I received a photo of an invite to a fundraiser for the six Baltimore Police officers charged in the death of unarmed 25-year-old Freddie Gray. According to the flyer, a “bull roast” (a popular Maryland tradition) is scheduled to take place on November 1st at Michael’s Eighth Avenue and features a pretty hearty menu for $45, including various pork dishes, cake and beer and a cash bar option.
That members of the Baltimore Police Department and/or their supporters would have a fundraiser for these cops is unsurprising and would not have warranted much of a reaction from me. The “Blue Lives Matter” phrasing, which appears twice on the invite, also fails to be shocking; we’ve heard that appropriation of protest language since August of last year.
However, one of the planned performances for the evening tells a more interesting story. A number of “entertainers” are also advertised, including a few lounge singers and instrumentalists, and at the end of that list is “Bobby “Al Jolson” Berger-out of retirement.”
According to The Baltimore Sun, Berger was dismissed from the Baltimore Police Department in 1984 due to his off-duty performances as the late Jolson, one of history’s most well-known Blackface performers. His dismissal came after 3 years of tension between the officer and his employer due to his act, with both parties spending a decade in court as a result. Ultimately, Berger settled with the city in 1991.
One struggles to think of a stranger way to raise funds for a group of police officers implicated in the death of a Black man than a Blackface performer, especially considering that 3 of the accused officers are Black themselves. Did the organizers think they could keep this event hidden from the public? Or do they simply not care about the optics? If “Blue Lives Matter” isn’t a direct counterpoint to “Black Lives Matter,” where exactly does Blackface fit into the equation? And are Black officers/supporters not invited?
I contacted Berger at the number listed on the invite and though I was prepared for some hesitation to speak to me about the fundraiser, he opened up immediately. “I’m hosting the event,” he informed me when I asked who was responsible for putting the event together.
Berger says that he empathizes with the 6 officers because he knows what it’s like to lose his job (“I was a Baltimore city policeman…and then I had no income, no insurance, and a wife and child. We’re trying to get something together for them for Christmas”) and insists, most incredulously, that there is nothing “racial” about his performance as Al Jolson, though it is in Blackface.
“There really isn’t. I know it sounds crazy,” said the 77-year-old.
He says that many Black people have attended his shows over the years and support this assertion. Among them: a Black reporter from a local newspaper who he knew from high school and boxing great Joe Frazier, who Berger claims joined him in song after watching one of his performances (“The only thing I can tell you is that the heavyweight champion of the world isn’t going to stand by and watch me mock Black people.” He claims to have some footage of this interaction somewhere.)
“I was on Montell Williams in Blackface and he said on national TV that there was nothing racist about it. Ben Vereen commented on the show, he was fine with it,” says Berger. Though I could not find footage of the Montell Williams appearance, the talk show host famously turned his back on Ted Danson at his notorious Friars Club performance. What exactly is the difference?
“What Danson was doing was making fun, being mean-spirited. I am just performing as Al Jolson.”
A TV news program interviewed Berger and documented one of his performances in the early 1980s (he doesn’t recall the specific year and it was uploaded to YouTube in 2007), which you can watch here.
According to Berger, he’s only had “one real issue” with people being offended by his act over the course of his decades long career: the protest that led to his termination from the police department.
“The only time I had a problem was when the NAACP came and picketed me.”
The former officer says that members from the organization showed up to one of his scheduled events and showed him pictures of minstrel performers to highlight how offensive they are.
“They took out a book and showed me pictures of buffoon-type characters. We talked for 10 minutes, and they told me if they could name 3 Al Jolson songs, I would never do the show again. They named “Mammy” and “Swanee” and that was it.
“They didn’t know what they were talking about,” he said, something he blamed on a lack of understanding about the performer, who was considered by many to be a friend to Black artists, despite performing as a Black man in cork.
“Jolson was a pioneer to stop segregation. He wouldn’t stay at a segregated hotel. He sang songs about mothers and kids. All “Mammy” is about is a son wanting to get home to see his mom before she died.”
Though the cost to Berger for standing by his love of performing as Jolson has been great (“It destroyed my career in law enforcement. I can’t get a job to this day as a 10 dollar an hour security guard”), he feels no need to stop and says that he can’t capture the late minstrel star without wearing the make-up.
“If you are English and portraying Othello, you gotta Blacken up. If you are going to play Liberace, you better have on a jacket that looks like it costs 100 thousand dollars. There is one person in the Smithsonian as the greatest entertainer in the world: Al Jolson,” he said. “I try to think of a Jolson song that is offensive with the lyrics and I can’t. I’ve been singing him since I was a little kid. My homework revealed that he was anything but a racist. “
“The songs are more emotionally receptive, not racial, if you look at Al Jolson doing it. If you look at me without make-up, you see Bobby Berger. With the make-up, you see Jolson.”
When asked if the racially-charged nature of the Gray case and ensuing civil unrest make the choice to perform in Blackface seem, if nothing else, poorly timed, Berger says, “no.”
“There’s not a prejudiced bone in my body, I would never do anything to insult anybody. I wouldn’t do that show if I thought it was insulting…It feels like the right time to put some money in these family’s pockets,” he says, noting that all of the performers involved are donating 100% of the evening’s profits to the 6 accused officers.
Berger says that he may ask members of Baltimore’s Vanguard organization, a non-profit that supports the city’s officers of color, to provide security for the fundraiser and states that “none of those guys” ever stood against him during his battle with the city and the department over the Blackface controversy.
For those who are offended, Berger says, “It’s just make-up. There’s no jokes, there’s no buffoonery. If that bothers you, don’t buy a ticket.”