Barbara Rush (not the actress, but an equally glamorous lady who made a fortune manufacturing computer parts for missiles) lives in Al Jolson's old house in Encino. Jolson fans sometimes drive straight to the house from Los Angeles International Airport and hammer at the front gate. Such pilgrims were frequent last year, the centenary of Jolson's birth. (A big celebration was held at the University of Southern California, with anecdotes by friends, impersonations of his singing style, and clips from "The Jazz Singer," 1927, the movies' first talkie, in which Jolson gave Hollywood its voice.)
Rush has always welcomed Jolson addicts who write first, but last year's swarm became a little irksome, and she issued orders to her caretaker that no casual callers were to be admitted, however eloquent their pleading. That led to an embarrassment. Actress Ruby Keeler, who had lived at the house after her marriage to Jolson in 1928, arrived in a limousine with her biographer, David Gest, intending to show him the scene of happier days before her divorce from Jolson in 1940. She especially wanted Gest to see the concrete bridge over the koi pool, on the parapet of which is incised, within a heart, the names "Ruby," "Al" and "Sonny" (the couple's adopted son, Al Jolson Jr.). Keeler also wanted to find out whether the chapel that Jolson had had decorated for her private devotions was still in situ. (It is.)
The caretaker barred the way. He was adamant. "I have my instructions, ma'am," he said, "and it's more than my job is worth to disobey them." He could not even check with Rush, as she was concluding a deal in Texas that day. So Keeler and Gest had to content themselves with what they could see of the low-slung mansion beyond the orange trees and magnolias. Concealed from the visitors' view entirely was the almost-Olympic-size swimming pool where Jolson used to swim an unvarying two lengths each morning, and beside which he used to sunbathe in the nude--as a friend described him, "brown as a cordovan-leather shoe on every inch of his body--and I mean \o7 every\f7 inch."
This year, Rush has good reason to welcome visitors and show them around. She has put the estate on the market at $2.5 million. The agent, Ron de Salvo of Merrill Lynch, has no difficulty describing the 27-room mansion and its grounds in the argot of hyperbole perfected by the real estate profession: it \o7 is \f7 "gracious" and it \o7 does \f7 have "a 'Gone With the Wind' Southern elegance," with its white weatherboarding, maroon jalousie shutters, heavy front door, pierced outer door of white wrought-ironwork, and a veranda that is festooned with wisteria in spring. But originally the house was built as a simple shooting lodge.
When Jolson first brought Ruby Keeler to the house, at the height of his fame and the beginning of hers, he carried her over the threshold to the whirring and clicking of cameras. The couple had just returned from a European honeymoon. If Keeler expected a romantic first night in the new home, she was out of luck. After they had had a meal, Jolson decided to go for a short walk, "to help the food go down, honey," he explained. One of his biographers, Michael Freedland, tells the rest of the story:
"(Jolson) was away for the rest of the evening and a few hours into the morning. 'The guys at the fire station saw me as I passed by,' he told Ruby, 'and I gave them a song or two.' " Jolson's hail-fellow-well-met personality made him a popular figure in Encino. He was elected honorary mayor in 1935.
The Jolson-Keeler marriage was on the rocks by 1939, the year Jolson appeared in the movie "Swanee River," which starred Don Ameche. Ameche lived near the Jolsons at that time, on Encino Avenue. During a promotion of "Swanee River" in New York City, Jolson asked Ameche if he would like to buy the ranch. "Al and I rehearsed for the Kate Smith radio show," Ameche recalls. "I was staying at the Sherry-Netherland hotel. Al came up to my room one day and told me he was ready to sell the house. I said, 'All right' and bought it that day. I paid $75,000 for it furnished--$25,000 down and $25,000 a year with no interest for two years."
Ameche and his family moved into the house in 1940. They did not like the furnishings they found. "They were not brutally distasteful," Ameche says, "but they just didn't appeal to me."