See and Hear the World’s Greatest Entertainer!


 

In 1921, the Stanley Company opened the 1303-capacity Aldine Theatre at the southeast corner of 19th and Chestnut Streets. The theater played movies for some seventy years, with a few gaps during the 1950s-1970s. Over the years, it was rechristened the Viking Theatre, then the Cinema 19 Theatre, and finally, Sam’s Place Twin, after Sam Shapiro’s Sameric Company purchased the movie house and divided it into two smaller screening rooms in 1980. The building today houses a pharmacy.

This October 1928 photograph shows the lavish displays for director Lloyd Bacon’s The Singing Fool. The film marked singing sensation Al Jolson’s follow-up to the 1927 smash-hit The Jazz Singer. Like the earlier film, The Singing Fool was a “talkie.” It contributed to the popularity of musicals and the standardization of sound in motion pictures. One can imagine the excitement with which Philadelphians and other Americans greeted the new technology. Although Top 40 music charts did not exist in 1927, it is estimated that the film’s song “Sonny Boy” achieved the equivalent of number-one status.

During The Singing Fool’s finale, Jolson performed “Sonny Boy” in blackface. White working-class entertainers popularized this convention during the mid-1800s. They applied burnt cork to their faces in order to portray dimwitted “darky” or “coon” characters. Blackface remained popular during the vaudeville era. We rightfully find such overtly racist imagery repellent, but, at the time, many white theatergoers accepted and enjoyed these performances, as evidenced by the prominent displays of a “blacked up” Jolson on the theatre posters. Blackface’s popularity highlights the complicated nature of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century race relations. One recent historian argues that white society’s feelings toward blacks and their culture combined resentment, sympathy, and cooptation, or both “love and theft.” In the post-vaudeville era, more enlightened racial sensibilities emerged, leading to a decline in public tolerance for blackface. The practice serves as a painful reminder of America’s struggles with bigotry.

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