To learn more about Al Jolson and the effects he had on Black Music click HERE
Ret Officer Bobby Berger
Like most young men Bobby Berger joined the Baltimore Police department to serve his community, excited to walk a foot post as a rookie, he field retrained along such greats as Joseph Hlafka, and then went on to work his assignment in the Central District, before he would go on to retire he worked Central, Eastern, Northeast, and even a little bit in headquarters. Like most police he enjoyed helping people, getting the bad guy off the streets and letting people sleep a little easier knowing he was on his beat, and working to protect them and their property from those that would victimize anyone, that has something to steal. Joe had a second passion and that was singing, he enjoyed the vaudeville style of singing or what would more correctly be called minstrel revue – I hope you will read the following, and if not the entire page, click the link and read about the man Bobby Berger is portraying in his stage show Mr. Al Jolson - To learn more about Al Jolson and the effects he had on Black Music click HERE
'Singing Cop' settles dispute for $200,000 Baltimore police fought 10-year battle
September 26, 1991|By Jay Apperson
Bobby Berger, the "singing cop" who successfully fought being fired for performing an off-duty act in which he donned blackface and impersonated Al Jolson, has settled the last in a decade of legal fights with the Baltimore Police Department for $200,000, his attorney said yesterday.
Mr. Berger also will be paid until he reaches full retirement at the end of next year. But he will never have to walk the beat again.
Under the settlement, Mr. Berger gets the cash -- he picked up his check Monday -- and he will be placed on paid leave. In return, he will drop two civil suits charging the department with attempting to harass him into retirement.
Attempts to reach Mr. Berger yesterday were unsuccessful, but his attorney, Michael L. Marshall, said Mr. Berger "wanted to reconcile and get back together, but the department wanted a divorce."
"All the guy ever wanted to do was be a police officer and do his performances, and there was no reason he couldn't do both," Mr. Marshall added. "He's accepted the fact that he's never going to be a police officer there."
In the suits, Mr. Berger, 43, accused city police officials of refusing to comply with court orders to reinstate him as a police officer. He cited being given "menial" work as a supply officer. Three weeks before the suit was scheduled to go to trial, he was assigned to a foot patrol beat at North and Greenmount avenues.
"So they give him one of the dirtiest, meanest posts around," Mr. Marshall said.
In court papers, the Police Department denied harassing Mr. Berger. Otho M. Thompson, the associate city solicitor who handled the case, refused to comment on the terms of the settlement.
Since 1981, Mr. Berger and police officials have squabbled over his appearances in off-duty musical reviews. As part of his shows, Mr. Berger impersonates Al Jolson, a white entertainer in the 1920s, '30s and '40s who is best known for his blackface rendition of "Mammy" in "The Jazz Singer," the first talking film.
In 1982, one of Mr. Berger's scheduled performances at a downtown hotel led to protests by the NAACP. Two months later, with the backing of the American Civil Liberties Union, Mr. Berger sued the Police Department, charging that department orders for him to stop performing in blackface in public violated his right to free speech. Mr. Berger lost in court and was fired in 1984.
A year later, a federal appeals court ruled in Mr. Berger's favor. When the Supreme Court refused to hear the case, a federal District Court ordered the department to rehire Mr. Berger. The court also awarded him more than $108,000 in back pay, legal fees and compensation for humiliation and stress.
After rejoining the force in 1986, Mr. Berger was given a desk but no gun, no badge and nothing to do, according to a civil rights suit filed in 1989 in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.
"He was told to relax and accept being paid for nothing," according to the suit.
Police officials also ordered Mr. Berger to undergo psychological evaluations, which concluded he was unfit for police duty. Mr. Berger claimed the exams were cursory and part of a pattern of harassment.
He was placed on paid medical leave from December 1986 to January 1989, when he was fired again, this time for "unsatisfactory performance," according to court records. Seven months later he was back on the force at the order of a Baltimore Circuit Court judge.
"I think it's pretty clear he was harassed," said Mr. Marshall. "The question was: What was the harassment worth? This is the figure we settled on."
Mr. Berger will be paid until the end of 1992, which will mark 20 years on the force and make him eligible for full retirement benefits. Officers with 15 to 20 years' experience are paid $34,034 a year, said Ed Ambrose, fiscal supervisor for the Police Department.
