March 27, 1921: Duluth’s teenage promoter—and future screenwriter—interviews future comedy star Georgie Jessel

On this day in Duluth in 1921, the Duluth News Tribune ran an interview of young vaudevillian Georgie Jessel, in town to perform at the Orpheum Theatre, by Llewellyn Totman, just 18 himself and already a seasoned promotor. Readers may remember Jessel as a frequent guest on NBC’s “Jimmy Durante Show” (1954–1956), Jackie Gleason’s “American Scene Magazine” (1962–1966), and later as a guest on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Jessel started out in vaudeville and was a contemporary of Al Jolsen, Eddie Cantor, Jack Benny and George Burns. (Readers may recognize Jessel’s voice as the inspiration for “Dr. Zoidberg” on TV’s Futurama.) In 1921, Jessel was just 23 years old and already a seasoned comic performer. Jessel opened up to Totman, explaining that someday he wanted to do “straight drama.” “I won’t be happy until I play Shylock,” Jessel told Totman, adding that he had already taken a stab at writing serious pieces for himself. Totman described his subject as a “handsome young Jewish boy, actor and playwright, with the black eyes that look at one frankly and the personality that wins friends over the footlights.” The piece was headlined “Georgie Jessel Expects to Grow Up and Have Real Show.” Jessel, as far as our research could tell, never did play Shylock, but he had a shot at one of the most famous roles in movie history. He had starred in the Broadway production of The Jazz Singer, but when Warner Brothers offered him the lead in the 1927 movie, they could not agree on a salary. Al Jolsen, of course, got the part. But that clumsy 1921 headline was a bit prophetic, as Jessel did get his own show. Thirty episodes of “The Georgie Jessel Show” aired between 1953 and 1954. The show has been described as a “G-rated celebrity roast.” Makes sense—Jessel was considered the “Toastmaster General of the United States” and helped found the Friar’s Club, known for their decidedly not-G-rated roasts. By the way, Totman went on to become a Hollywood screenwriter; you can read about that here.

Georgie Jessel, the “Toastmaster General of the United States.” (Image: Public Domain)