George Clooney, fundraising and providing thematic strategy for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign or Clint Eastwood speaking at the convention nominating Mitt Romney: neither story causes a blink in either Hollywood or Washington. Yet preceding even the famous efforts of Frank Sinatra for John F. Kennedy’s candidacy in 1960, was the first, rudimentary one-time appearance by a famous actor pulling for a future president.
It all started on August 24, 1920 on the famous front porch of a large, wood house in Marion, Ohio, with Warren and Florence Harding – and Al Jolson.
That day, declaring himself “president” of the “Harding-Coolidge Theatrical League,” actor and singer Al Jolson led a parade of some forty fellow actors who had trained into Marion from New York.
They marched from the railroad depot down “Victory Way,” a broad avenue lined with cardboard arches which led to the Harding home.
In front of them was a forty-piece band which, upon arriving at the front porch, broke into a “jazz campaign” of contemporary, brassy music.
There, waiting to greet them all were the 1920 Republican presidential candidate, U.S. Senator Warren Harding and his wife and business manager, Florence Harding.
Right there on the front steps, Al Jolson addressed the crowds on Harding’s behalf, perhaps making the case better with words than he knew he might with his hastily-written song.
After the speech, Al Jolson unveiled his musical gift to the campaign, performing the main lyrics while some of the other stars joined in for the refrain. Entitled, Harding, You’re the Man for Us, it had a catchy quality, though the lyrics weren’t meaningful, making no reference to any of the issues that year.
Jolson and the actors posed for pictures with the Hardings, and then the candidate gave an interesting speech in which he drew what were the very first direct parallels between the industries of politics and acting, commenting on his favorite theatrical productions. He especially recalled that one of them, Charles the Fifth by Shakespeare had a scene in which the King walked among the soldiers to gauge, “their feelings, their confidences, their fears, and ascertained them on terms of equality and intimacy…” He pointed out that like the soldiers, he had learned just how deeply “thoughtful Americans are wondering about tomorrow,” because thousands of various citizen contingencies had marched like Jolson and the actors to discuss the issues with him.
There was a slew of Harding campaign songs that year, enough to fill a little pamphlet produced by the Columbus Glee Club.
The idea was the keep the crowd engaged and excited as it waited for the candidate and any of the other special guests scheduled to speak that day.
And as the autumn weather set in on the small central Ohio town, trying to get the crowds into a group sing was perhaps a way to keep their mind off the cold as they stood standing there waiting, sometimes for hours so they could get as close to the porch as possible.
Still in all, the Jolson campaign song for Harding was certainly the most original. Here’s a version of it, with footage of Harding, Jolson and his crew, and some marching suffragists in Marion:
Before the singing, Florence Harding had pinned a huge badge on Jolson – for good luck she said, always given to superstitions. She had been instrumental in bringing about the historic event and was anxious that it go off without a hitch.
An avid movie fan who had also come to the opening of Universal City in Los Angeles five years earlier, her passion to be kept abreast of the goings-in in the new town of Hollywood were fueled by her friend, the heiress Evalyn Walsh McLean.
Mrs. McLean was a close friend of the famous silent film director D.W. Griffith, and he even helped organize her own mini-film production company in the large basement rooms of her Washington, D.C. estate, “Friendship.” Evalyn McLean then cranked out – literally – reels and reels of footage of her family and friends, then edited them into professional-quality silent feature films to show guests.
At the time, Griffith was especially eager to work with Jolson, and they would eventually begin making a film, Mammy’s Boy together in 1923, although disagreements between them led to it never being completed.
And while Jolson was best known at the time of the Harding campaign for being one of Broadway’s biggest stars, he had already made one film short, so he was technically a “movie star.”
His greatest fame on the silver screen, however, was yet to come.
In 1927 he starred as a singing rabbi in The Jazz Singer, but the sudden crackle of his voice as he prefaced a song (“Wait a minute, wait a minute. You ain’t heard nothing yet!”) were the words ever heard by the public in a feature film, the first “talkie.”
Neither Warren or Florence Harding got to experience a “talkie,” both having died in the course of time of Harding’s first term.
Curiously, President Harding died in San Francisco’s Palace Hotel in 1923 while Jolson died in San Francisco’s St. Francis Hotel, in 1950.
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