Talking with 'Al Jolson' across the racial divide
Bouncing Bobby Berger strolled into Luigi Petti's restaurant in Little Italy on Tuesday, giving me a wave as he approached my table. Dressed in a short-sleeve black shirt open at the collar and beige pants, he sat down and ordered coffee only.
Bobby Berger, head of B.B.B. (Bouncing Bobby Berger) Productions and a former Baltimore City police officer, gained notoriety in the 1980s for performing an imitation of Al Jolson -- complete with blackface makeup. An NAACP protest forced the cancellation of his show at the Hilton Hotel in 1982. Police brass fired him in 1984 for refusing to stop his act, which he performed during his off-duty hours. Rehired by court order in 1986, he claims he was forced into retirement in 1989.
Bouncing Bobby is convinced the protest led to his firing and made it difficult for him to get the more lucrative bookings.
"It killed the police game, which I was good at," he lamented. "It killed the music game, which I was better at."
Bouncing Bobby shows no false modesty. At a jam session Sunday at the River Terrace Democratic Club in Brooklyn Park, he and his band cranked out a medley of tunes ranging from slow jazz and swing to old-time rock-and-roll. Bouncing Bobby blew a wicked tenor saxophone and wasn't too bad on the vocals, either.
That was about three-fourths of the show. The last 45 minutes were devoted to his Al Jolson impersonation, which he did in blackface makeup with white makeup outlining an exaggeratedly large mouth.
He agreed to meet me after the show at Luigi Petti's. I came not to judge Bouncing Bobby, but to talk with him and begin a dialogue across the racial divide separating blacks and whites. Why does this superb musician who does a near-perfect imitation of Al Jolson need to do the routine in blackface?
"If you go to Las Vegas to see a Liberace show, you wouldn't want to see a guy in coveralls," he explained. "You'd want to see a guy in a $4,000 jacket." The blackface makeup is to help him attain the persona of Al Jolson, he said.
But the objection I have to blackface is that's not how black people look, I countered.
"I want to look like Jolson," Bouncing Bobby rejoined. "I don't want to look like a black man. If I wanted to look like a black man I wouldn't have the white lips."
Clearly there was a problem of perceptual dissonance here. But were Bouncing Bobby and I really poles apart? I probed further. We're both Baltimore boys. He grew up in South Baltimore on Hill Street. I was born and reared in West Baltimore. We were both raised Catholic and grew up in the '50s and '60s. His favorite music was Motown, as was mine.
"When I was in school that was the thing -- the Tempts, Smokey," Bouncing Bobby recalled.
His love for Al Jolson started early. He heard some of Jolson's tunes as a boy and got hooked when he saw the biographical film "The Jolson Story."
I also loved that movie. But the white kid from South Baltimore saw the blackface routine as the essence of the Jolson persona. On the other side of the vast racial chasm between black and white America, the black kid from West Baltimore was not offended, simply bewildered. My God, I thought, is that how Jolson and his contemporaries thought black people looked? It smacked of the classic racist view that we all looked alike. I watched "The Jolson Story" and concluded, at a young age, that my Caucasian countrymen -- when it came to black people -- were indeed a deeply troubled lot.
But Bouncing Bobby insists that his shows -- like the sold-out one this past Sunday -- are frequented by solid, decent folks.
"Nice people wouldn't continually support something that's bad," Bouncing Bobby said of his blackface routine, which, he claims, he has performed without incident in front of predominantly black audiences.
That point could be argued well into the 21st century, highlighting once again the chasm that splits blacks and whites in America. You couldn't meet a nicer guy than Bobby Berger. I was the only black person at last Sunday's show, and the people there were the quintessence of civility. They would probably never dream of uttering a racist epithet or remark. From their side of the racial divide, the blackface routine is harmless, inoffensive and, to use Bouncing Bobby's words, "has no racial overtones."
But eventually I had to return to my side of the racial divide, where many of us see the blackface routine as the ultimate nigger joke, gone public.
Should blacks continue to protest Bouncing Bobby's performances? I think not. I didn't join the protests to have Bouncing Bobby's show canceled at the Hilton in 1982. Cancel his show now, my thinking went, and somebody may clamor to cancel Douglas Turner Ward's brilliant satire "Day of Absence," in which black actors perform in whiteface. There is a lesson to be learned from Turner's play: Getting even is more gratifying than getting offended.
Gregory P. Kane's column appears Wednesdays and Saturdays.
