In its first incarnation since the pandemic, the 24th Annual Long Island Jolson Festival is ready to delight loyal fans once again. The festival’s latest edition, on Saturday, Aug. 12, will bring together devotees for a full day of nostalgia and music, celebrating the talent of Al Jolson — the performer bestowed with the moniker “world’s greatest entertainer.”
Jan Hernstat — the International Al Jolson Society’s president, who has helmed the festival since its beginning — is excited to remember the icon, who was a pioneer in many genres in the ‘20s, including music, film (“The Jazz Singer”), and theatre “Hold on to Your Hats”). When Hernstat began the festival many years ago, it was simply because he wanted a platform to show his appreciation for Jolson. It quickly turned into something else.
“It has been fun over the years to bring Jolson to people who don’t normally get to see him,” Hernstat says. “When I started doing this, people came to me and said something which I didn’t really understand: ‘Thank you for doing this service to bring this kind of entertainment that we don’t get to see anymore.’ It was just something that I wanted to do, and as a byproduct, I was making people happy. That’s a good feeling.”
It will be next to impossible not to smile at this year’s festival, which will include a performance from mainstay Tony Babino, who has been treating festivalgoers to the vocal stylings of Jolson for years. He is joined by “Mr. Tin Pan Alley,” Richard Halpern, who is participating in the event — at Lambrou’s in Island Park — all the way from California.
Hernstat explains that Halpern brings a unique set of skills to his Jolson interpretation.
“A lot of people know Jolson from ‘The Jolson Story’ forward,” he says. “He did 20 songs in that film. The majority of people alive today only know those songs and the style in which he did it, which is what Tony emulates. But Richard does Jolson from the ‘20s and ‘30s, the ‘78 (RPM) Jolson,’ as I like to call it. People will get a little contrast, because with Richard, you’re going to get more of the early Jolson and with Tony more of the later Jolson. It’s going to be great.”
Also new this year is an appearance by comedian Jeff Greenberg, a longtime society member known for his humorous act, frequently performing near his New Jersey home. The comedy doesn’t end there. Bob Greenberg (no relation) will be tickling the funny bone as characters from oldies acts, such as Oliver Hardy, Ralph Kramden and Lou Costello. Additionally, fans will have the opportunity to meet Brian Gari, grandson of the late performer Eddie Cantor, Jolson’s showbiz contemporary, and can check out a slew of memorabilia from Jolson’s era.
Hernstat is intent on keeping Jolson’s legacy front and center in the public eye.
“He was the first true superstar. In fact, the word ‘superstar’ was not even coined yet,” he says. “He was an international star at a time when there was no real media to promote what he did. Now all you have to do is go on social media and everyone knows you all over the world. When Jolson first started out, there weren’t talking movies, there’s wasn’t radio and TV. For somebody to be as big as he was worldwide, it really talks about your talent. It is a wonderful experience to celebrate his talent, his singing, and his voice.”
When Hernstat reflects on years past, he fondly remembers welcoming entertainers to his gathering, such as Sheldon Harnick (“Fiddler on the Roof” lyricist and songwriter), radio and television superstar Margaret Whiting, and comedian Soupy Sales.
“I don’t want this festival to die,” Hernstat says. “There’s still people out there that love Jolson. I always tell people, ‘We’re not looking to convert you to become a Jolson fan, we just want to find the ones out there who are and let them know that they have this outlet for their enjoyment.’”