by Daniel D. Stuhlman
Jewish Comedians part III
As I looking for a topic for this month's column, I read about the Three Stooges(1), George Burns, and Alan King. Their connection to Jewish life was tenuous. Hillcrest Country Club in Hollywood across Pico Boulevard from the 20th Century Fox Studios was the Jewish country club where Jack Benny, George Burns, George Jessel, the Ritz Brothers (Al, Jimmy, Harry), Groucho Marx, and Danny Kaye had a regular Friday lunch. When the club admitted, non-Jews Danny Thomas joined the luncheons. Milton Berle, a comparative youngster, sometimes joined them. This was a chance for these comedians to socialize, try new material out on their friends, and talk "shop." Alan King said this lunch was like a college for comedy.
Names have always fascinated me.I tried to find out the Hebrew names of some of the comedians.I found a picture of the grave of Jerome Lester 'Curly' Howard (Horwitz),Oct. 22, 1903 - Jan. 18, 1952. His Hebrew name was: יהודה ליב ב״ר שלמה נתן הלוי Yehudah Leib b"r Shlomo Natan ha-Levi. His brother, Moe was משה Moshe, and brother, Shemp was שמואל Shmuel. Only Jerome 'Curly' had his Hebrew name on the grave marker. Jack Benny, George Burns, and George Jessel do not have their Hebrew names on their grave markers.
George Albert Jessel (1898-1981)
Jessel was given the title, "toastmaster general" because of all the dinners he was the toastmaster. The mayors of New York frequently called upon him to be the toastmaster at official dinners. In the last thirty years of his life he spoke at Israel bond dinners, funerals, charity events, political functions and conventions. He wrote books on story telling and hosting dinners.(2)
When he died, he was an honorary member of more than 188 synagogues. Jessel was raised in Harlem. His father, an unsuccessful playwright, advised his son against being an actor. After his father died, Jessel began a show-business career at age nine. Throughout his entire career he drew upon his Jewish upbringing.
His first famous role was the star of the Broadway play, "The Jazz Singer." He played the role more than 1000 times from 1925-1929. This play, by Samson Raphaelson is based on his short story, "Day of Atonement."(3) It is the story of a hazzan's son, Jake Robbin(formerly Jakie Rabinowitz), who wants to be a jazz singer. His father wants him to remember his Jewish heritage and sing Kol Nidre. The story is familiar because there have been three film versions of this play. This film, screenplay by Alfred A. Cohn, shaped course of film making because it ushered in the era of talking films. The story is a struggle of Jewish heritage versus the pull of American society and the pull of one's parents versus the desire to be on your own. Jessel wanted the film role, however, Warner Brothers owned the rights. Warner Brothers did not want to pay Jessel $10,000 just as insurance. Jessel did not want to risk his career on the newfangled talkies without such an insurance. Jessel who was still in the Broadway show went to Los Angeles to do two silent films. Al Jolson(1886-1950) was staying at the same hotel. Jolson signed the contract with Warner Brothers and Jessel never forgave him. However, they were really friends.
This film had even more Jewish struggles. Warner Brothers wanted the Hazzan father to be played by Josef "Yossele" Rosenblatt, who was an observant Jew. They knew of his religious scruples, because he previously turned down offers to enter the opera because it would have involved a little bit of acting. Warner Brothers hoped that, on account of his financial troubles, he might be induced to stretch a point and sing for Vitaphone (the process used to make the sound). In the spring of 1927 three agents from Warner Brothers visited Hazzan Rosenblatt to negotiate a deal. They were willing to offer him $100,000 to play the father. Rosenblatt refused. They offered to have him sing Kol Nidrei and Umipnei Chatoeinu sing off camera. They requested that he sing some liturgical pieces of his own composition. Rosenblatt refused. The representatives left without an agreement.
Over the next few weeks they negotiated more. The final agreement was that Rosenblatt would sing several non-liturgical pieces without his face showing on the screen. For eight weeks Rosenblatt worked on the movie. They paid him $10,000 plus expenses to play himself in the cantorial concert scene. The advertising cards for the film say "with Cantor Rosenblatt." According to the script he sang "Eli, Eli" in the concert scene.(4) I find it amazing that first talking film was a Jewish story, starred a Jewish actor and featured an observant Jew played by an observant Jew. Contrast this with the de-ethinizing of Hollywood less than 10 years later.
The Jazz Singer was the story of Al Jolson. He put in his signature songs, "Toot, Toot Tootsie" and "Mammie." "Toot, Toot Tootsie" was not in the original script. He asked the orchestra leader to leader to play it. While the cameras were rolling, he sang and danced the ad lib number so well that they included it in the film. In the 1980 version with Neil Diamond, the songs were written by Diamond.
George Jessel spoke at Jolson's funeral. Jessel referred to Jolson's given name, Asa, several times. I guess that was the name his friends called him. Jessel had sincere words of grief. At the end of the recorded version (which differs from the written version(5)) Jessel says, ברוך דיין אמת Barukh dayan emes, blessed is the righteous judge, אמן amein.
I have not been able to get a handle on Jessel personality. On one hand he was a favorite toastmaster, host, storyteller and fund raiser. On the other hand he was controversial figure who married and divorced four times.(6) In a 1971 interview on the Today Show Edwin Newman cut him short because he referred to the New York Times and Washington Post as Pravda.
