Talking with 'Al Jolson' across the racial divide

September 23, 1995|By GREGORY KANE

Bouncing Bobby Berger strolled into Luigi Petti's restaurant in Little Italy on Tuesday, giving me a wave as he approached my table. Dressed in a short-sleeve black shirt open at the collar and beige pants, he sat down and ordered coffee only.

Bobby Berger, head of B.B.B. (Bouncing Bobby Berger) Productions and a former Baltimore City police officer, gained notoriety in the 1980s for performing an imitation of Al Jolson -- complete with blackface makeup. An NAACP protest forced the cancellation of his show at the Hilton Hotel in 1982. Police brass fired him in 1984 for refusing to stop his act, which he performed during his off-duty hours. Rehired by court order in 1986, he claims he was forced into retirement in 1989.

Bouncing Bobby is convinced the protest led to his firing and made it difficult for him to get the more lucrative bookings.

"It killed the police game, which I was good at," he lamented. "It killed the music game, which I was better at."

Bouncing Bobby shows no false modesty. At a jam session Sunday at the River Terrace Democratic Club in Brooklyn Park, he and his band cranked out a medley of tunes ranging from slow jazz and swing to old-time rock-and-roll. Bouncing Bobby blew a wicked tenor saxophone and wasn't too bad on the vocals, either.

That was about three-fourths of the show. The last 45 minutes were devoted to his Al Jolson impersonation, which he did in blackface makeup with white makeup outlining an exaggeratedly large mouth.

He agreed to meet me after the show at Luigi Petti's. I came not to judge Bouncing Bobby, but to talk with him and begin a dialogue across the racial divide separating blacks and whites. Why does this superb musician who does a near-perfect imitation of Al Jolson need to do the routine in blackface?

"If you go to Las Vegas to see a Liberace show, you wouldn't want to see a guy in coveralls," he explained. "You'd want to see a guy in a $4,000 jacket." The blackface makeup is to help him attain the persona of Al Jolson, he said.

But the objection I have to blackface is that's not how black people look, I countered.

"I want to look like Jolson," Bouncing Bobby rejoined. "I don't want to look like a black man. If I wanted to look like a black man I wouldn't have the white lips."

Clearly there was a problem of perceptual dissonance here. But were Bouncing Bobby and I really poles apart? I probed further. We're both Baltimore boys. He grew up in South Baltimore on Hill Street. I was born and reared in West Baltimore. We were both raised Catholic and grew up in the '50s and '60s. His favorite music was Motown, as was mine.

"When I was in school that was the thing -- the Tempts, Smokey," Bouncing Bobby recalled.

His love for Al Jolson started early. He heard some of Jolson's tunes as a boy and got hooked when he saw the biographical film "The Jolson Story."

I also loved that movie. But the white kid from South Baltimore saw the blackface routine as the essence of the Jolson persona. On the other side of the vast racial chasm between black and white America, the black kid from West Baltimore was not offended, simply bewildered. My God, I thought, is that how Jolson and his contemporaries thought black people looked? It smacked of the classic racist view that we all looked alike. I watched "The Jolson Story" and concluded, at a young age, that my Caucasian countrymen -- when it came to black people -- were indeed a deeply troubled lot.

But Bouncing Bobby insists that his shows -- like the sold-out one this past Sunday -- are frequented by solid, decent folks.

"Nice people wouldn't continually support something that's bad," Bouncing Bobby said of his blackface routine, which, he claims, he has performed without incident in front of predominantly black audiences.

That point could be argued well into the 21st century, highlighting once again the chasm that splits blacks and whites in America. You couldn't meet a nicer guy than Bobby Berger. I was the only black person at last Sunday's show, and the people there were the quintessence of civility. They would probably never dream of uttering a racist epithet or remark. From their side of the racial divide, the blackface routine is harmless, inoffensive and, to use Bouncing Bobby's words, "has no racial overtones."

But eventually I had to return to my side of the racial divide, where many of us see the blackface routine as the ultimate nigger joke, gone public.

Should blacks continue to protest Bouncing Bobby's performances? I think not. I didn't join the protests to have Bouncing Bobby's show canceled at the Hilton in 1982. Cancel his show now, my thinking went, and somebody may clamor to cancel Douglas Turner Ward's brilliant satire "Day of Absence," in which black actors perform in whiteface. There is a lesson to be learned from Turner's play: Getting even is more gratifying than getting offended.

Gregory P. Kane's column appears Wednesdays and Saturdays.

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