Fridays with Rudy: Vagabond Dreams Come True, Ch. 12

In Chapter 12 of his 1930 memoir, Vagabond Dreams Come True, Rudy Vallée finally gets around to providing some typical memoir material, sharing tales of his boyhood in Westbrook, Maine, and offering accounts of his experiences traveling west to Hollywood to make his first picture, The Vagabond Lover (1929).

Chapter XII

From Westbrook to Hollywood

IN EVERY interview that I have ever given I have been careful to state that my birthplace was a small town in Vermont called Island Pond. Most peculiarly, however, the interviewers have seen fit for some reason to omit this fact and to refer to me as a Maine boy. Probably this is due to the fact that i spent only two years of my life in Vermont. Although I grew up in Maine, I am very proud of my Green Mountain birthright, and the vacations that I have spent in Island Pond were some of the most wonderful days of my life.
However, it was during my boyhood in Westbrook, Maine, that I first began to dream of the theatre. I must have inherited a love for all things theatrical from my father who, though a druggist all his life, had been associated with several theatres in various small business ways. Anyway it was always in the back of my head, and even when I was in the early grades of grammar school I used to climb up by the door of the motion picture booth and peek in to watch the film with fascinated eyes as it went past the aperture plate, with the bright light from the arc lamp shining on it; and the hum of the machine as the operator cranked it by hand, and the smell of film and film cement meant as much to me as the picture itself.
My idea of perfect happiness in life was to be the manager of a theatre, who not only selected the films to be shown, but could sit in the theatre all day and watch them.
My last years of grammar school I knew I would have to help father in the drug store. I had grown into long pants and I began my first work in the drug store. Being rather dexterous with my hands and quick of mind I proved to be one of father’s best clerks, but I never liked the work. It was that I actually disliked manual labor; I never minded chopping eighteen pails of ice every day and bringing them upstairs and then packing the ice around the things that had to be kept cold (this was in the days before they had iceless refrigeration) nor did I mind opening the boxes containing countless small boxes and bottles which had to be put away in a thousand and one places in the store.
I enjoyed making the syrups, and usually gorged myself on them as I drew them from the large bottles in which they came—I was particularly fond of chocolate syrup and usually became sick from overindulgence.
But it was the fact that there was little of romance in waiting on customers who were slow in making up their minds, and who were cross and disagreeable at times; it made me miserable. Then again there was nothing fixed about the hours, we worked from early morning until late at night. Many a time father and I were just about to close the store when a street car would stop in front of our place filled with people coming back from a near-by dance hall and rust theatre, and again we would put on the lights, open the doors, and in a breathless rush serve forty and fifty people at the soda-fountain.
I had to rush out on cold days and pump gasoline, as we were one of the first drug stores to have a gasoline filling station. The only happiness I knew in the store was when father took on the sale of Victor photograph records and I had a chance to give demonstrations to possible purchasers of these records. After I had played them twice over, I usually knew all the good and bad features of the records and could invariably whistle and hum along with them. I knew the selling points of each and very rarely failed to sell a record when i attempted to do so. The thing lasted all too short a time but its effect upon me was profound and tremendous.
A small event of great future import took place a the beginning of school vacation when a disagreement with the head clerk affected me so that I walked out of the store and went out swimming with the boys.

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Fridays with Rudy: Vagabond Dreams Come True, Ch. 11

In Chapter 11 of his 1930 memoir, Vagabond Dreams Come True, Rudy Vallée had reached a point in his career that found him working all day long and sleeping no more than three or four hours a night.

As Rudy describes it below, he and his band had two rehearsals every morning, four live shows a day (five on Saturdays and Sundays) in a vaudeville theatre, and a steady night club gig that went from 11 p.m. till 3 a.m. nightly. Rudy also played a daily tea dance with a different, smaller ensemble backing him up and a dinner show as well.

Who ever said James Brown was the hardest working man in show business? In the laste 1920s, it might just have been Rudy Vallée.

