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To The Greats

Without A Microphone

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George Jessel among his souvenirs.
Image provided by Reel to Real.
George Jessel Had A Long And Storied Career in Vaudeville And Hollywood, Never Losing His Dramatic Touch Despite Ending Up In An L.A. Suburb Eating TV Dinners

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By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine

Nov. 23, 2015 — We’d heard of Georgie Jessel but never quite knew exactly why he had once been famous. To us, he was the self-proclaimed “Toastmaster General of the U.S.A.”; an old geezer who wore a Purple Heart medal on his tuxedo, hosted social affairs at the Friar’s Club for other stars that hailed from his own era (vaudeville of the early teens and Broadway of the 1920s) and delivered eulogies at their funerals – often in quick succession.

Definitely old school.

Our earliest recollections of Jessel — or Jessel by proxy — included a hilarious late-night television sketch that Rob Reiner did before he attained larger fame as a movie director. Reiner lampooned the comedian, portraying him as the oblivious host of a telethon called: “Stop Death in Our Lifetime.” His characterization was on the mark, right down to Jessel’s toupee, be-ribboned tuxedo and thick, Lower East Side dialect which was a spot-on match to the marble-mouthed voice of the Carvel ice cream pitchman exhorting TV viewers to buy “Fudgie the Whale” cakes.

All in all, Jessel’s existence, or at least the reality of how he lived when we met him in 1980 (he was 82 then), reminded us of one of Norma Desmond’s “waxworks” dinner party guests in Sunset Boulevard.

However, due to our ongoing interest in the extinct American art form known as vaudeville, we had a desire to interview Jessel, who — forgotten relic or not — was a staple in that form of entertainment from the time he was a mere 10 years old. He performed along with fellow kids Eddie Cantor and Walter Winchell in an act staged by impresario and songwriter Gus Edwards called “Gus Edwards’ Kid Kabaret.”

During our visit with Jessel in his Los Angeles-area home (Reseda in the San Fernando Valley, to be exact), his eccentricity was in full flower. Attired in a black beret that would have made Albert Camus feel at home, bathrobe and slippers and sitting in a recliner, Jessel played us like we were a couple of wide-eyed rubes sitting front row center at the Palace Theater 50 years ago.

Jessel’s housekeeper seemed nonplussed by our presence although we guessed visitors to Jessel’s home must have been few and far between. She perched herself on a kitchen stool and didn’t once shift her gaze from the Sunday Los Angeles Times. Flies buzzed around her, and the smoke from her cigarette curled lazily upward creating a smudge pot protective zone around her from the bothersome insects.

“I just talked with Burns (George),” Jessel bellowed from his La-Z-Boy. “How is he?” we asked. “Making millions,” he replied nonchalantly, betraying just a trace of envy, we thought.

What attracted our attention even more than Jessel’s less-than-formal attire, was his home. He was a living endorsement for Swanson TV dinners with half-eaten meals encrusted on aluminum trays that were splayed all over the kitchen counter. We noticed a few of his cats making quick work of the leftovers that were beginning to spoil in the mid-day heat of the Valley and waft their odors over to us. Aside from the mess, the house was a veritable museum of show business artifacts. And Jessel took great delight in directing us to strategic points on the wall where autographed photos of the queen of England, Golda Meir, Eleanor Roosevelt, several U.S. presidents and dozens of show business celebrities reposed in cheap, thrift-store frames.

“Look over there on the left wall,” he commanded us. “Do you know who that is?”

We scrutinized a headshot of a toothy blonde woman, “We don’t have a clue, Mr. Jessel.”

“It the ‘Happy Hooker’ herself, Xaviera Hollander,” Jessel said, sounding a trifle let down.

In the 1960s, Hollander had been a $1,000-a-night call girl and the most notorious madam in New York City with a brothel called The Vertical Whorehouse. In the early ‘70s she wrote about all of it in her bestselling memoir, The Happy Hooker.

After the photos, came a trip down memory lane; a blow by blow description of his medals, militaria and various awards. Among the collection of oddities was an ivory-tipped cane given to him by Harry Truman, an honorary Oscar and numerous awards he received for his humanitarian work, much of it in support of Israel.

