Baltimore’s Al Jolson Impersonator Calls It Quits

By Jessica Contrera (Washington Post, 11/12/2015)

The black greasepaint had thickened to the consistency of toothpaste. Bobby Berger slapped it onto his face in clumps, then rubbed it in circles, covering his 67-year-old white skin.

He couldn’t remember how old this tube was, but he was glad he had stocked up. When he decided to revive his act this summer, he went back to A.T. Jones and Sons costume shop in Baltimore, just a few miles from his home. Blackface paint had been discontinued, they said.

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Berger, 67, grew up in Baltimore and became a police officer. He was involved in a decade-long legal battle with his employers over his Al Jolson act. He believes the makeup is an essential part of making his act as an Al Jolson impersonator authentic. Berger believes the makeup is not racist in the context he wears it. (Doug Kapustin for The Washington Post)

And now the same was about to happen to his act.

For nearly for 40 years, Berger had been trying to explain that he’s not mocking anyone — that he isn’t even impersonating a black person. He impersonates a white man who wore blackface makeup “before it was taboo.” Berger’s act is a tribute to Al Jolson, the vaudeville superstar of nearly a century ago who had his biggest hit in “The Jazz Singer,” the 1927 movie that is remembered as the first full-sound “talking picture.” Jolson donned blackface not in jest, it is said, but to introduce white audiences to the thrilling blues and ragtime music pioneered by African Americans.

“When I do the makeup, I look exactly like Al Jolson,” Berger said. “Which adds a whole lot to the performance. It’s just hard for me to believe that anybody that looks at it logically — ” He paused. “Thousands, thousands of black people have seen this show, they had no problem with it.”

It was this assertion, Berger seemed confident, that should shield him from criticism. Outside his dressing room, there were a few hundred people drinking beer out of plastic cups and dancing under oversized chandeliers in a worn suburban Baltimore ballroom.

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Berger takes the stage as Jolson for the final time in front of an audience of nearly 300 people. (Doug Kapustin for The Washington Post)

But outside this rented venue, it seemed the whole country was insisting that putting on another skin tone was wrong — cultural appropriation at the least, racist and hateful at the worst.

He rubbed the makeup over his ears and around the back of his neck.

“When it got — what’s the word I’m looking for? — popular to scream about it, people start screaming.”

So on this November night, he would perform his last show. No more singing “Mammy,” no more black-stained shirt collars. He would end it on his terms, without conceding to his critics.

Continue reading at the Washington Post.

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