Blackface Bobby Berger isn't in offensive Top 10
May 15, 1996|By GREGORY KANE
Bouncing Bobby Berger greeted me with a hug at the doors of the dinner theater of the Best Western Motel in Baltimore Travel Plaza.
"Greg, I didn't think you'd make it," Bobby said, obviously happy to see me. He didn't know the half of it. I'd promised him last month that I would attend his retirement performance Mother's Day. That was before I was sent on an assignment abroad. I returned to Baltimore only the previous Monday.
So here I was, about to watch Bobby perform his blackface Al Jolson routine for the last time. Linda Berger, the Bouncer's wife, said he's giving up the act to spend more time with her and their two daughters, ages 10 and 6.
I talked to Bobby about the blackface routine in September. He gave his views, I gave mine. We have agreed to disagree and moved on, which is why I was at the show. Race relations are only hard when folks make them hard. In America, the tradition is to make them hard.
But some blacks still find the blackface routine offensive. In mid-April, Bobby performed the Al Jolson routine at a retirement party for a Baltimore County police officer. The Blue Guardians, a black officers' organization and the county NAACP, among others, sent letters of protest.
"It made me sad," Bobby said of the protest. "Because they don't know." They don't know him, Bobby meant. He swears he uses blackface to help him attain the persona of Al Jolson. It's Jolson he's trying to look like, not a black man, he says.
You may agree or disagree with Bobby's defense. Some, indeed most, blacks still are offended by it. As I said in September, for most of us the blackface routine is the ultimate nigger joke, gone public. But on my list of things that offend me Bobby Berger's blackface routine doesn't even make the Top 10. Some things that do are:
The movie "Waiting to Exhale," which was just as scurrilous in its depiction of black men -- and women -- as any blackface routine.
The book "The Black Man's Guide to Understanding the Black Woman," which was even worse than "Waiting to Exhale," and that takes some doing.
Dinesh D'Souza's book "The End of Racism," in which he rehashes every racist argument ever made about blacks, under the guise of "helping" us.
The book "The Bell Curve," which reiterates the old argument about black intellectual inferiority.
The appalling homicide rate among black American men, still the highest in the industrialized world.
Any black kid with a pair of $200 athletic shoes on his or her feet who doesn't have a book, newspaper or encyclopedia in the home. Even more offensive is the persistence of a liberal black leadership that insists institutional white racism is the cause of low academic achievement among blacks.
But let's put all our sensitivities aside and look at the issue of artistic freedom here. Doesn't it apply to Bobby Berger, even if he chooses to do an Al Jolson act in blackface? I think it does. I've defended in the past the right of gangsta rappers to say what they want in their music. Almost all of us older folks, being the generational chauvinists we are, have scorned gangsta rap the way our parents pilloried rock 'n' roll.
I say we're being hypocritical. We have handed the gangsta rap generation the cesspool of a world they live in. They write lyrics describing that world, and then we get offended. But they have to make their statement.
And Bobby Berger has to make his. He is, he says, honoring a great singer. I'll take him at his word. What statement Jolson, Eddie Cantor and others who performed in blackface were making I can only guess. Assuming, as whites have claimed, that they meant nothing insulting or derogatory, then that leaves only one conclusion: inside every white person there's a black person itching to get out.
But Bouncing Bobby is gone from the scene now, so blacks offended by his act can feel safer. Mind you, the staggering homicide rate among black males will continue unabated. The average test scores among black male students -- the lowest nationwide -- moved not one iota at 6 p.m. May 12, 1996, the very second Bouncing Bobby crooned his last note of an Al Jolson tune.
In our search for racist villains, we can find better ones than Bobby Berger.
Gregory P. Kane's column appears on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Click here to open the PDF from Stacy Spaulding regarding the Sun Paper and the Afro American News paper [PDF]“As Though the Sixties Never Happened”: Newspaper ... www.stacyspaulding.com/wp-content/uploads/.../Spaulding_Sixties.pdf by S Spaulding - 2012 - Related articles the pages of the Baltimore Afro- American, the city's primary ..... to Bobby Al Jolson Berger, forcing the police department to pro- vide him with new ... In the book Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult & Imitation... They wrote the following of Bobby;
In 1978, Bobby Berger, a Baltimore police officer, began performing
an Al Jolson tribute in blackface at local parties, restaurants, and
VFW and American Legion halls. Though he did it on his own time,
his superiors ordered him to stop, after receiving complaints from
the local NAACP. Berger refused, and was dismissed from the force
in 1984. He sued, claiming that his First Amendment rights had
been violated, and won.