When the tour ended, Jessel recalled for us his memories of playing the Orpheum Vaudeville Circuit as part of the “Kid Kabaret” in 1911 when he was 13 years old. “I never danced in the act, but I did imitations of some of the stars who were famous in those days,” he said. “Eddie Cantor used to imitate Al Jolson. Do you want to know and interesting fact? Jolson never saw a microphone until he was 68 years old.”

We asked him what kind of parental care or protection he received when traversing the country at such a young age. “At first my mother took care of me. She also was the wardrobe master for the troupe. But later Cantor watched over me. He was much older than me.”

Jessel remembered our hometown audience of St. Paul, Minn., as being rather cold to performers. “And it had nothing to do with your climate,” he quipped.

From vaudeville, Jessel went on to success on the Broadway stage. His biggest hit came when he played the title role in the theatrical version of The Jazz Singer.

“I did 1,000 performances in that play,” he said. “When it came time to make the film, Warner Bros. put out an option to buy it, but they didn’t have enough scratch to buy a cheese sandwich. Jolson put up the money, made the film and saved the studio.”

After eight Broadway shows, Jessel moved to Hollywood where he produced 20 mostly “B movies” for famed studio head Darryl Zanuck at 20th Century Fox. Jessel’s career in his later years mainly consisted of delivering heartfelt panegyrics to dead show business friends, hosting dinners and fundraisers, writing a syndicated newspaper column and making occasional appearances on TV talk shows. Jessel also filmed a cameo in the Warren Beatty film Reds where he talked with authority about the New York stage during the World War I era. But most of Jessel’s time back then was spent hitting the stump and speaking out against liberal causes and what he said was the growing moral decay of America.

“I’ve been banned from network television for nearly seven years. I made an attack on The New York Times and The Washington Post. I called them the Pravda of the West.

“Take television for instance,” he ranted. “The curse of America is right in that box. It has captured America’s mind. The worst thing about TV is its impact on politics. Moses stuttered. He would have been murdered on TV! I was a vice president at ABC for over a year. They had meetings every day with advertising companies. At these meetings the public is never mentioned. If he’s got the money, he can buy the time and put your Aunt Minnie on. I don’t think anyone should criticize any actor on television. When you finish a script, it goes to the advertising company and if they want to take out all of the jokes, they do. So you say the guy wasn’t funny.”

Although coherence might not have been Jessel’s strong suit, no one could ever say he wasn’t impassioned.

“I’m responsible for the creation of a 90-minute news program in Israel. The county of Los Angeles has 10 million people – they have a newspaper and a half. New York City is down from 13 papers to three. There are 10 in Paris. I can go on and on.”

That’s something we never doubted. Since we seemed to have strayed off vaudeville and show business topics, we asked him for his thoughts on government funding for the arts, a hot topic at the time (as it still is).

“What arts are there to control?” he asked. “The ballet? Don’t make me laugh. I hate to be so pessimistic, but you have to face reality. I only hope Ronald Reagan can turn things around.”

After leaving Jessel’s house, we mused about the long arc his career had taken from a vaudeville and Broadway headliner to producing movies in Hollywood to anonymity in a shambling suburb of Los Angeles. We wondered what kept Jessel going. Was it distant memories of S.R.O. audiences that he daily nursed and thereby kept intact and evergreen? Was it the talismans and tokens displayed on every wall, end-table and hutch that kept his eye from straying to a more prosaic reality – the kitchen wastebasket overflowing with TV dinner cardboard boxes?

When we got back to the car, we looked down at our notebook and found what might have been intended as a partial answer to our question. The Toastmaster General had scrawled something on the last page of our notes, probably while we were wandering from one piece of memorabilia to the next.

“Here’s to the greats … without a microphone,” it read.

The encomium could have sufficed as Jessel’s own eulogy, a summation of where he ranked himself in the show business firmament.

Definitely old school.

David Fantle & Tom Johnson have interviewed more than 250 celebrities, mostly from “Hollywood’s Golden Age.” They are co-authors of the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV and are currently writing a biography of songwriter and legendary MGM musical producer Arthur Freed. Reach them at david.fantle@gmail.com or tjohnsonca@aol.com
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