Al Jolson, late of Washington and then, more recenly, late of Hollywood and talking pictures, is buried high on a hill from which you can see a Delta Airlines billboard, the San Diego Freeway and, depending on the smog, of airport. He rests modestly beneath a mosacic of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments, enclosed by a high marble memorial illuminated from 6 to midnight and which cost $84,000 in 1954.As he would put it, you ain't heard nothin' yet.
Nearby, in the mausoleum, rest in considerably less splendor Jack Benny and Eddie Cantor and his wide Ida. A daughter is there, too, as is a Warner, maybe of Warner Brothers, and the Three Stooges. To get to the top of a hill, you have to walk past the headstones of lesser-known people, people with names like smtih and feingold and Pasternak, past a woman sitting on the grass, talking, really talking, to someone who lies, as they used to say, beneath the sod. she is dressed in peach-colored slacks and she wears glasses, and lest you think she is the one who is strange, I have to telll you tthat I am here for Jolson.
At the lop of the hill behind the high marble monument, there is a little status in bronze-Jolson down on one knee.
The arms are outstretched the fingers spread aprt, and he is wearing his minstrel tie. He is not, thank Gid in blackface. Not that it matters. He is not much appreciated any more. Few visitors come here, the guard says. The guard is Mexican. He says people still take "peectures" but not many. He tilts his head and stares at me. I am too young to be making this pilgrimage to Jolson's grave.
On this day, workmen are repairing the site. They are replacing the blue tiles that form five large steps to make a waterfall. The water is off now for repairs. It is sometimes off when there is a water shortage, even though the water itself is recycled. It just looks bad. Jolson himself has a similar image problem. To some, he looks bad.
My father, I think, would have liked me to come here. It was he who taught me the Jolson songs. He showed me as a boy how to get down on one knee and put my arms out and sing songs like "Mammy." I sang all the songs after a while. I used to go into corner of the room and fo my Jolson number-try to mimic that incredible voice, which is not easy when you ar 6 or 7 or 8. I sang 'April Showers" and "Toot-toot-tootsy" and soon this got tob something of a routine with me. All kids have something, I guess. I had Jolson.
I did Jolson when relatives came over or we went to visit. Someone would say, "Richie, sing Jolson." And I would find my corner and sing. Only one song I did not sing. I did not sing "Sonny Boy." My father sang that to me. Later, "The Jolson Story" opened in the movies and I went. I think I saw the movie three or four times. I loved him-Jolson. I loved the way he sang. Someone said he had a tear in his voice. He did.
He did blackface. i never did give that much thought. It confused me, actually-a white man pretending he was a black man? This was another mystery of childhood, like sex of something. Then one day I mentioned Jolson to a black colleague and he looked horrified. My childhood hero was being seen as a bigot. You can make excuses for him, but it is not an excuse I would buy if he did an act insulting to Jews.
I've often wondered what people were thinking back then. In some Marx Brothers films, for instance, blacks are treated with ridicule, made the butt of tasteless jokes. None of this has stopped college audiences from loving the Marx Brothers. This has not stopped them from being the darlingof intellectuals. It does, however, stop me in my tracks. Now I don'tknow what to do with Jolson, either.
In the administration building ofthe cemetery, the assistant director, Alex Altschul, talked about the Jolson grave. It still attracts some people, he said, but not, of course, like it used to. He also looked at me strangely. Some young people come by now and again, he said, again looking at me. He says that there is a Jolson Club somewhere that sends flowers for the grave and every once in a while a relative comes by to pay respects.
"There was a nephew or something last year."
Maybe Jolson thought this is the way it would end. He sunk his money into posterity-90 percent to charity, some to his wife and the rest for this shrine to himself. He took no chances withpeople. Charity makes you live forever and so does white marble and a man who was down like he was, who had been forgotten in his own time andwho came back only as his singing biographey in the movies of his life, put more faith in stone than in the external popularity of his singing.
It could be he'll make a comeback. It could be his talent will compensate for bad taste, that he will be excused, explained as a product of his time like Shakespeare, who some consider was an anti-Semite or Jefferson the slave owner or the men who wrote about women as if they were an inferior species. Some things take time.
So he took this hill and built this memorial to himself. He rests now with Cantor and Benny nearby and you have to admit he's in good company. Every night at 6 the lights go on and every midnight they go off and the people who drive by fast onthe freeway have no idea what they're looking at. Someday, you know, they're probably going to turn off the lights to save some bucks and thenAl Jolson, late of Washington and still later of talking pictures, willbe off the stage forever - an egomaniac out to sync with the times but still a hero to a kid who worshiped him. I mean he was right about one thing. Until you heard him sing, you hadn't heard nothin' yet.