Since 1997, Berger has been doing his Jolson routine, along with
tributes to a number of other celebrities, at his own place, Bobby B's
Palace & Supper Club, in the Baltimore suburbs. The NAACP has
We'll gather more on Bobby... and his carreer as we continue this page
According to the St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, "Al Jolson was to jazz, blues, and ragtime what Elvis Presley was to rock 'n' roll." Jolson was the first popular singer to make a spectacular "event" out of singing a song, he became a "rock star" before the dawn of rock music. His specialty was performing on runways extending out into the audience. He would run up and down and across the stage, "teasing, enticing, and thrilling his audiences," often he’s stop to sing to an individual member of the audience; all the while the "perspiration would be pouring from his face, and the entire audience would be caught up in the ecstasy of his performance." According to music historian Larry Stempel, "No one had heard anything quite like it before on Broadway." Author Stephen Banfield agreed, writing that Jolson's style was "Arguably the single most important factor in defining the modern musical...." of the time
Al Jolson enjoyed performing in blackface makeup, a theatrical convention since the mid 19th century. But with Jolson’s unique and dynamic style of singing black music, such as jazz and blues, he introduced that style of music to white audiences, in fact he has been credited with single-handedly introducing African-American music to white audiences. And as early as 1911 Al Jolson became known for fighting against black discrimination on Broadway, making sure there were more openings for black performers.
Jolson first heard African-American music, such as jazz, blues, and ragtime, played in the back alleys of New Orleans, Louisiana. He enjoyed singing the new jazz-style of music. Often performing in blackface, especially in the songs he made popular, such as "Swanee", "My Mammy", and "Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody". Jolson's black stage persona, called "Gus" was a wily and wise-cracking servant who was always smarter than his white masters, frequently helping them out of problems they created for themselves. In this way, Jolson used comedy to poke fun at the prevalent idea of "white supremacy". In most of his movie roles, however, including a singing hobo in Hallelujah, I'm a Bum or a jailed convict in Say It With Songs, he chose to act without using blackface. In the film The Jazz Singer (1927), he performed only a few songs, including "My Mammy", in blackface, but the film is concerned in part with the experience of "donning a mask" that the young Jewish singer embraces in performing popular songs onstage.
As a Jewish immigrant and America's most famous and highest-paid entertainer, he may have had the incentive and resources to help break down racial attitudes. For instance, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) during its peak in the early 1920s, included about 15% of the nation's eligible voting population, 4–5 million men. While The Birth of a Nation glorified white supremacy and the KKK, Jolson chose to star in The Jazz Singer, which defied racial bigotry by introducing American black music to audiences worldwide.
Al Jolson once read in the newspaper that songwriters Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, neither of whom he had ever heard of, were refused service at a Connecticut restaurant because of their race. He immediately tracked them down and took them out to dinner "insisting he'd punch anyone in the nose who tried to kick us out!" Subsequent to their meeting, according to biographer Al Rose, Jolson and Blake became friends. Rose writes:
This didn't have anything to do with the theater, because they never worked together. Rather, they both had a love of prize fighting and used to go to boxing matches together, engaging in jocose discussion of the relative merits of Negro with Jewish pugilists. They would occasionally wager a bottle of whisky on these bouts.
Film historian Charles Musser notes that "African Americans' embrace of Jolson was not a spontaneous reaction to his appearance in talking pictures. In an era when African Americans did not have to go looking for enemies, Jolson was perceived a friend."
Jeni LeGon, a black female tap dance star, recalls her life as a film dancer: "But of course, in those times it was a 'black-and-white world.' You didn't associate too much socially with any of the stars. You saw them at the studio, you know, nice—but they didn't invite. The only ones that ever invited us home for a visit was Al Jolson and Ruby Keeler." British performer Brian Conley, former star of the 1995 British play Jolson, stated during an interview, "I found out Jolson was actually a hero to the black people of America. At his funeral, black actors lined the way, they really appreciated what he'd done for them." Noble Sissle, then president of the Negro Actors Guild, represented that organization at his funeral.
