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 Great Artists Series

 The Immortal
  Al Jolson  

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Jolson and his Friends:
Jolson and Jessel




above: George Jessel and Al Jolson, 1935.

right, above: George Jessel, Dorothy Raymond (Sara Rabinowitz) and Howard Lang (Cantor Rabinowitz) in the stage version of "The Jazz Singer," New York City, 1925.

Among the New York City theatres in which "The Jazz Singer" was staged were the Fulton, Cort, Shubert Theatre .


above: Scene from the stage production of "The Jazz Singer," 1925.

George Jessel, born in 1898, became well-known in vaudeville, even partnering with Eddie Cantor (see below.) As a youth on the stage he was known as the "boy monologist." As Jolson often did, Jessel too performed in blackface. He acted in and produced films,  wrote many songs, and appeared many times on both radio and television.

Jessel was cast in the role of the lead in the stage version of "The Jazz Singer," which opened on Broadway in 1926.

below: both a partial listing of the cast at the Shubert production, no doubt the mostly similar, if not exact, cast that played at the Fulton Theatre. (these productions occurred one week apart in September 1925.)


: The song-and-dance team of Cantor and Jessel.
above: George Jessel and Eddie Cantor

Photos are courtesy of the New York Public Library for
the Performing Arts, Billy Rose Theatre Collection.


According to Hebert G. Goldman, in his book, "Jolson: The Legend Comes to Life":

"Jolson was impressed with some youngsters he saw at San Francisco's Orpheum Theatre that summer in an act called 'Kid Kabaret.' Unknown to Al, the 'youngsters,' twenty-one-year-old Eddie Cantor and fifteen-year-old George Jessel, had been haunting his familiar hangouts in an effort to find the great Jolie.

Al finally met George and Eddie at the Orpheum stage door and took them to a kosher restaurant on Turk Street in San Francisco. 'It was the craziest dinner you ever heard,' Cantor told his ghost-writer, Jane Kesner Ardmore. 'Georgie and I, the two bigmouths, couldn't think of a thing to say. Jolson did a monologue. When he went to the men's room, Georgie and I flipped a coin to see who'd follow him. I won. A few minutes later, I came running out to tell him, Georgie, that Jolson! He does it like anybody!"'

: Eddie Cantor and George Jessel in "Kid Kabaret" in San Francisco, CA, 1912


Jessel was cast in the role of the lead in the stage version of "The Jazz Singer," which opened on Broadway in 1926. 

During this time, Warner Bros. (who had the rights to and made "The Jazz Singer" film) signed him to star in a silent comedy, with option for two more silent films if the first was successful. The Warners offered him the male lead in "The Jazz Singer," but Jessel demanded more money to star in this "talkie," as his three-picture deal involved the making of only silent films.

Knowing Jolson had knowledge of, and wanted to play the role, studio head Jack Warner offered the role to Jolson, which he gladly accepted.

George Jessel had always said that turning down "The Jazz Singer" was the single biggest mistake he had made in his professional life.

left: George Jessel, Dorothy Raymond in the stage version of "The Jazz Singer," from New York Sunday News, October 11, 1925.


To hear Jolson on his Shell Chateau radio broadcast of August 3, 1935, as well as a portion of Jessel's monologue, just click on the earphones icon.

George Jessel also appeared a number of times on other Jolson's radio shows, including Jolson's Lifebuoy program on CBS in September 1937, and twice on Jolson's Kraft Music Hall, in November 1948 and March 1949.

In 1948, the Friar's Club held a Roast to honor George Jessel (see photo below). Many of his friends were there, e.g. Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Eddie Cantor, George Burns, Danny Kaye, Joe E. Lewis, Dick Powell, Pat O'Brien, Louis B. Mayer and Al Jolson.

To hear an excerpt from the Jessel Friar's Roast, just click on the earphones icon. You will hear Jack Benny introduce Jolson, followed by Jolson speaking about Jessel.

: Jessel and Jolson, 1950


Jessel was also known to give eloquent eulogies for many of his contemporaries in Hollywood.  Jessel also gave a moving eulogy at Temple Israel in California (three days after Jolson's passing) in 1950.

Jessel begins:

"A breeze from San Francisco Bay and the life of the greatest minstrel that America has ever known is in the balance. A turn of a card -- a telling of a gag -- and within a few moments, a wife, a legion of friends, and a nation are broken-hearted. So it was and so, alas, it is the passing from this earthly scene of Al Jolson. And the voice that once put majesty into the American popular song must from now on come from a disc instead of the heart, from whence it came..."

You can read the eulogy in its entirety here or listen to the actual eulogy here.

left: Al Jolson at the Friar's Roast of George Jessel, 1948. Also in photo, seated Jack Benny (toastmaster) and Louis B. Mayer. Standing: Danny Kaye and Bob Hope. Jolson is standing on the far right. Also on hand at the Roast were Eddie Cantor, Dick Powell, Joe E. Lewis, and George Burns.
Jessel was known as "The Toastmaster General of the United States" because he often played the role of master of ceremonies at various gatherings of those in both the entertainment and political fields. The Friars Club honored George Jessel with a Roast in 1948. 










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This exhibition was made possible in part with the cooperation of the International Al Jolson Society.


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