Chapter XI

Late to Bed—Early to Rise

BY THE TIME we were half-way through our vaudeville career I had aligned myself with the National Broadcasting Company completely. Before we began our vaudeville tour they held a broadcasting contact with me under which they broadcast me from the Villa Vallée with no cost to me or the club. Without my knowledge or permission I had been signed to play at a rival station which of course conflicted with my National Broadcasting contract. While we were at the Palace this had been litigated in court and on one occasion my appearance in court almost prevented me from getting to the Palace in time for our act. Every act there went on before ours and good old Van & Schenk dragged their act out as long as possible and stalled for me until I got there. Just before I went on, the manager gave me the good news of the judge’s decision: the National Broadcasting Company and I had won completely!
I knew that to be under the management of the National Broadcasting Company gave me a tremendous prestige and would in the end secure me better contracts than any other management could. The National Broadcasting Company secured my Paramount contract at double the figure I had hoped for. Four thousand dollars a week for eight men even for a few weeks was unheard of, but when we did twenty weeks and Paramount announced its intention of exercising its year’s option, the “I-told-you-sos” in the theatrical world who had predicted only ten weeks for us with Publix theatres were completely flabbergasted.
I went home for one day with my folks before we began the Paramount contract, as I realized that I would not see them for a long time; and a few days later, with banners flying outside the New York Paramount, we began our contract with Public theatres. I still have pictures of the crowds in line and I was told that police were called out to keep the lines in place. And the cold figures giving us the house record made me very happy.
The presentation for the week we opened was put together especially for us and we did just a tiny part at the end of the program, so we were still very much a vaudeville act, but I looked forward to my second week when, with baton in hand, it was my duty to make the announcements and direct the big orchestra on the stage, gag with the acts, set the tempos, and then eventually step forward for my own spot.
The Paramount management was frankly only interested in Rudy Vallée, but I had told my boys that when I made money they would make it with me, and the only condition on which I agreed to go with Publix was that they use my band with me. I did not care whether my boys were absorbed into the large band or whether they came out on a rolling platform just to accompany me in my songs, but I insisted that my accompaniment come from my boys only. To this the management agreed, and then I was surprised to find my boys did not think they wanted to do it, inasmuch as they doubted their ability to stand up under the strain of two early rehearsals in the morning, four shows a day with five on Saturdays and Sundays, and work at the night club every night from eleven until three. My lot was considerably harder, though I enjoyed it.
I had tea dances at the Lombardy Hotel from four until six-thirty daily, including Sunday, and the dinner session at the Villa Vallée from 7:30 until 9:30. Obviously, our vaudeville made it impossible for my boys and me to play the full tea dance or the dinner session at the Villa Vallée, so at the Lombardy I formed an orchestra composed of six boys, which I called the Gondoliers, and which I had trained to play in practically the same style in which the Connecticut Yankees played. Over the air they sounded practically the same, as I had very excellent men who had substituted for some of my boys at one time or another and who knew our style.

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Fridays with Rudy: Vagabond Dreams Come True, Ch. 10

In Chapter Ten of Rudy Vallée’s 1930 memoir, Vagabond Dreams Come True, Rudy relates tales of a ten-week tour that covered a half-dozen vaudeville theatres scattered across New York City, in every borough save Staten Island. Rudy and his band even played the very top theatre in all of vaudeville, the Palace.

The band’s radio audience turned out in droves to see them do their stuff in person, and Rudy could tell the tour was a big success, thanks to what he describes as “the telepathic interchange of appreciation with which the air [became] charged.” (We know, we know—it had us scratching our heads, too.)

