Wednesday, September 16, 2015

St. Francis Hotel: The Jazz Singer

He is seen out of the corner of the eye for just a fleeting second.

Al Jolson
In October of 1950, Al Jolson—born Asa Yoelson-- a singer and entertainer died of a massive heart attack while playing cards with friends in his suite at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco.

Jolson who considered San Francisco his home had just returned from entertaining American troops in Korea. He was in town to appear on the Bing Crosby radio show.

Jolson was playing gin rummy with two friends, Martin Freid his arranger and accompanist and Harry Akst, a songwriter when shortly after 10:30 P.M. he collapsed.

His last words are said to have been, “Boys, I’m going.”

Since, witnesses state that Jolson haunts this suite, number 1221, the same suite that was involved in the Roscoe Fatty Arbuckle scandal years before.

St. Francis Hotel 
It is actually said three famous Hollywood Stars haunt this suite at the St. Francis, Jolson, Arbuckle and Barrymore.

From the 1920s until the 1940s Al Jolson was a famous American entertainer. His broad smile and charm became legendary.

He first became popular when he appeared in vaudeville in blackface * singing in old time minstrel shows based upon African American music.

* At this time blacks rarely appeared in front of white audiences so white entertainers would put on blackface makeup and imitate African American singers.

Jolson became a huge star when he was featured in the world’s first talking picture, The Jazz Singer in 1927. In this film he plays the son of an orthodox cantor who choses not to follow in his father’s footsteps but instead becomes a jazz singer.

This role mirrored Jolson’s real life for his father was a rabbi and cantor.

After The Jazz Singer Jolson appeared in a series of box office flops, which doomed his film career. In 1946, he had a brief comeback when he dubbed the singing for the film The Jolson Story—he however did not appear onscreen.

At the time of his death Jolson was about to launch a television career—he was viewed as “the grand old man of show business.”

Witnesses who have seen his ghost at the St. Francis state they only saw him out of the corner of their eyes for a brief second.

He is observed playing cards at a table. His attention is fixated upon the cards in front of him.

The following video shows Jolson’s last film role—a cameo in the George Gershwin’s hit Rhapsody in Blue.

He is singing in blackface—which viewed from today’s perspective, is offensive at best. But I place the video here because it is of Jolson singing Swanee, the only video of him performing this song.


George Senda said...

Yes, sadly today being in blackface is offensive.
But its taken out of context in a world obsessed with political correctness.
Jolson fought for black entertainers and was NOT a racist.
He demanded that black entertainers like Sammy Davis Jr, Cab Calloway and others be given the respect they deserved and his memorial grave site was designed by a famous black sculptor.
Much like Frank Sinatra stood up for black entertainers as well in Las Vegas and Florida.
It's much like the criticism of Amos and Andy on tv when Tim Moore was the #1 black actor on tv in the 1950's and yet died penniless.
That show gave fine black entertainers a place to show their craft and was popular with white and black audiences.

SadEnding said...

When Jolson heard that Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle were refused service in a Connecticut restaurant, he contacted them and told them that he would take them back there himself and punch out anyone who objected. They thanked him, but refused the offer choosing instead to have a picnic with sandwiches from Jewish deli, Jolson entertaining them with songs. They never forgot that gesture and Noble Sissle represented the Black Actors Union at Jolson funeral.
There are countless stories like this.
That Jolson is held up as an example of bigotry is a crime against truth and reason.