Jessel, George (1898-1981)

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Jessel, George (1898-1981)

George Jessel lived his life in show business, and he toiled with boundless energy to adapt to the changing modes of the entertainment world. His professional career spanned three-quarters of a century, from 1907 to just before his death. Primarily, he was a live-audience entertainer, with his show business persona evolving from the cocky-but-lovable Jewish-American immigrant boy, to the middle-aged professional emcee and purveyor of nostalgia, to the pompous, self-proclaimed Toastmaster General pose of his last twenty years.

With an unfailingly brash personality, semitic good looks, a nasal voice, and quick-tongued wit, Jessel began performing in musical-comedy "kid acts" at the age of nine, shortly after the death of his father. Before long he was a featured performer with other youthful talents such as Eddie Cantor and Walter Winchell in vaudeville acts produced and written by Gus Edwards. By the time he reached his twenties, Jessel had developed into a successful vaudeville monologist, with a specialty routine of speaking on the telephone to his immigrant Jewish "Momma." Each of his dozens of comical telephone routines similarly began, "Hello, Operator! Fentingtrass 3522. Hello, Momma? Georgie!"

In spite of his prosperity in vaudeville, Jessel strived to conquer New York's legitimate stage. He received his break in 1925 when he was awarded the role of Jack Robin/Jake Rabinowitz in Samson Raphaelson's The Jazz Singer, a melodrama about a young man torn between the confining world of his Jewish roots and the exhilarating American culture of the Jazz Age. Jessel successfully performed the role in New York and around the country for two years and was negotiating with Warner Brothers to star in the film version. Yet the role was not to be his, due in part to his extraordinary demands for remuneration, and the fact that Al Jolson (who had been Raphaelson's inspiration for writing The Jazz Singer) had become interested in playing the screen role. Jessel may have been a headliner in vaudeville and a success in the play, but Jolson was the king of their profession, a nationally known top draw who would garner a much larger audience. Jessel never forgave Jolson for usurping the role, and publicly griped about the circumstances of the loss for decades.

Jessel's own career as a film star was quite short-lived, in part because his ethnicity limited his opportunities for lead roles. Also, the few feature films he made in the late 1920s demonstrated that his guileless acting style was more suited to the stage than to the close scrutiny of the motion picture camera. He fared better in radio, and on stage as a nightclub and variety show emcee/singer/joke teller.

By 1945, as American soldiers were returning home from World War II, Twentieth Century-Fox recognized a desire among moviegoers to look backwards with longing to the lifestyle of the early years of the century. Acknowledging in the middle-aged Jessel an expertise in selling nostalgia to audiences, Fox signed him to produce musicals which featured warm memories of show business and home life. Among the charming and heartwarming films he produced in the immediate post-war years are The Dolly Sisters (1945), When My Baby Smiles at Me (1948) and Oh, You Beautiful Doll (1949). Yet Jessel's personal life was fraught with scandal. He was married four times, claimed numerous love affairs, and was involved in a $200,000 paternity suit.

As Jessel aged, he became more effusive in his on-stage monologues. As a popular emcee, he made elaborate after-dinner speeches at testimonials to leading performers. This style of monologue evolved into Jessel's becoming the self-proclaimed "Toastmaster General of the United States." By the Vietnam War years, he had become an aging self-parody as he appeared on television talk shows in military regalia. Here, he endlessly pontificated on the state of the world and shamelessly name-dropped as he cited his association with politicians and royalty. As more years passed and many of his colleagues and friends died, he put his talent for speech-making to work as a eulogizer at many celebrity funerals.

Even when his own health was fading, Jessel refused to quit show business. Blind and arthritic, he continued to work. Although his audience had dwindled and he was considered—by those who remembered him at all—the ghost of vaudeville past, Jessel still performed, telling jokes in restaurants and obtaining an occasional club date.

—Audrey E. Kupferberg

Further Reading:

Jessel, George. "Hello, Momma." Cleveland and New York, World Publishing Company, 1946.

——. This Way Miss. New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1955.

——. Elegy in Manhattan. New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961.

——. The World I Lived In. New York, Henry Regnery Company, 1975.