Chapter X


AS I REVIEWED in my mind all the letters that had come to me, common sense told me we had to show ourselves, since nearly every letter expressed a curiosity as to what I could be like. My odd name, which might be either French, Spanish or Italian, and my speech, which was very typical of the people up in Maine, left them wondering whether I was fish or fowl, while an occasional rendition of “Me Queres” in Spanish added to their confusion. And then again I realized that many of the little novelties we had worked up showing the various personalities of the band, would make good vaudeville material. So when a friend of mine, Sammy Smith, sought to bring the booking agent of the Palace Theatre to the Heigh-Ho Club to hear us, I looked forward to the audition with the greatest of hopes. Many times everything was set; then something would take the booker away at the last moment, and it seemed as though he would never be able to listen to us.
While this was still in the air I read in the monthly magazine of my fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, that Lawrence Schwab, the first half of the great musical comedy producing team, Schwab and Mandel, was a fraternity brother of mine, that he had struggled for recognition as a boy and now was perhaps America’s foremost producer of intimate musical comedies, and that in “Good News,” that latest Schwab and Mandel effort, they had used George Olsen. Olsen, however, was in Ziegfeld’s “Whoopee” and would not be available should they desire his services in the near future, so I approached Mr. Schwab, hoping to convince him that we might be useful in one of his future musical comedies. I told him that I did not wish to presume on our being fraternity brothers, but I did feel that we had something different to offer which, spotted in one of his musical comedies, might prove of value to him.
I brought my big scrap book but he smilingly told me that he had no time to glance through it. I then asked him if he had a radio and he again smiled and replied that of course he had. I left him my radio schedules and asked him to tune in some evening since I felt that even over the air he might be impressed. I invited him to the Heigh-Ho Club some night after the show for I felt that we could sell ourselves to him. But we never heard from him.
He is a very busy man which accounts, I suppose, for his failure to hear us or see us. I suppose everything happens for the best because had he liked our work and seen our possibilities, he probably could have signed us up for a relatively small salary, because although I had an idea that we were popular, I had no conception of our drawing power in a theatre, which power was amply demonstrated during the weeks of vaudeville and Paramount work following our opening at the 81st Street Theatre. A friend of ours named Charles Bayha, believing that we had great theatrical possibilities, took me to the owner of a theatrical publication who in turn arranged an audition before Earl Carroll at the Heigh-Ho Club. I was ill at the time, and could not show the band off to the best advantage.
The Keith booker came eventually to the Heigh-Ho Club for dinner with several Keith managers from the Middle West, and although he himself was impressed it was really the enthusiasm of the other men that convinced him that we should be given a try-out for vaudeville work. The Keith publicity department began playing up our radio publicity and the stage technicians operated in every way to give us a beautiful set. It was decided that instead of opening cold at the Palace we should have our première at the 81st Street Theatre, at 81st Street and Broadway. This was a small neighborhood house in a very nice, respectable neighborhood where it was felt that our popularity was well established.
One theatrical paper described our opening as “an explosion in the theatrical world,” and I guess it was, because we broke all records there both for attendance and for cordiality of reception, and we were held over from the end of one week to the first of the next week which had never been done before in the history of the house. Theatrical critics did not know what to make of it. We appeared against a black and silver stage setting, wearing morning suits, just eight men down close to the footlights. On the opening strains of “Down the Field” the house went mad, and after our opening number, as I stepped forward to say “Heigh-Ho, Everybody,” my greeting was received with deafening applause, and at the beginning of every number there was a tremendous outburst of handclapping. I was astounded by the power of radio!

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Fridays with Rudy: Vagabond Dreams Come True, Ch. 9

In Chapter Nine of Rudy Vallée’s 1930 memoir, Vagabond Dreams Come True, Rudy tells us about the voluminous amounts of fan he received and assures the reader that the rumor that the correspondence he receives comes mostly from flappers is decidedly untrue.

