That corner of my sensibility that I sometimes refer to as "my weird Al Jolson thing?" It all began with Aaron. I'd known him slightly since grade school, a blustery, larger-than-life fellow who was a fan/scholar of vintage musicals of all sorts—he was the kid who once borrowed the key to my house so he could play hooky and go over there and watch Rose Of Washington Square on the box (both my parents worked days). Not merely an Al Jolson nut, he was a fantastic Jolson impersonator, and his greatest triumph in a high-school theatrical career full of triumphs (including a raucous turn as Luther Billis in Dumont High's production of South Pacific) was the Jolson act he did at S.O. (for "Student Organization") Night in early February of '74. Singing "Mammy," "Rock-a-bye Your Baby," and "California, Here I Come..." in a period suit, white gloves, string tie...and full blackface. Not only did nobody care about the blackface (Dumont was a pretty lily-white town, and in the '74 high school yearbook I only count a total of three African-American students; as for teachers, forget about it), but Aaron completely brought down the house. He was just the third performer of the first act, but he pretty much defined the show. Not even the spectacle of Aaron's younger brother in drag, with Larry Golden and Mark Zecca similarly arrayed, doing the Andrews Sisters doing "Rum and Coca-Cola," could touch Aaron's white socks.
As some American high-schoolers may be aware, it's tough when you peak in your junior year. Which is, effectively, what Aaron had done. As my friend Joseph Failla recalled in a recent conversation, "After 'S.O. Night' there was no where else to go, right away, so Aaron just kept preaching the Jolie gospel to whoever would listen."
Hence, bugging the Dumont Public Library into letting him introduce at least one screening of a Jolson picture. Which is how I first saw Mammy. A film I found very befuddling, and continued to be befuddled by for many years.