The other day a TV crew showed up at my digs, hauling after them their camera, their lights, their sound--as well as their interviewer, one Michael Freedman, a British journalist. They had come all the way from London, and what they wanted from me were any tasty tidbits that might be lingering in my memory from my brief encounter back in the mid-'40s with the one, the only, Al Jolson, Jazz Singer, the World's Greatest Entertainer, as he called himself. As he is fondly remembered by George Burns--and any others who might have been there in person to witness the man doing his stuff in his heyday--back there in the teens and '20s. (There are not, I might add, any too many of these witnesses left--George, in fact, may be the only one!)
The Brits, you see, are busily preparing a documentary about our Jolie (to his friends), their way of observing the coming anniversary of the gentleman's 100th birthday. Although the occasion was celebrated in America this past summer, our English cousins have chosen 1986 for their salute to the event--for the rather obvious reason that it is the date on Jolie's mausoleum. (Not that that means much, as you'll see later.)
FOR THE RECORD - IMPERFECTIONS
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 8, 1985 Home Edition Calendar Page 103 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 58 words Type of Material: Correction
Film/television composer Walter Scharf of Studio City trusts that the "Michael Freedman" to whom Evelyn Keyes spoke about Al Jolson for her Dec. 1 article was actually Michael Freedland, the prolific British author of books about Hollywood who's now putting the final touches on Scharf's recollections of Hollywood. Scharf orchestrated the music for three of Jolson's movies, including "Swanee River" in 1939.
They wanted to talk to me because I had been there at the time of Mr. Jolson's Second Coming, so to speak, when the movie about his life--aptly called "The Jolson Story"--was made and instantly catapulted the man back to center stage; snatched him, as it were, from the jaws of show-biz oblivion. By then, he was 60 or thereabouts and had already faded and dimmed and been relegated to the ghastly dustbin of has-beens, surely a fate-worse-than-death for a performer who called himself the World's Greatest Entertainer.
Well, my new friends from across-the-sea set up shop in my study, arranged their spots and their microphone and their camera, and for the sake of recorded history, I related to the lens what odds and ends of Jolie remembrances I could come up with. Such as the time he came on the set when I, for a scene, was doing a broad imitation of him, and he spoiled the take by clapping. Like the time I actually did see him do his stuff in a long shot for "The Jolson Story" on the stage of the Winter Garden Theatre, where it had been re-created on a Columbia Pictures sound stage.
In return for my contribution, Freedman kindly presented me with an Al Jolson biography that he'd once written. I thanked him very much. It was a nice enough thing to do, but believe me, I had no intention of ever reading the thing. After spending six months of my life on a film called "The Jolson Story," what more could I possibly learn about the man?
Well. My God. Absolutely everything. A glimpse at the first page told me that. I was so taken aback that I couldn't put the damned book down and soon discovered--and this, mind you, some 40 years after the fact--that the film we made back then--Larry Parks, William Demarest, Ludwig Donath and I--had, except for the songs, precious little connection with the real Jolson story.
For instance. I played the part of (supposedly) Jolie's first wife, who was (supposedly) Ruby Keeler. At least that's what I have always been told it was. At least I did Ruby things. Like marry Al Jolson. Like sing and dance on Broadway in a number called "Liza." Like go to Hollywood and sing and dance in flicks there, and become a star. But will you believe that, to my shock, Jolson had two wives before Ruby. Two, count 'em. Somehow they both got lost for our picture.
But that's nothing. Get this . In the film, Jolson was an only child of a cantor and his wife in Washington. But the truth is, he was born in a place called Srednicke, in Lithuania. And not only that, his parents gave birth to three more children, two girls and another boy. (At a time when records weren't too well kept, which accounts for the vagueness about the birth date.) And not only that , in Washington the cantor had a second wife and they produced four more kids, three sons and a daughter. Seven brothers and sisters Al had, all wiped out for the sake of drama.
Well, these new revelations have certainly given me pause, I can tell you that. They have caused me to think back to those endless historical/biographical movies we all grew up-- are growing up--on (in the form of docudramas). And I wonder if the same carelessness with facts was/is true of them too? I thought of the many hours all of us have spent before a screen--big and small--vicariously living what we assumed to be actual moments straight from the pages of history. Indeed, when what we view is exceptionally stirring, then what we see is apt to take over, become history, itself, and the real thing get as lost as Jolson's wives and siblings and birth date.