Jolson, the son of immigrants, first sang in front of an audience as a child in the synagogue where his father was a cantor. Jolson later performed with a circus, then in nightclubs and in vaudeville, often in blackface make-up. He quickly rose to stardom on Broadway. His first film appearance was in "Mammy's Boy" (1923), written and directed by D. W. Griffith, but the film was never completed. Jolson next appeared in "A Plantation Act" (1926), wearing overalls and blackface, and singing three songs on the accompanying soundtrack. This film was thought to be lost for many years until it turned up, mislabeled, in the 1990s in the Library of Congress.
Jolson's next film appearance made history. In the mid-1920s, the Warner Bros. studio was making plans for the first film with synchronized sound. Up to this point, silent films were usually accompanied by an organist or other musicians in each theater. As an experiment, Warner Bros. added a musical score, performed by the New York Philharmonic orchestra, to "Don Juan" (1926), starring John Barrymore. The score was recorded on discs and synchronized with the film projectors. After an overwhelmingly positive audience response, Warner Bros. paid $50,000 for the rights to a popular Broadway play about a singing rabbi called "The Jazz Singer." Though George Jessel starred in the play, the Warners hired Jolson for the film version, and decided to record the performers actually singing instead of just adding music later to the film. "The Jazz Singer" was basically planned as a silent film, with occasional musical performances. During the filming, Jolson prefaced a song with the statement, "Wait a minute, wait a minute. You ain't heard nothing yet!" -- the first spoken words in a film. When "The Jazz Singer" (1927) was released, the "talking picture" was born. With the expensive sound equipment -- and Jolson's $75,000 salary -- "The Jazz Singer" cost $500,000 to make, but netted $3 million in profits.
Despite the financial and critical success of "The Jazz Singer," other studios were slow to embrace the new technology. Even Warner Bros. didn't completely abandon their silent films. But Jolson had become an international sensation. He followed "The Jazz Singer" with appearances in "The Singing Fool" (1928), "Sonny Boy" (1929), "Say It With Songs" (1929), "Big Boy" (1930), "Mammy" (1930) and "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum" (1933). Though a talented singer and entertainer, Jolson left something to be desired as an actor. When audiences grew tired of his thematic films, Jolson returned to the stage and radio performances. Jolson returned to the screen, playing himself, in the George Gershwin biography, "Rhapsody In Blue" (1945).
When Columbia decided to make his biography the following year, Jolson was forced to take a screen test to see if he would be able to play himself. When the decision was made that the 59-year-old Jolson was probably too old for the film, which focused on Jolson's early career, the part was given to Larry Parks. Jolson recorded the songs for the film, with Parks lip-synching, but Jolson did appear as himself on screen in some long shots of stage performances. "The Jolson Story" (1946) was a huge success, and Parks was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actor. Columbia released a sequel, "Jolson Sings Again" (1949), with Parks again in the title role, and Jolson again supplying the vocals, as well as making a brief appearance in the film.
During World War II and the Korean War, Jolson also kept busy entertaining U.S. troops around the world. Shortly after returning from a trip to Korea on October 23, 1950, Jolson was playing gin rummy with friends in the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco when he suffered a fatal heart attack. Jolson died in Room 1221 at the hotel -- the same room where Virginia Rappe was allegedly attacked by comedian Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle in September 1921.
An estimated 20,000 people showed up at Temple Israel on Hollywood Boulevard for Jolson's funeral services. George Jessel delivered a memorable eulogy -- despite the fact that Jolson had once told his wife that he specifically didn't want Jessel to speak at his funeral. Jolson was first buried at Beth Olam Cemetery, a small Jewish cemetery that was part of Hollywood Memorial Park, until a more appropriate burial site could be prepared. Jessel, Jack Benny and Eddie Cantor were among Jolson's pallbearers -- and all would eventually join him at Hillside Memorial Park.
Jolson's widow, Erle, purchased a plot at Hillside for $9,000, and paid another $75,000 for the monument, which was designed by architect Paul Williams. The six-pillar marble structure is topped by a dome, next to three-quarter-size bronze statue of Jolson, eternally resting on one knee, arms outstretched, apparently ready to break into another verse of "Mammy." The inside of the dome features a huge mosaic of Moses holding the tablets containing the Ten Commandments, and identifies Jolson as "The Sweet Singer of Israel" and "The Man Raised Up High."
Erle said Jolson once told her that he wanted to be buried near a waterfall, so the cemetery management provided the 120-foot, blue-tiled cascade of water. There was some public discussion at the time whether Jolson's monument was a little too much, a little too ostentatious, even for the man who described himself as "The World's Greatest Entertainer." A columnist for the Los Angeles Mirror newspaper wrote that the memorial was in bad taste. But others have said the memorial was an appropriate match for Jolson's healthy ego.
It's also interesting to note the memorial for Jolson, who often performed in blackface, was designed by one of the first well-known black architects in southern California. Though Paul Williams was best known for designing homes for celebrities -- his client list included Lon Chaney, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Bert Lahr, Tyrone Power, Barbara Stanwyck, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Frank Sinatra -- he also designed the spider-shaped building at the center of Los Angeles International Airport, the Knickerbocker Hotel in Los Angeles, and the Pearl Harbor Memorial in Honolulu, HI.
Jolson's body was moved to Hillside on Sept. 23, 1951, nearly a year after his death, and another memorial service was held. This time, Jack Benny delivered the eulogy...