Monday, April 27, 2009

Jolsons in DC, 1927

Al Jolson was born in Lithuania and spent his youth in Washington DC. At 14 he left home to make his fortune in New York City. By 1927, when these photos were taken, he had established himself as an entertainment celebrity.

The first photo shows the family townhouse at 713 4½ St. SW and two adjoining buildings. The next two show the father alone and paired with Al's step-mother. The three are from collections of the Prints and Photos Division of the Library of Congress.

{Al's father, Moses Reuben Yoelson, was a cantor and rabbi in a DC synagogue. Al's biographies say that Moses was a strict disciplinarian who enforced strict religious observances and insisted that Al study to become a cantor and rabbi himself.}

{Al's birth mother died the year she and the children of the family came to America. The biographies say that Al was deeply affected by and never fully recovered from this tragedy. It's likely he had little to do with this step mother.}

Here are some details from the first of the three photos:

{The Jolson home has a traditional and quite handsome facade, but it's clearly falling apart. You can tell from this and the state of the two other buildings that we are not in a ritzy part of town.}

{why are the bricks loose and some missing from the Jolson house? Why are they scarred? Why are they in disrepair while the ones on the second hand store are not?}

{The shop to the left with, presumably, its proprietor.}

{The man in the doorway of the second hand shop.}

{The second hand shop clearly dealt in clothing. The overcoat is heavy and -- as you'd expect -- leads potential customers to expect good things inside. The number of shoes and boots is surprising.}

{This poster in the second hand shop side window also appears in the window of the barber shop.}

{The term "White Barber Shop" seems to mean just what you'd expect: the place catered to white men.}

{Close up of the announcements on the barber shop door. The seem to advertise products, after-shave, talc, and the like.}

{Notice the woman looking out at the photographer. She may have been the barber's wife or an assistant. Note also the placards. They establish that the photo was taken in March -- or maybe February -- 1927.}

{You can't tell much from this detail except that the models are all of the white race.}

{The poster of the shows at the Howard Theater, a landmark institution in DC: "The Howard Theatre provided a place where color barriers blurred and music unified. For most of the 20th century, it held audiences captive with music, dance, drama and comedy. Speakers like Booker T. Washington shared the stage with musicals, road shows, vaudeville acts, theater productions and community programs. Later, Washington's favorite son Duke Ellington opened a new era of jazz big bands on The Howard's stage."}

{This coat is a mystery. It might be the photographer's, but at this season of the year that seems unlikely.}

LC's bibliographic details are sparse. They show that the house is where Al Jolson's parents lived. They give the address as 4½ St. NW. They identify the source as the Harris & Ewing firm of photographers (more on H&E here.)

When the photo appeared on the Shorpy blog, commenters identified some components.

One decodes a flyer in the barber shop window: "Washington Post, Mar 25, 1927. Kiatta vs. Taylor on Mat. George Kiatta, Syrian mat expert will meet George Taylor in a wrestling bout at the Mutual theater tonight. Taylor has recently won victories over Dutch Green and other good middle-weight wrestlers."

Another, the blog's author, says the woman in the window might be a cardboard image, not a real person.

A third says the address can't be in northwest DC (as the bib record claims): "Note that address is in the southwest quadrant. I don't think there was a 4½ Street in the northwest." He quotes:
Washington Post, Jun 24, 1923
Native Washingtonians Succeed in
Varied Fields of Endeavor . . .

To the southwest section of Washington as well as America generally the stage is typified by one name, "Al Jolson," for he is the pride of that neighborhood where he lived from the time he was a child of eight after coming to America from Europe until the dawn of fame drew his steps away from the Capital.

Down in the substantial home at 713 Four-and-one-half street southwest, his boyhood home and where his father, the Rev. M.R. Yoelson still resides, there is always joy when "Al" is coming to town. For they know that although he is a personal friend of President Harding, who always tries to see his show and appreciates his humor and genius to the full, the "dearest spot on earth to him is Home, Sweet Home" and his big car caries him swiftly away from the uptown theater to his home where a reunion with his dear ones awaits him.

The boys and girls at Jefferson school, just around the corner, treasure every scrap they can learn of Al Jolson, for he is one of their own, "a Jefferson school boy" through all his healthy, happy boyhood, a marble champion, a baseball player and popular among his mates.

Some sources:

Al Jolson, article in wikipedia.

AL JOLSON Biography on

One bio says this of Al's parents:
Father: Moshe Reuben Yoelson (a Rabbi) (b. Moshe Reuben Hesselson, 1857, Kurland, Latvia - d. December 23, 1945, Washington, D.C.)
Mother: Naomi Etta Cantor (b. 1860 - died in childbirth, February 6, 1895, at 208 4 1/2 Street SW, Washington, D.C.)
Jolson on This site says of Al:
He was the youngest of four children of Rabbi Moses Reuben Yoelson and his wife, Naomi (Cantor). Anti-Jewish pogroms were common and the family immigrated to Washington, D.C., in 1880, where Rabbi Yoelson obtained a job as a cantor in a synagogue.

Jolson's mother died when he was 10. His formal education wasn't much but he learned much more from the streets, where he would sing and dance on the corner to earn spending money. In constant conflict with his father, who wanted him to follow a religious life, Al ran away to New York to join his older brother, Harry, who had left home and changed his name to Jolson. Al also changed his family name to Jolson and in 1899, he appeared as an extra in a Jewish play called Children of the Ghetto. At 15, he joined his brother in a three-man comedy act that toured the vaudeville circuits. They were known as Jolson, Palmer and Jolson. It was during this tour that he used burnt cork to darken his face, which became his trademark in show business.
Jolson Biography on This site says:
Asa Yoelson was born in Seredzius (a.k.a. Srednike), a Jewish village ("schtetle") in the Lithuanian region of Imperial Russia. Although he would claim Mar. 26, 1886 as his birth date, no documentation exists to verify it – it may have been anytime from 1884 onwards. The openly anti-Semitic authorities were not interested in recording the arrival of another Jew. Asa was the fourth surviving child of cantor Moshe Yoelson and his wife Naomi, after daughters Rose and Etta, and their son Hirsh. The Yoelsons raised their family according to strict orthodox tradition, and Moshe expected his sons would one day become cantors too. He trained both boys to sing, propping open their mouths with matchsticks to encourage them to sing loud and clear.

Moshe Yoelson wanted to get his family away from the ongoing threat of Tsarist oppression. Soon after Moshe's studies brought him the title of rabbi in 1890, he traveled to America, promising to send for his wife and children at the earliest opportunity. The emotionally strong but physically ailing Naomi held the family together, becoming the center of young Asa's world. When Moshe became head of a Washington D.C. congregation in 1894, Naomi and the children made the long journey to join him there. Any hopes the Yoelson's had of resuming a normal family life were dashed when Naomi's died in 1895. Eight year old Asa was in the next room, his world shattered.

No comments: