Martha Raye, Hollywood comedienne, sings, dances and displays a natural gift for live comedy. Bert Gordon, radio comedian, more than holds his own as "Concho," an offbeat Indian who speaks with a suspicious Bronx accent. Ruby Keeler (dancing darling of Warner Bros. musicals) left the show in Chicago because she felt intimidated by her ex-hubby's gargantuan stage presence. Ruby was replaced by Eunice Healey, a petite brunette and a marvelous tap dancer, who plays the part of the ingenue. Jack Whiting, a Broadway mainstay, plays the juvenile lead. South American beauty, Jinx Falkenburg, whose likeness graced more magazine covers this past year than that of F.D.R., adds authenticity to the south of the border Can Can number. Mr. Jolson is surrounded by a bevy of breathtaking Dudettes & Ranchettes (show girls); all of whom were elegantly costumed by Raoul Pene du Bois, and creatively choreographed by Catherine Littlefield.
HOLD ON TO YOUR HATS' rootin tootin libretto was penned by veteran jokesmiths Guy Bolton, Matt Brooks and Eddie Davis. The wonderfully gay score was composed by Burton Lane, with clever lyrics supplied by E.Y. (Yip) Harburg.
After a preliminary scene or two in which he does not appear, Jolson makes his entrance wearing an impeccably tailored tuxedo, and takes possession of the audience. He tells a joke or two but stops when he spots a few stragglers scurrying to find their seats. "Hiya folks, glad ya could make it here tonight," Al begins. "Are you folks comfortable?" Al asks. He then tells the embarrassed late-comers what they missed thus far. Jolson kids the patrons with such a sense of wit that no one is offended. "Lemme see, you folks paid $4.40 a piece for dem seats. $8.80, dats a lotta moolah to throw around," chides Jolson. "But don't worry none, cause Jolie is just gittin' started."
Jolson manages to remove that invisible barrier that usually exists between performer and audience. The theatre is his playground. Jolson is intimate yet informal. He chats with his audience as though they were just a bunch of old friends who stopped by for a visit. They love his spontaneous intimacy. It wins them over; it won me over too. He sits down at the footlights, his feet dangling down into the orchestra pit. Jolson is telling the audience about the awful day he had at Aqueduct; when all of a sudden, he gives out a blood curdling howl, and leaps to his feet, while clutching onto his posterior end. "Yow! Dem lights, sho git hot!" bellows Jolson while bounding about the stage doing eccentric dance steps, and mugging it up to the delight of the assemblage. Jolson is a fury of motion, and his antics has the audience laughing and crying at the same time. The exuberant Jolson is obviously having the time of his life, and his audience savors every delirious madcap moment
Jolson, the grand master of hokum, is also the embodiment of the supreme monologuist; his repartee consists of a mixture of topical humor, sprinkled with a generous dose of family recollections. Things seem to quickly pop in and out of his facile mind. He begins a sentence only to change his commentary in mid sentence. "Oh this don't make no sense but I gotta tell ya this," Al begins. Jolson explains he received a letter from his dad that morning which he just has to read aloud. He fumbles through his coat pockets looking for the letter but does not produce it. He frantically searches his pants pockets. But to his dismay he does not find the letter. Jolson, with hands on hips, shaking his head slowly, looks perplexed.
"I dunno what coulda happened to it," Jolson says sadly, as he continues to search relentlessly. "I know!" Al says with a sigh of relief. "I musta left in my dressin' room. Will somebody go and git it for me?" yells Jolson as he looks toward the wings. Moments later, a visibly nervous looking man runs out holding a piece of paper in his hand. Jolson puts his glasses on and proceeds to read the elusive letter. It turns out that the letter was all a gag. But Jolson, the progenitor of mirth, leaves you feeling at least half convinced that his little foray was done completely on the impromptu.
For his role in HOLD ON TO YOUR HATS, Jolson forsakes the use of burnt cork. He is cast as a pistol packin' Madison Avenue cowpoke, who in his entire life, never ventured further west than the Automat. The fast paced plot has him (a ham actor), work as a milk-sop radio salesman of breakfast cereal, a gun shy tenderfoot, who via the airwaves of the Nationwide Broadcasting Company, is known to his listeners as, "The Lone Rider," fearless champion of the oppressed and slayer of cactus badmen.
Mamie, Martha Raye, plays a robustious western gal, who leaves her New Mexico ranch and comes east to find the man she loves ... Lone Rider. Mamie tracks him down at the radio station. For Mamie it's love at first sight. She throws her arms around him and hugs him so tight, his coat buttons go flying in all directions. "Oh Lone Rider," Mamie begins, "you're so wonderful, so brave and so handsome." "Ah, dats two out of three, that ain't bad," chortles Jolson. "Please be serious Lone Rider, we need you to save the town, to save my ranch, Only you ... can save us!" says Mamie as she shoves him onto a nearby couch and plants a big smooch on his lips. "You tellin' me gal, there's skulduggery in yo' town?" asks Al. At that very moment, eavesdropping around the corner, his sponsor overhears their conversation. Viola! The sponsor gets an idea. The scheming sponsor and a greedy radio executive concoct an enormous advertising campaign to boost sagging soggy cereal sales. They hood-wink the cowardly Lone Rider into pulling up stakes. He rides off to the real Southwest (via the Super Chief), in pursuit of genuine banditos, rustlers, and Nazi spies disguised as dude wranglers. As the reluctant hero attempts to rid the West of evil doing vermin. he must face untold torments and countless humiliations. He travels about incognito, wearing many cowboy, matador, and Mexican peon costumes. Once he suffers the indignity of dressing in drag, as he puts rouge on and an outrageous Carmen Miranda type garb consisting of gourds, flowers and vegetables.
Near the end of the show, in the Broadcast scene, Jolson momentarily steps out of character; he turns back the clock 20 years, and reprises many of his song hits. He sings "Swanee," "April Showers," "Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody," "You Made Me Love You," "Sonny Boy," and of course, "My Mammy." You can actually feel the leap in Jolson's vitality as he sings these standards.
This nostalgic interlude stops the show cold. Jolson singing the old songs from his halcyon days on the Winter Garden stage, causes quite a ruckus. The spectacle of Jolson's vitality has the same affect as the impression one gets when they view the New York sky-line... one tends to forget that there still existed in the world, a force so boundless. After this piece of business it's difficult to get to the finale. This is what critics and reviewers refer to as an experience.
HOLD ON TO YOUR HATS intriguing lyrical score affords Mr. Jolson many opportunities to cut loose into song. He sings, "Walkin Along Mindin' My Business," "Would You Be So Kindly," "Don't Let It Get You Down," "Old Timer," "There's A Great Day Coming, Manana," "Down on the Old Dude Ranch," "She Came, She Saw, She Can Canned." At 54, the old minstrel looks trim and tan. He belts out each song in his leather-lung style. It hardly seems possible but Jolson sounds better today than he did 15 years ago.
One of the most popular tunes in the show, "Down On The Old Dude Ranch," had been in the script from the beginning. But Al did not think the song fit in right, so he had it cut out during the Detroit try-out run. However, on the first night in Chicago, Bert Gordon, Martha Raye and Al gave the tune a second chance. Since the song was cut, nobody bothered to memorize the words, so they walked on stage holding the song sheets and sang from them. This bit of showmanship caused a minor sensation, so much so, that they continue to use the song sheets ever since to get laughs.
Jolson's stellar reputation as a performer was bruised somewhat by the glitz and glamour of his Hollywood sabbatical, but you would never know that by his stunning performance in this extravaganza. Jolson had this to say when asked about his tenure in Hollywood. "No more Hollywood for me, pal," Al began, "I spent nine years in Hollywood. Dats nine years too long! When Jolie sings, he's gotta hear some breathing. No sir. I'm through with those flickers."
I hope Al is serious about leaving Tinseltown behind him. Hollywood never truly understood Jolson. They were never able to capture that inexplicable phenomenon known as Jolson. You can't draw chalk marks on a floor and constrain this man. Jolson needs movement. He needs a live audience to woo and win over. In sharp contrast, Jolson on stage (any stage), oozes with his melted caramel charm. His body movements radiate excitement. Simply put, the charismatic Mr. Jolson is without equal.
Al Jolson is capable of carrying any show he pleases (even a turkey), with the sheer force of his electrifying personality. He is, after all, the great virtuoso. For years Al was billed as, "The World's Greatest Entertainer!" He is the master of the one-man show, because he always gives so much of himself in each performance. There is no one on the stage today who can hold an audience in the hollow of their hand like Jolson. He always gives his audience 100%, he never saves up for the next scene, or the next show. Jolson is extravagant with his energy, at times he is driven by a power beyond himself.
Al Jolson & Martha Raye work well together. Her rowdy enthusiasm seems to compliment his intensely sentimental exhibitionism. Jolson has created a unique way of being the characters he portrays; they live specifically in the mad world of a Jolson show.
HOLD ON TO YOUR HATS, with its accomplished cast, its rambunctious book, hummable tunes, zany skits, luscious show girls, colorful scenery, and fantastic dance numbers, is a solid smash hit. Advance ticket sales and S.R.O. signs out front along 44th Street, easily attest to that fact.
Mr. Jolson's return to musical comedy is superficially a modern one. He is less maudlin then he was when he was last seen here in 1931. He appears altogether warm toward the world at large; and he readily talks about and accepts responsibility for his own failures in his personal life.
Jolson laughs when he tells his audience about the money he had to put up to produce this show. "Nobody wanted to take a chance on an old geezer like me," Jolson laments. The rapturous applause ringing inside the Shubert Theatre from an adoring and appreciative public, more than justifies his faith. Jolson the supreme potentate of musical comedy, the quintessential performer, is back on Broadway. The prodigal son, has at long last, come home.
|Thanks to the incredible depth of material available on the Internet, here is a brief clip of Martha Raye, Al Jolson's co-star in Hold On To Your Hats, singing a bit of E.Y. Harburg & Burton Lane's "There's a Great Day Coming Manana" live at Melody Fair, North Tonawanda, NY, during the Summer of 1982. Martha was touring with an act billed as The New Four Girls which also included Rosemary Clooney, Kaye Starr and Helen O'Connell. Unfortunately, the crew was limited to recording no more than a minute of any single song. Reportedly, a portion of this performance was actually erased in order to comply with this demand. What a shame. The clip ends just as Martha really starts to cook!|