George Jessel was an American illustrated song “model,” actor, singer, songwriter, and Academy Award-winning movie producer. He was famous in his lifetime as a multitalented comedic entertainer, achieving a level of recognition that transcended his limited roles in movies. He was widely known by his nickname, the “Toastmaster General of the United States” for his frequent role as the master of ceremonies at political and entertainment gatherings.
Jessel was born in the Bronx. By age 10, he was appearing in vaudeville and on Broadway to support his family after his father’s death. His mother, who worked as a ticket seller at the Imperial Theater, helped him form The Imperial Trio, a harmony group of ushers to entertain patrons of the theater, with Walter Winchell and Jack Wiener, using the stage names Leonard, Lawrence and McKinley, in their early teens. At age 11, he was a partner of Eddie Cantor in a kid sketch and performed with him on stage until he outgrew the role at age 16. He later partnered with Lou Edwards and then began a solo performer.
His most famous comedy skit was called “Hello Mama” or “Phone Call from Mama”, which portrayed a one-sided telephone conversation. In 1919 he produced his own solo show, “George Jessel’s Troubles” and appeared in his first motion picture, the silent movie The Other Man’s Wife. He co-wrote the lyrics for a hit tune, “Oh How I Laugh When I Think How I Cried About You”, and performed in several successful comedy stage shows in the early 1920s. In 1921 he recorded a hit single, “The Toastmaster”. He sometimes appeared in blackface in his vaudeville shows.
In 1925 he emerged as one of the most popular leading men on Broadway with the starring role in the stage production of The Jazz Singer. The success of the show prompted Warner Bros. to adapt the show as the first “talkie” and to cast Jessel in the lead role. When the studio refused his salary demands, however, he turned down the movie role, which was eventually played by Al Jolson. According to Jessel during an interview around 1980, Warners still owed Jessel money for earlier roles and lacked enough funds to produce this movie with a leading star. Jolson, the biographical inspiration for the movie, became the movie’s main financial backer.