From the IMDb
Asa Yoelson aka Jolie (Al Jolson)
Al Jolson was known in the industry as "The World's Greatest Entertainer," for well over 40 years. After his death his influence continued unabated with such performers as Sammy Davis Jr., Elvis Presley, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Jackie Wilson and Jerry Lee Lewis all mentioning him as an inspiration. Jolson was born Asa Yoelson in Lithuania to Cantor Moishe Yoelson, who emigrated alone to Washington, DC, to establish himself. After four years he sent for his family. Nine months later his wife, Naomi, died (apparently during childbirth), which devastated the eight-year-old Asa. Young Al would soon find his outlet in the theater. Soon he was singing with his older brother, Harry, for senators and soldiers. He entertained the troops that were headed for the Spanish-American War.
Jolson's career in vaudeville started with his brother in New York, but never really got off the ground. Different partners allowed Jolson to experiment, but it was as a solo act in San Francisco that he finally hit it big. He was signed eventually by Lew Dockstaders' Minstrels. It is important to note that, although performing in blackface, Dockstader's was not a minstrel show in the traditional sense of the "Tambo and Bones" variety of the previous century. It was a sophisticated, topical, Broadway-style revue. The myth lingers to this day that Jolson was a minstrel. He most certainly was not.
Jolson's stay in vaudeville was relatively short, as his talent was quickly recognized by the Shubert Brothers, who signed him to appear in the opening show of their new Winter Garden Theater on Broadway in April of 1912. Thus began what many consider to be the greatest career in the history of Broadway. Not a headliner initially, Jolson soon became "King of the Winter Garden," with shows specifically written for him. "Winter Garden" and "Jolson" became synonymous for close to 20 years. During that time Jolson received reviews that have yet to be matched. Audiences shouted, pleaded and often would not allow the show to proceed, such was the power of his presence. At one performance in Boston, the usually staid and conservative Boston audience stopped the show for 45 minutes! He was said to have had an "electric' personality, along with the ability to make each member of the audience believe that he was singing only to them.
In 1927 Jolson starred in the New York-shot The Jazz Singer (1927) and the rest is film history. But just before it was theatrically released, producer, Warner' His appearance in that film, nowadays considered a somewhat creaky, stodgy and primitive museum piece, electrified audiences and caused a sensation. Jolson was bigger than ever and Hollywood came a-calling. However, Jolson on film was a pale version of Jolson on stage. His screen appearances, with some exceptions, are stiff and wooden. Though he continued into the 1930s to star on radio, he was no longer quite the star he had been.
During World War II, Jolson entertained troops in Africa and Sicily but was cut short by a bout of malaria and pneumonia. Always a favorite with audiences, he continued to entertain in the United States when he met his fourth wife, Erle Chennault Galbraith, an x-ray technician.
By the mid-'40s, though. his stardom had faded quite a bit. Columbia Pictures, inspired by the success of Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), decided that a Jolson biography might work as well. In 1946 it released The Jolson Story (1946), with song-and-dance man Larry Parks miming to Jolson's vocals. It was the surprise smash hit of the season and the highest grossing film of the year. Parks received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Jolson was now as big, or bigger, than ever. So successful was the film that Columbia made a sequel, Jolson Sings Again (1949), which remains one of a few biography sequels in film history (Funny Girl/Funny Lady - the story of fellow Winter Garden performer Fannie Brice is another rare example). It was also quite successful at the box office. So big had Jolson's star risen that in 1948, when Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Perry Como were at their peaks, Jolson was voted "The Most Popular Male Vocalist" by a Variety poll.
In 1950, against his doctor's orders, Jolson went to Korea to entertain his favorite audience, American troops. While there his health declined and shortly after his return to the U.S. he suffered a massive heart attack and died.
Jolson's legacy has suffered enormously since the 1960s. Few under the age of 50 even know his name, and those who do were taught that he was a "white man who made millions making fun of black people." This is, of course, specious. In fact, blackface had long lost its pejorative racial implications by the turn of the century and became a convention of theater. Many stars, including Eddie Cantor, Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Doris Day, Betty Grable and many black stars of the time, used blackface. There was no bigotry attached to it. So the man who was the king of Broadway for nearly 40 years is now largely forgotten or misunderstood, and there is no plaque or statue or even sign anywhere on Broadway to honor him.
Copyright © 2002 Baltimore City Police History - Ret Det Kenny Driscoll