Stepping Out

Memories of Al Jolson

Fans gather in tribute at annual festival


The “World’s Greatest Entertainer” continues to live on — through his fans who are intent on maintaining his legacy. Jolson — undeniably a pioneer in music, in film, and on Broadway throughout the early 20th century — made an indelible stamp on entertainment, and it’s one that continues to resonate. The festival’s 22nd edition, next Saturday, Aug. 11, includes favorite aspects from previous years, as well as new elements that attendees will welcome.

“Jolson said at the end of his life ‘When I die, nobody will remember me.’ Here it is many decades later and we have over 1,000 members worldwide,” says longtime International Al Jolson Society President Jan Hernstat. “And there are so many more people who are ‘closet Jolson fans’ who have this enjoyment of Jolson.”

Performer Noah Diamond, a Marx Brothers aficionado, joins the event this year, appearing as Groucho Marx in a cabaret-style segment, with a song and joke routine. He brings some of the flavor of the Jolson years to the festival.

“Groucho appeared with Al Jolson on the Kraft Musical Hall radio show many times, more than any other entertainer,” says Hernstat. “They had a great rapport.”

Comedian Bob Greenberg returns with his impression of comedian W.C. Fields, another Jolson contemporary. “He appears in total character,” Hernstat says.

“Both of these performers really add to the event.”

Impressions aside, other participants include Jolson expert Ed Greenbaum and Brian Gari, grandson of Jolson’s friend and showbiz contemporary Eddie Cantor, offering nsights into the entertainer’s life and career.

This year’s lineup also includes singer Krissy Ross. “She’s a huge Jolson fan and knows all the songs,” says Hernstat. “To see a 28-year-old sing Jolson is just amazing. She’s like an old soul.”

Ross, along with Diamond and Greenberg, appear as an opening act of sorts before returning favorite Tony Babino takes to the stage. As always, he performs “The Heart of Jolson,” his popular concert of Jolson standards.

“Many people come back each year just to hear Tony B sing,” says Hernstat. “His Jolson impression is uncanny, it’s like no one else. You close your eyes and hear him sing, you think Jolson has came back to life. Everyone thinks they can sing like Jolson, but few can. Tony B has an amazing ability to perform as Jolson. It really is special and he only does it for us.”“Jolson was the first true superstar before they even coined that expression,” says Hernstat of Jolson’s legacy.

“If you think about it… there was Jolson, Bing Crosby, Sinatra, Elvis, the Beatles, Barbra Streisand, Michael Jackson, who only wore one white glove — Jolson wore two! He was the lead in the first talking movie [“The Jazz Singer”], the first person to take a show on the road, to become a Hollywood and Broadway star. The problem is that he doesn’t get much exposure, and a lot of people don’t remember what he did.”

Those folks who attend the Long Island gathering are featured to the highlights of a national three-day festival that takes place every May (the month of Jolson’s birthday). “People that come here get a kick out of it,” says Hernstat. “They call me in March to find out the August date because they don’t want to miss it. [At that time] I haven’t even booked the date yet!”

“Everyone enjoys it and people keep coming back; it’s a lot of fun. I have a guy who isn’t even a Jolson fan, yet he came last year and had such a good time that he’s coming back this year. For folks who want to experience a bit of fun and nostalgia, this is the place to be.”

Learn more about this remarkable man. The 22nd Annual Long Island Al Jolson Festival will be held on Aug. 11, 9:30 a.m.-4 p.m. at Oceanside Knights of Columbus, 2985 Kenneth Place, Oceanside. Tickets are $43.95, which includes entertainment and meals. Tickets for Tony Babino’s performance only are $23 each. For more information visit call Jan Hernstat at 516-678-3524.