“Hold On to Your Hats” became a hit for the town that sorely needed one. Sixty-nine shows debuted in the 1940-41 season, which was half the number from four years previously, the least of any season in Broadway history up to that point. The Theater Guild had almost gone bankrupt; George Gershwin had recently died and his brother, Ira, had retired; the previous two shows by Rodgers and Hart, “Too Many Girls” and “Higher and Higher,” were mediocrities; Irving Berlin had decamped to Hollywood. Across the country the effects of the Great Depression lingered, and the news from Europe was even worse.
“The year 1940 was a precarious time, the future seemed uncertain,” Jeanine Basinger, the historian and author of “The Movie Musical,” said in a phone interview. “Someone like Jolson comes along, returns to his stage roots, just the way Hugh Jackman has, and the audience doesn’t care how old they are. It’s in-person electricity, it’s ageless.
“When you’re paying your money for a star, it’s reassuring — you know what you’re going to get,” she added.
Jolson, having received the reviews of a lionized lifetime and sold-out houses every night to boot, apparently got bored with the show once it made its money back after a few months. Having proved the point that he was still relevant, he closed the show. A nine-month strike by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, which began on Jan. 1, 1941, kept all of the witty score’s potential hits off radio airwaves, and Jolson, who had a major record contract with Decca, never recorded one note from the show he brought so triumphantly to 44th Street.
“You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” Jolson would famously exclaim when the audience would beg for more — and then keep performing, way past the stagehands’ overtime call. After corralling a hit for a desperate Broadway, Jolson, having “nothin’” left to say or sing, rode back into the California sunset, passing the torch to other Hollywood stars and their own rescue missions along the Broadway trail.
Laurence Maslon is an arts professor at New York University and the host of the NPR program, “Broadway to Main Street.”