CHICAGO -- After more than 20 years as a professional Al Jolson imitator, Eddy Ambrose can't sing in church anymore.
"If I sing, I've got to go Jolson style. I can't sing any other way," said Ambrose, 62, a retired maintenance worker and former milkman from suburban Niles.
"You see what I mean," he said, unleashing a verse from "Sonny Boy," a Jolson standard.
His wife, Lorraine, confirms the problem. "He could never give it up," she said. "He doesn't get tired of it. He just doesn't."
As himself, Ambrose is gently modest. But as Jolson, he is self-assured, bursting with a verve and a resonant baritone reminiscent of the punchy charisma of his silver-screen idol.
"Sometimes, I'm doing a show and I feel like I'm part of him," Ambrose said. "Jolson has given me a lot of pleasure over the years -- the accolades I've received.
"I'm living off his reputation, and not only me."
Jolson, born in 1886, starred in 1927 in the first sound movie, "The Jazz Singer." His on-one-knee rendition of the song "Mammy" ("I'd walk a million miles for one of your smiles") has become a legendary film snippet.
But it is the fans who remember, collect and trade trivia about the many records, movies and song compositions from Jolson's 1920s and 1930s heyday.
Today, the tuxedoed, white-gloved nostalgia of Ambrose and his compatriots seems quaint compared with such sequined modern enthusiasms as Elvis-mania.
But with the changing times, Ambrose has had to change too. He no longer performs his act in the blackface makeup that Jolson made his trademark, borrowed from the minstrel troupe that launched his career.
Many now consider the racial stereotypes portrayed in the old-time minstrel shows as degrading to blacks and the blackface makeup as an insulting caricature.
"So I don't get friction, I don't do it. It's a shame," said the silver-haired Ambrose, adding that many fans believe the blackface issue unfairly condemned Jolson's film legacy to obscurity.
Possibly the high point in Ambrose's career was opening for Bob Hope in 1975. But his busiest time was the 1960s, when he performed at hotels and private parties nearly every weekend. During the week, he made his early-morning milk rounds through Chicago's Cragin neighborhood, where he grew up.
Then, people remembered Jolson, and impersonators of him were in demand.
"Now people have died off and the music scene has changed so much," said Ambrose, one of the few Jolson impersonators left. A half-dozen are well known in the United States, said Dolores Kontowicz, who founded the International Al Jolson Society in the Milwaukee area 40 years ago.
Yet interest in the actor in the past few years has increased the society's membership to 700 people, Kontowicz said.
"Now people in their twenties are interested," she said. "It's amazing we're still finding people that young."
Last month, the society held its annual convention in Milwaukee. Members flew in from around the country, England, Scotland and Canada for the occasion, which marked the 40th anniversary of the group's founding in 1950, the year Jolson died.
The moments that inspired Ambrose are as vivid to him today as the old movies he watches hour after hour on home video -- "The Singing Fool," "Say It With Songs," "Mammy" and "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum."
Ambrose decided he had to sing like Jolson after he had returned from Navy service in World War II and saw "The Jolson Story," a biographical movie about the actor-singer.
"Jolson was like me. He was so emotional with show business he ran away from his family," Ambrose recalled. Like other fans of his generation, Ambrose ran away too, though only in his heart.
Even back then, Jolson enthusiasm was a case of nostalgia. Made in 1946, the film portrayed the 1920s as carefree, happy years of ragtime and flappers.
"We were searching for something," said Kontowicz, 61. "People were looking for nostalgia. They wanted to get away from thinking about the war."
The movie that inspired Ambrose's epiphany left his future wife lukewarm, asleep in fact. "I didn't tell him until years later," Lorraine said. "I'm no Jolson fan."
But she's no spoilsport, either. She demanded he do the Jolson songs in their entirety, or quit indiscriminate crooning at home and taverns.
"I said, 'If you really want to sing like him, why don't you really learn the lines and do it?' " she recalled. She bought him his first Jolson record. He practiced endlessly.
Glory came. In 1954 -- Aug. 1, 1954, to be exact -- Ambrose won first prize on "The Morris B. Sachs Amateur Hour," a local television talent show.
"I was so nervous. I couldn't see anything," he said. "To this day, I'll never forget being on that stage with the spotlight hitting me and everything else so black.
"They treated me like a star."