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COMMENTARY

Let sleeping eras and their stars lie

As Al Jolson's fans gather, there is much in his legend that should remain buried.

May 15, 2003|Don Shirley | Times Staff Writer

I guess you had to be there -- when Al Jolson was the toast of Broadway.

"When Jolson enters," wrote humorist Robert Benchley in 1925, "it is as if an electric current had been run along the wires under the seats.... The house comes to tumultuous attention. He speaks, rolls his eyes, compresses his lips, and it is all over. You are a life member of the Al Jolson Association."

It wasn't just New Yorkers who could join the association. He often took his act on the road. Even now, more than five decades after his 1950 death, about 150 fans still care enough about Jolson to gather this weekend at the Queen Mary in Long Beach for a series of seminars and screenings that will conclude Sunday afternoon with a ceremonial tribute to Jolson at his grave in Culver City.

Reading the accolades for Jolson's performances and the reports of his skyrocketing income ($10,000 a week plus a percentage above a certain gross), you might be inclined to sigh about the state of stage stardom today. In the 21st century, it's unlikely that a stage luminary will become an enormous star in the larger cultural universe. The stage is no longer center stage. The theater can't pay big bucks or bestow the lasting fame that's possible when performances are recorded and easily accessible to millions via the electronic media.

Jolson's career, by contrast, went downhill when he began concentrating on movies and radio. True, he's most famous today as the star of a movie, "The Jazz Singer," but only because it's usually considered the first commercial "talkie," not because his performance in it was ageless -- or even good. Nearly every firsthand Jolson observer agreed that his movies and radio appearances were mere shadows of his stage appearances.

So was Jolson's heyday a golden age for the stage? Not if you look a little more closely.

The shows that Jolson was in are almost totally forgotten. From their plot synopses, they sound inane at best. Almost every script that we think of as a classic American play or musical was produced after Jolson's Broadway peak.

Even if Jolson had been doing great scripts, one big obstacle for modern audiences remains: In the theater, Jolson usually wore blackface.

Defenders of the practice, which was established long before Jolson, say that it wasn't malicious; Jolson's characters were sympathetic.

But the fact is that thousands of white people were laughing at the antics of a white man who was pretending to be black. If none of the guffaws arose from the blackface itself, why did anyone bother with it?

For many reasons, it wasn't healthy for the American theater focus on the cult of an actor's personality. Writers should matter more than stars. It's better to develop theater that will continue to speak to other generations across time, perhaps in reinterpreted versions.

Furthermore, theater is a social art form; its examinations of characters within groups are usually more interesting than star vehicles or solo shows. While the living presence of an idol may provide a momentary thrill, star quality doesn't necessarily translate into stage quality.

The American theater is also healthier today because it isn't as New York-centric as it was in Jolson's era. Jolson was a trouper on the road, but his shows originated in New York, and he settled in L.A. only after he started making movies. Now, indigenous professional theater grows in many cities.

In a recent commentary published in The Times, New York-based critic Linda Winer lamented that stars must "choose between screen work in Los Angeles and theater in New York." Who says? As long as they don't care if they get the salaries that accompany long Broadway runs, actors who want to work on a stage need not do it in New York. If today's theaters can't afford a star, plenty of other actors will do the role just as well.

The American theater should shed no tears for the "Mammy" years.

*

Al Jolson festival

The particulars: Queen Mary,

Long Beach. Friday and Saturday, all day. $40 for Friday and Saturday shows at 8:30 p.m. For info: (818) 468-6382

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