Daniel D. Stuhlman is president of Stuhlman Management Consultants, Chicago, IL, a firm helping organizations turn data and information into knowledge. They are looking for new clients and opportunities. Previous issues of Librarian's Lobby can be found at: http://home.earthlink.net /~DDStuhlman/liblob.htm. He can be reached via e-mail at: DDSTUHLMAN@earthlink.net.
1. The Three Stooges had a few Yiddishisms in their movies. They had two anti-Nazi movies, You Nazty Spy (1940) and I'll Never Heil Again (1941) at a time when Hollywood was afraid to anger the Germans and suffer the economic consequences of losing the German market.
2. The toastmaster general's favorite jokes; openings and closings for speech makers. New York, Hawthorn Books, 1973. The toastmaster general's guide to successful public speaking. New York, Hawthorn Books,1969. You too can make a speech. New York, Grayson Pub. Corp., 1956. Also an autobiography: Jessel, anyone?.Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice-Hall, 1960. The New York Times obituary of George Jessel was published on May 26, 1981.
3. "The day of atonement", originally appeared in Everybody's magazine, January, 1922.
4. This story is from the book written by his son. Yossele Rosenblatt : the story of his life as told by his son, by Samuel Rosenblatt. New York, Farrar, Straus and Young, 1954. The interesting fact is in the movie, Rosenblatt is seen in the cantorial concert. According to his grandson and namesake, Samuel Rosenblatt probably never saw the movie. See the web site: http://www.jolson.org/works/film/js/yossel/rosenblatt.html. To see a film clip with Jolson singing Kol Nidre go to http://www.jolson.org/.
5. The written version ends, "Baruch adenoi. Praise the Lord. Good night, Al."
6. According to an e-mail received on October 2, 2002 and an update on Dec. 1, 2002 from Nate Bloom, a free-lance author, Jessel was married four times, but he married and divorced his first wife twice. His last wife was Jewish and was only 16 or 17. It was a bit of a scandal when he married her, a dancer and small time actress. It is possible the Jessel thought she was older. They had one daughter, Jerrilynn. Although divorced after a few years, Jessel stayed close to his one and only legitimate child. She teaches at a Jewish pre-school in the San Francisco Bay area. Bloom is writing an article about the daughter. Jerrilynn married a Gentile. In her '30s, however, she got religion and converted twice to Judaism, the first conversion was Reform and and the second through a joint program run by the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform councils in Kansas City. But anyone's standard---she is now Jewish. She credits her father's influence with making her become more Jewish--albeit somewhat late in life. Her second husband---who sadly died a few years ago--was Jewish.
Bloom also wrote that Chico Marx had a Jewish wife and children. Larry Fine and his Jewish wife did have children, although he ran around a lot like Chico. Moe was married to a cousin of Harry Houdini, who was Jewish, of course. Moe, a devoted husband, had a 50 year marriage.
Librarian's Lobby Judaica Library Network of Metro Chicago Stuhlman Management Consultants Stories by Stuhlman
Broadway plays with George Jessel as performer or producer
The Vigil [Play] Producer 1948
Run, Little Chillun [Play] Producer 1943
Show Time [Musical, Vaudeville] Performer 1942-1943
High Kickers [Musical] Writer and performer 1941-1942
Spring Meeting [Play] Producer 1938
Schoolhouse on the Lot [Play] Producer 1938
Sweet and Low [Musical Revue] Performer 1930
This Man's Town [Play] Producer 1930
Joseph [Play] Performer 1930
The War Song [Play] Writer and Performer 1928
The Jazz Singer [Play] Performer: George Jessel 1925-1927
Helen of Troy, New York [Musical] Producer 1923
The Passing Show of 1923 [Musical Revue] Performer 1923
Motion pictures of George Jessel
Judy Garland's Hollywood (1997)
Diary of a Young Comic (1979)
Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976)
The Phynx (1970)
Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? (1969)
Valley of the Dolls (1967)
The Busybody (1967)
Missing Halves Special (195?)
Juke Box Rhythm (1959)
Beau James (1957)
Yesterday and Today (1954)
Tonight We Sing (1953)
Bloodhounds of Broadway (1952)
The I Don't Care Girl (1952)
Wait 'til the Sun Shines, Nellie (1952)
Anne of the Indies (1951)
Golden Girl (1951)
Meet Me After the Show (1951)
Dancing in the Dark (1949)
Oh, You Beautiful Doll (1949)
You're My Everything (1949)
When My Baby Smiles at Me (1948)
Trail Street (1947)
I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now (1947)
Nightmare Alley (1947)
Do You Love Me? (1946)
The Dolly Sisters (1945)
Show Business (1944)
Four Jills in a Jeep (1944)
Stage Door Canteen (1943)
The Life of the Party (1937)
Private Jones (1933)
Happy Days (1930)
Love, Live and Laugh (1929)
Lucky Boy (1929)
George Washington Cohen (1928)
Ginzberg the Great (1928)
Sailor Izzy Murphy (1927)
Private Izzy Murphy (1926)
The Other Man's Wife (1919)
©2002 Last revised June 16, 2003