Famous First Words
It’s a well known fact in show biz history that Al Jolson was a tremendously popular jazz, blues and ragtime singer on the early 20th century Broadway stage, famous for his energetic black-face performances. He was also the first to speak in the first ever feature length sound film with those immortal words, “You ain’t heard nothing yet!” What’s less well know is that he was given this opportunity while taking a few days off during his I’m Sitting on Top of the World Tour of the Himalayas to do some mountaineering.
One midnight, camped halfway up the north face of Mt Everest, there was a knock on his tent door. It was one of his bearers bearing a candlestick telephone. However Al didn’t find this in the least unusual. As a celebrity he was used to getting calls late at night.
The voice on the phone said, “Al! Baby! This is Sam Warner at Warner Brothers studios in Hollywood. I’m making a new picture and I want you to sing in it.”
“Sing? In a silent movie? Sammy, are you trying to kill my career dead?”
“It’s silent movies that’ll be killed dead. Warner Brothers is about to make the first ever Hollywood talkie, and not only do we want you to sing in it we want you to say the very first words in it.”
“I’d rather climb this mountain and maybe find the Abominable Snowman. Talkies will be a passing fad like flying machines and votes for women.”
“Ha! This from the man chasing a mythical beast up Mt Everest!”
“Not as mythical as you might think. I’ve seen his tracks. I know he’s here. I can practically smell him.” Al sniffed. In fact he could smell something. Something animal, perhaps? Something abominable? “So … about this ‘talking’ picture of yours. What’s these history-making first words gunna be?”
An embarrassed silence hummed over the wire. Then Sam Warner said, “Me and the script boys were kinda hoping you’d come up with something yourself. Something memorable, something to mark the beginning of a whole new era of movie making. Maybe ‘Here’s the beginning of the picture’ or ‘There’s more talking to come.’”
“Sammy, you’re inspired, and it’s only a coincidence that that sounds like ‘you’re fired.’ You keep coming up with lines like that and you better keep coming up with payments for your unemployment insurance. Meantime I’ll keep looking for the Snowman.”
“Al, Everest is a hell of a hill and these Abdominal Snowmen –”
“Abominable Snowmen, Sammy. But call them Yetis. It’s less embarrassing.”
“OK … these Yetis are a dime a dozen. Come to California and do our all-singing, all-talking picture.” There was a pause, then he added significantly, “I’ll pay you money.”
“Money? As in cash?” Al burst into song, “California, here I come … So, whatcha calling this cinematic song fest?”
“We’re calling it A Young Jewish Boy Breaks the Heart of His Rabbi Father By Going on Stage and Making With the Negro Musical Vocals.”
“Call it The Jazz Singer and I’ll do it.”
“The Jazz Singer? Gotta write that one down!” The scratch of pencil on paper, scribble scribble, came down the wire. “But, Al, baby, you’ll need to keep this deal under your hat. You can’t tell your father, you can’t tell your wife, you can’t tell your son – “
“I haf no son!”
“What? Oh, keep ’em coming, Al!” Scribble scribble went the pencil. “’I … haf … no … son.’ Don’t know where we’ll squeeze it into the script – maybe your character will deny a paternity suit. Anyway, like I said, you’ve gotta keep this a secret. Talkies will put everyone who’s not ready for it back in motion picture kindergarten. It’s gunna come as a bolt from the blue, and Warner Brothers has to be the one throwing the lightning. If word leaks out to any of our rivals they could steal a march on us and leave us flat-footed.”
“Trust me, Sammy. I’ll be as silent as the movies you’re gunna kill dead. But why have you called me now? Couldn’t you have waited till I got back to civilization, or at least Hollywood?”
“This thing is so important I had to make sure we wouldn’t be overheard. Halfway up Everest, who’s gunna be eavesdropping? Now about those famous first words of yours …”
“Gimmie a few days to come up with a real socko opening line saying this is nothing compared to what’s coming.“ Al paused and sniffed again. That animal smell had returned, more intense this time. He looked round to see a large white ape-like creature leaning in through the tent door, a low intelligence shining in a pair of beady eyes that gazed out from below a heavy ridge of bone. It was the Abominable Snowman, and he’d heard the whole damn conversation.
Knowing how desperately Sam Warner needed to keep the secret of the new talking pictures, Al Jolson leapt across and grabbed the creature by its white-furred throat.
“Hey!” he hissed menacingly into its ugly face. “You ain’t heard nothing, Yeti!”
Scribble scribble, went a frantic pencil.
Rick Kennett has five books on Amazon – two novels: The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea and Presumed Dead. A novella: In Quinn’s Paddock. And two collections: The Dark and What It Said and Thirty Minutes for New Hell.
Currently, Rick is being featured on the podcast ‘Cast of Wonders’ where they are serializing his nove ‘presumed dead’ which involves ghosts, lesbians, big hairy monsters, and a tarantuala-lobster as the heroines best buddy!
After that, if you want to hear more, he has several other stories here on Tall Tale TV, or you can pop over to “Tales to Terrify” which just recently featured his flash fiction “On The Other Side” in which it’s revealed what was knocking on the door in “The Monkeys Paw.”
Or if you’re not in the mood for audio, not long ago he had a story “The Road to Utopia Plain” published in the anthology “The Chronos Chronicles” with another story “The Enemy of the Enemy” upcoming in War of the Worlds: Battleground Australia. Links in the description!