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S.L. FAN’S AL JOLSON FESTIVAL AIMS TO KEEP JAZZ SINGER ALIVE

SHARE S.L. FAN’S AL JOLSON FESTIVAL AIMS TO KEEP JAZZ SINGER ALIVE

AL JOLSON'S name may be forever linked with "The Jazz Singer" - and it is likely this link that keeps an awareness of the singer alive in the collective consciousness of movie fans.

As the star of the first "talkie" in 1927, Jolson became a part of movie history. And, ironically, when his star had faded, it was another movie some 20 years later that revived his career - the biographical "Jolson Story."By all accounts, however, these milestones were miniscule when compared to the electrifying presence the singer had when performing live on the stage - a presence that is difficult to imagine in this day of bigger and glitzier special-effects laden concert tours.

But when Jolson followed other performers on stage and immodestly told the audience, "You ain't heard nothin' yet!" he wasn't kidding. His enthusiastic showmanship made such songs as "Sonny Boy," "Swanee," "Avalon," "Mammy," "California Here I Come," "There's a Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder" and "Toot Toot Tootsie" permanently associated with him.

As the years pass, and as fewer people are around to recollect his stage presence firsthand, Jolson's important role in the entertainment industry is in danger of being forgotten. But not if Bruce Giffen and the International Al Jolson Society have anything to say about it.

Giffen, a Salt Lake fan with a passion for Jolson's work, is one of the organizers of the Al Jolson Festival at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles this weekend. There will be live shows with Jolson impersonators, a memorabilia auction and screenings of Jolson movies, including a special free-to-the-public showing of "Go Into Your Dance" at Mann's Chinese Theater at 10 a.m., Saturday, July 10.

"I really believe that Jolson was the beginning of popular music," Giffen says. "He was (the precedent) for Presley and a lot of people."

Giffen cites as evidence the fact that Jolson had the first million-selling record - "Sonny Boy," in 1928. He says Jolson also was the first singer to perform a Gershwin song in a Broadway show - "Swanee," in the 1918 Broadway hit "Sinbad." Jolson was also the first living entertainer to have a biographical movie made about him and was one of the first performers to entertain the troops in World War I, World War II and the Korean War. If that wasn't enough, he was also on the first experimental television broadcast in 1931. "He was earning $10,000 a week in 1918, which was a lot of money back then."

Giffen said his goal, through the International Al Jolson Society, is "to keep the name alive and to keep that feeling - that musical feeling alive.

Among Giffen's prized possessions are original programs of touring shows Jolson performed in Utah - "Honeymoon Express," on March 22, 1914, at the Salt Lake Theater; "Dancing Around," June 1, 1915, at the Orpheum Theater in Ogden; and "Sinbad," in April 1921, again at the Salt Lake Theater.

For "Dancing Around," Jolson was billed as "The Vesuvius of Vocal Velocity." And audiences probably felt that was an understatement.

Jolson's career was revived in the late '40s with the release of "The Jolson Story," which had actor Larry Parks playing Jolson. But it was Jolson himself who voiced all the songs - and it was Jolson performing on stage in the long shots. As a result, Jolson became a popular radio star. (The film was followed by a sequel just before Jolson died in 1950, "Jolson Sings Again.")

In the '60s, more than 20 years after Jolson's death, there was yet another revival of Jolson-mania, when "The Jolson Story" was taken out of mothballs and shown on television for the first time.

Giffen feels that it's not out of the realm of possibility that younger audiences could also get excited about Al Jolson if they saw his recorded performances under the right circumstances.

And he's hoping this festival in Los Angeles will do just that.

- THE FESTIVAL BEGINS Thursday, July 8, at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, with a welcoming dinner that features Richard Halpern's Tin Pan Alley musical tribute, "Let Me Sing."

Friday morning there will be a screening of Jolson's movie "The Singing Fool" (1928); rare footage of Jolson's final Broadway show, "Hold On to Your Hats" (1940); and the 1926 short subject "Al Jolson in a Plantation Act" (released a year before "The Jazz Singer"). Later in the day "The Singing Kid" (1936) will be shown and a memorabilia auction will be held. Friday evening's events will be highlighted by "The Living Voice of Al Jolson," a show with Clive Baldwin, a Jolson impersonator.

The major event will be held Saturday at Mann's Chinese theater, as a new 35mm print of "Go Into Your Dance" (1935) is presented at 10 a.m., free to the public. In the evening, a revue, "Al Jolson and Friends," featuring Ira Green, will be presented at the Friars' Club. On Sunday, a tour of Jolson's favorite "haunts" will be conducted.

For information on the festival, phone Giffen at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, 1-800-950-7667, through Sunday. For information on the International Al Jolson Society, phone Giffen in Salt Lake City at 485-4011.