In this chapter from his 1932 book, Times Square Tintypes, Broadway columnist Sidney Skolsky profiles the Singing Fool, Al Jolson.
MAMMY!!! AL JOLSON. He drinks a bucket of bromo-seltzer every day.
His real name is Asa Yoelson. Got the name Jolson when he was the singing mascot for a regiment in the Spanish-American war. A soldier asked him what his name was. He replied “Yoelson.” The soldier said: “That’s a Swedish name—you’re no Swede. Your name’s Jolson only you don’t know how to pronounce it.” From then on Jolson was his name.
Although he has been married three times women play a small part in his life.
He owns part of the St. Louis National Baseball Club.
His first appearance at the Winter Garden was in the show that opened that theater, Little Miss Innocence. It would be great to record that he made a big hit. The truth of the matter is that he made his first appearance on the stage after midnight and that no one paid any attention to him.
Likes to be patted on the back and is always surrounded by “Yes-men.” It was Walter Winchell who asked: “How many yes-men make a Jolson?”
Is not on speaking terms with his brother Harry. He wishes his brother wouldn’t use his name.
He has to read something in order to fall asleep.
Once started work in a D. W. Griffith picture. Then went to court in order to break the contract. On the witness stand he said: “I knew I was terrible and would never make a hit in pictures.” He was released from the contract. Today he has revolutionized the motion picture industry.
He cracks his knuckles when he is nervous.
His big passion in life is applause. Let an audience encourage him and he’ll break a vocal chord.
As a kid he sang on the streets of Washington and in the backroom of saloons. His boyhood pal at the time was Bill Robinson.
He is known as the second best verse writer in Tin Pan Alley. He doesn’t keep the profits on his songs but donates them to a tuberculosis camp.
Hates cold weather. So much so that one frosty night in Chicago he returned to his hotel room after the evening’s performance of Bombo. While undressing he noticed a sign across the street blinking: “It’s June in Miami. It’s June in Miami.” The next morning he was on his way to Miami, leaving the show cold.
He beams with happiness if anyone compliments him on his ballroom dancing.
Never took a singing lesson until he was past thirty-five. Then stopped after the sixth lesson because he thought they were hurting his voice.
He’s as sentimental as his songs.
Is a great showman and never misses an opportunity. When he arrived in Hollywood to make The Jazz Singer the entire town was at the station to meet him. He sang: “California, Here I Come.”
Mark Hellinger is now writing his life story. Hellinger got all his data when he accompanied the singing fool on his honeymoon abroad. Mark was the odd man.
His favorite word is “baby.”
He bet as much as $100,000 on a horse race and lost.
Never laughs at a joke except to be polite. If the joke really amuses him he says with a serious face, “That’s very funny.”
He knows a kosher restaurant in almost every important town.
Was a personal friend of Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Warren G. Harding. One evening he had dinner with President Harding at the white House. Pork chops was the dish and every time he picked one up the President’s dog, Laddie Boy, would jump and grab it. This wouldn’t have happened if Jolson had been using his knife and fork.
He likes to drive a car fast.
If he ever has a son he wants him to be like Buddy De Sylva.
His favorite game is Hearts. If he loses he makes alibis. If he wins he gloats over the victory.
Although he refused $200,000 to play the Roxy for one week, he sang songs for nothing merely to help his wife, Ruby Keeler.
Although a sure-fire performer he suffers more from stage fright than the rankest amateur. Eight o’clock one evening on the opening of a Winter Garden show he was found wandering bareheaded in the rain on Fifth Avenue and had to be taken to the theater.
He is really one of the loneliest guys in the world.
His father was not a cantor. He was a “schochet.” This is a man who kills chickens and makes them kosher.
When Ruby Keeler opened in Whoopee! in Pittsburgh he sent this telegram to Eddie Cantor: “Remember, this is the first time a Cantor was ever billed over a Jolson.”
He is good-natured. But on occasion he displays a furious temper. When in this state he has a pretty good right hook.
If he could figure out a way to be in two places at the same time, he’d be happy.
When he married Ruby Keeler he had two wedding rings with him because he wasn’t certain of the size of her finger.
He will not sleep in a hotel room one of whose windows opens on a fire escape. He will not sleep in any room alone. One night when he had to do so he piled all the furniture in the room against the door.
He has spies for gags. If he’s in Hollywood and a nifty is cracked on Broadway it is wired to him.
He is stage-struck.