voice? At one time, Jolson had sold more phonograph discs than any recording artist in history. Those discs were not bought for the opportunity to see Jolson in blackface--because his appearance could not be seen on those audio recordings. (Strangely enough, in our own time, the recording artist who has sold the most recordings is Michael Jackson, a black talent who has adopted supposed-"white" singing styles and has undergone cosmetic-surgery procedures to obtain Caucasian facial features and a subdued skin color. Is there a trend here?)

As for denouncing Jolson for his presumed attempt to stereotype rather than to be a personality of his own, consider this biographical information presented in the first post in this thread:

Al and his brother Harry were struggling teenagers trying to make their way in show business away from the home of their father and step-mother. They recently had been out of work for so long that they shared one actor's room with so many others that "[a]s many as possible piled into a bed, and the others slept on the floor," recalled Harry, as quoted in "Jolson: the Legend Comes to Life" (by Herbert Goldman, 1988).

A well-liked Yiddish-dialect comedian of the time was Joe Palmer, who had been stricken with an illness that confined him to a wheelchair. Thirty-two years of age, he had to be helped to be fed, washed, dressed, and put onto the toilet. His show-business friends took turns taking care of him.

A well-connected showman who was a friend of Palmer and the Jolsons made them an offer: if the Jolson brothers would take care of Palmer, this mediator would write an act for the trio and get them started. A good act resulted without any payment requested, and Palmer's reputation got them a week's booking.

There was a problem: the script made Al the comic and Harry the straight-man. This reversed the brothers' customary roles. Given Al's youth, he couldn't convincingly play the straight role of doctor; Palmer's role couldn't be traded with either of the others because there was only one role to be played in a wheelchair. The writer, rather than overhaul the act, would prefer to arrange for two other starving and aspiring youths to take the parts.

Al was terribly nervous about enacting the comic role, but a blackface monologuist on the same bill suggested to Al that wearing burnt cork would make him feel he was someone else. Al tried it, and the resulting persona was exciting, spontaneous, joyous. The dull, self-conscious kid was on his way to becoming an electrifying presence.

* * * * * * *


A controversial event of 1910 was the professional fight between white man James J. Jeffries and black man Jack Johnson. The bout and the defeat of the white fighter by the black one reverberated across the United States. (The 1970 movie "The Great White Hope" would depict the story.) Jolson was a spectator at the event, and wrote an account of it for "Variety."

Jolson was remarkably objective, not kowtowing to the racial climate at the time:

"Johnson just played with him as a cat does a mouse. It's all right to say that, if Jeff were in his prime, what he would have done to Johnson, but believe me, it would have been just the same.

"The majority at the ringside must say that Johnson is the greatest fighter that ever lived. Jeffries did not hit him one good punch.

"George Little, Johnson's ex-manager, bet me $400 to my $200, after the first round, that Jeffries would win. After the fifth round, I bet (another) $200 that Johnson would win. That made me break even, as I had bet $600 (on Jeffries) before the fight." (published "Variety," July 9, 1910)

* * * * * * *


Did black people mind Jolson? Goldman reports that a particular black cabaret in Harlem, Leroy's, during its five years of existence (which were the five years starting from the year of the Johnson-Jeffries fight), admitted just one white man: Jolson.
David Hayes


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