Stepping Out

Al Jolson's enduring legacy

Devoted fans keep his music alive


How does a man become a legend? Some say it’s the company you keep; some say it’s just luck, others point to incredible talent and the need to share that talent with the world. What ever it was Al Jolson had it in spades.
The local members of the International Al Jolson Society carry forth with their mission to keep Jolson in the public eye, led by Al Jolson Society’s longtime president, Jan Hernstat, who brings his “mini” Jolson Festival back to Oceanside for its 20th edition on Aug. 27.
As always singer Tony Babino will be there with his show-stopping concert, “The Heart of Jolson,” with David gross on the piano. Also appearing are Brian Gari (Eddie Cantor’s grandson), radio personalities Rich Conaty and Ed Greenbaum and a special appearance by Bob Greenberg as Ralph Kramden.
Hernstat eagerly shares his passion for the entertainer, aka “The World’s Greatest Entertainer,” ready to tell everyone about Jolson’s background, his talent, the way he would interrupt a Broadway show and take over the stage, singing for hours.
“All these years after he’s gone, his music and talents still fill a room,” says Hernstat. “Jolson was the first true superstar before they even coined that expression. That was the kind of power he had, long before there was the kind of media access we have today.”

So what made Jolson so different?
He was born May 26, 1886 (or so he claimed), in Srednike, Lithuania. Young Asa Yoelson learned to sing from his father, Moses Rubin Yoelson, a cantor. We can surmise the first person Asa sang with was his father, and probably with his sisters Rose and Etta. We know he sang with his brother Hirsch.
Cantor Yoelson came to America in 1891, saved money and eventually moved to Washington, D.C., where he brought his family in 1894.
Al Reeves, known as the “King of Burlesque” introduced Hirsh and Asa to show business in 1894. By 1897, the brothers sang around the neighborhood for coins as “Al” and “Harry” They used that money to see shows at Washington, D.C.’s National Theatre. That was when Asa Yoelson (Al) discovered he loved the stage.
It was his brother Harry that had the budding career at that point, often doing commercials and vaudeville shows.
Jolson became an usher with the Walter L. Main Circus in 1902, and so impressed Main with his singing he became a singer during the circus’ Indian Medicine Side Show segment. The show folded that year. In May 1903, he got a part in the Dainty Duchess Burlesquers. His performance of “Be My Baby Bumble Bee” kept him employed until the show closed that year.
Jolson and Harry formed a vaudeville partnership. They joined with an older vaudevillian, Joe Palmer, billed as Jolson, Palmer and Jolson. Palmer suggested Jolson try blackface, thinking it would go with his somewhat southern (Washington D.C.) accent. Some say Harry fell ill on tour, other say they argued over caring for Palmer, who by that time was in a wheelchair, but Harry went his own way and Al left Palmer in 1906. Harry continued to have a successful career, doing even better in England than in the States, but always overshadowed by his brother.
Jolson headed out to San Francisco, Calif. starring at the Globe and Wigwam Theater while continuing to do vaudeville.
He married Henrietta Keller, the first of his four wives, in 1906.
By 1909, needing money, he headed back to New York, and joined Lew Dockstader’s Minstrels, working in blackface. J.J. Shubert booked him to star in “La Belle Paree” at the opening of the Winter Garden Theater on March 20, 1911. It was on the second night of that show that he came out and interrupted the performance. He asked the audience if they wanted to hear him sing, and after a resounding yes, he proceeded to sing for hours.
Jolson was making $500 a week. He also appeared in “Vera Violetta” in November 1911, making $750 a week; his singing in “The Whirl of Society” convinced Lee Shubert to increase Al’s salary to $1000 a week and give him a seven-year contract. “The Honeymoon Express” and “Dancing Around” followed and by 1914 Jolson was making $2000 a week. In 1916, he starred in “Robinson Crusoe, Jr.,” and “Sinbad” in 1919.
By this time Jolson’s biggest songs, George Gershwin’s “Swanee” and “My Mammy” were part of his repertoire.
His marriage to Keller ended in 1919. And in 1922, he married Broadway actor Ethel Delmar (Alma Osborne). The marriage lasted less than four years.
At 35-years-old Jolson had a theater named after him, Jolson’s 59th Street Theater, and there he starred in a huge hit, “Bombo.” In 1922, he moved the show to the Century Theater and mounted a special production for Jewish veterans of World War I. In 1923, he moved the show back to the Winter Garden Theater, his first love.
Jolson continued his success with “Bombo” and then “Big Boy,” along with touring shows.
Then in 1926, “The Plantation Act” was released starring Jolson. It was a short musical film and it used the Vitaphone method of adding synchronized sound to silent films. It was not a real “talkie” film; it was a silent film with moments of synchronized speech and song. The sound track was not on the film but on a 33 1/3 record that played along with the film on a player that was coupled with the projector motor.
“The Jazz Singer” the first huge “talkie” hit, was released in 1927 in New York. It, too, used the Vitaphone system. This film revolutionized the movie business, made Jolson the biggest star ever, and broke all box office records.
In 1928, Jolson married Ruby Keeler, a star in her own right. That same year saw the release of “The Singing Fool,” which was an even bigger hit than “The Jazz Singer,” even though only a few theaters could show synchronized movies. “Fool” remained the biggest selling film for 11 years until “Gone With the Wind.”
Jolson and Keeler remained married for 11 years. In 1935, they adopted a son they named Al Jolson Jr., but Al called him Sonny Boy, which Keeler shortened to Sonny.
Even though he continued to make films, his popularity waned. The Jolson-Keeler union ended in 1939. Sonny Boy had been rejected by Jolson, but stayed close to Keeler. When she remarried to John Lowe, Sonny became Albert Peter Lowe, and never spoke to his father again. Albert Peter Lowe died at 72, in November 2007.
Jolson married his fourth and final wife, Erle Galbraith, an X-ray technician he met in Arkansas while giving a show at a military hospital in 1945.
In 1946, “The Jolson Story” debuted, starring Larry Parks as Jolson. Jolson sang the songs dubbed in for Parks, except for the “Swanee” number, which Jolson performed, but the scene was shot from way off a long stage.
The film was huge success. It won Academy Awards for Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture and Best Sound, Recording, Larry Parks was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role, and William Demarest was nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Best Cinematography, Best Color and Best Film Editing.
Jolson was a major star again.
The Jolson’s adopted two more children, Asa Jr. (born 1948) and Alicia (born 1949). They remained married until Jolson died of a heart attack after returning from entertaining troops in Korea in 1950.
After Al’s death it was discovered Alicia was mentally challenged. Alicia died in 1982 about 32-years-old. 
Albert (Asa) Jolson became a Nashville, Tenn. recording studio owner and died there on March 4, 2015 at 67. He donated all of his father’s memorabilia to the Tennessee State Museum.
Find out more about this remarkable man, at the Long Island Al Jolson Festival, on Saturday, Aug. 27, 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., at the Oceanside Knights of Columbus, 2985 Kenneth Place, Oceanside. Tickets are $43.95, including entertainment, a continental breakfast, and a lunch buffet. The cost is $23 (lunch not included) to attend the Tony Babino show only, at 12:30 pm.
For registration and further information, contact Jan Hernstat at (516) 678-3524 or register online at