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Al Jolson

Al Jolson lived “The American Dream.” Born in Lithuania, Jolson rose through the ranks of vaudeville as a comedian and a blackface “Mammy” singer. By 1920, he had become the biggest star on Broadway, but he is probably best remembered for his film career. He starred in THE JAZZ SINGER (1927), the first talking movie ever made, and his legend was assured in 1946 with the release of the successful biography of his life called THE JOLSON STORY. Jolson was the first openly Jewish man to become an entertainment star in America. His marginal status as a Jew informed his blackface portrayal of Southern blacks. Almost single-handedly, Jolson helped to introduce African-American musical innovations like jazz, ragtime, and the blues to white audiences. The brightest star of the first half of the 20th century, Jolson was eternally grateful for the opportunities America had given him. He tirelessly entertained American troops in World War II and in the Korean War, and he contributed time and money to the March of Dimes and other philanthropic causes. While some of his colleagues in show business complained about his inflated ego, he certainly deserved his moniker: “The World's Greatest Entertainer.”

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the man who made his mark singing “My Mammy” in blackface was himself a “mamma's boy.” Jolson was born Asa Yoelson in Seredzius, Lithuania, sometime between 1883 and 1886. He was the youngest of four children -- the baby of the family and his mother Naomi's favorite. When Asa was four, his father, Rabbi Moshe Reuben Yoelson, left Lithuania to put down roots for the family in America. From age four to age eight, Asa was raised by his mother. She introduced him to the violin and told him that if he practiced hard he could become a star performer in America someday. When Asa was eight Rabbi Yeolson brought his family to Washington, D.C., where he had found work as a rabbi and a cantor at a Jewish congregation. Later that same year, Naomi died. Seeing his mother in her death throes traumatized young Asa, and he spent much of his life struggling with that trauma. After her death, he remained withdrawn for seven months until he met Al Reeves, who played the banjo, sang, and introduced him to show business. At age nine, Asa and his older brother Hirsch changed their names to Al and Harry, and by age 11 Al was singing in the streets for nickels and dimes that he used to buy tickets to shows at the National Theater.

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