Chapter IX

My Fan Mail

EXAGGERATION is, I suppose, the life and spirit of publicity. But being a very conscientious New England Yankee, born to state facts as they are, I have chafed under the ballyhoo of many a write-up. One point in particular is a sore spot to me: any mention, however finished or crude, of my fan mail irritates me. There is nothing quite so sacred or quite so wonderful as the tribute of an admirer to the one who receives it and to publicly make mention of this seems to me as brazen and as unpolished as to open another person’s mail.
A periodical which carried my life story, “ghost written” by a girl writer, boasted that I received 20,000 letters a day. Nothing could be more absurd and untrue, and this would be very apparent to anyone who would stop to consider the improbability of such a thing.
This paper went on to state, in the little synopsis preceding the story itself each day, that many of these letters were proposals.
As I take stock of myself and try to imagine how others might consider me as being eligible as a husband, I personally fail to see why I should receive many, if any proposals at all. But there is no accounting for taste, and I suppose that I might seriously appeal to some as a husband.
This is not mock modesty for remember I am well aware of the fact that my appeal is a personality expressed in a voice, and in the average marriage the physical side is of much greater importance than either the mental aspect or personality. People rarely propose to something they have not seen.
Had I been able to censor this “ghost written” story, which somehow got beyond my control, I would never have permitted any mention of letters or their contents as I feel very much like a Father Confessor who forgets immediately (as far as other people are concerned) what is told him, and every letter I receive, even those that criticize, condemn or deride me, I hold as most sacred, and worthy of my attention and thought.
I am very glad that I do not receive 20,000 letters or even 500 letters a day, because quite obviously I would never be able to read all of them, as I do now. Although I read fast it sometimes consumes three hours of my day only to read my daily mail, let along the extra time it takes to answer it.
I am told by the motion picture studio people that my first picture, even if a failure, will bring me so much mail that I will not able to read it personally. And I suppose if all the Fleischmann letters were turned over to me, I would not be able to ready all of my radio fan mail. This is even more unfortunate, as the radio letters I receive help me immeasurably in building my radio program.
However, those I may engage to read the letters, should the number of them ever get away from me, will be individuals who know my likes and dislikes and will understand how to give me a consensus of opinion of the daily batch of letters, as I feel it is most essential and important that I keep a very close and sensitive finger upon the pulse of those who are interested in my efforts.
My very first fan letters, which came as a result of our first broadcasts in February, 1928, were a revelation and an inspiration to me. My association with the radio had been very meagre indeed and I did not know and had never considered that people took the pains to express their appreciation of a radio program by letter.
To most people letter-writing is a most disagreeable and unwelcome task; there seems to be something irksome and difficult about securing writing materials, and sitting down and expressing certain thoughts on paper. This is readily understandable when one considers the steps involved in writing a letter.
First, it is necessary to be in the mood to write. It is obviously quite impossible to write a letter when one is exhausted or irritated.

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Fridays with Rudy: Vagabond Dreams Come True, pt. 8

In Chapter Eight of Rudy Vallée’s 1930 memoir, Vagabond Dreams Come True, Rudy finally takes a break from pontificating about his theories of dance orchestra stewardship and relates tales of the early days of his band of eight in New York City.

Chapter VIII

Success—But Not Over Night

OUR first broadcast from The Heigh-Ho in February, 1928, brought about twelve letters.
WABC was a small station, with radius confined to New York but it was a station of beautiful quality and power and has since become the key station of the gigantic Columbia Broadcasting System.
None of our write-ups has ever given credit where it belonged; even at the risk of injuring feelings I must pay due tribute and express my gratitude to stations WABC and WOR and WMCA which were responsible for the tremendous outburst we received February, 1929, at Keith’s 81st Street Theatre in New York City. When we began at station WABC, our band was only a small speck on New York’s horizon. But the enthusiasm which my surprised eyes read in those first letters affected me like magic. Still, the full realization of our powers did not dawn on me until about a month of broadcasting had elapsed.
Station WABC had a schedule that was far from full and they needed us to fill three or four gaps a week, sometimes for half an hour, sometimes an hour. At first we had a definite schedule, then it would vary and at any moment during the evening we might expect a call from the studio to jump into the breach when some artist had failed to appear.
To make my programs more co-ordinated, like a well-oiled machine, I realized that each man must know exactly what was going to happen. Here, more than ever, we were handicapped because obviously the directions could not be spoken and since I was playing the saxophone I was not free to indicate the routine by pantomime. So I conceived the idea of giving each man a typewritten program of the numbers.
Since we were on the air as often as four or five times a week I realized too that every program must be different from the others, as much as possible, with repeats only when the number was very popular and frequently requested. I secured a hectograph, or duplicating machine, and a typewriter, and in my own home-made fashion, with two fingers, typed out the programs, staying in to do so while the boys went out to eat between dinner and supper sessions.
Sometimes I spend as much as one hour just deciding which would be the best tunes to play, typing out the program and duplicating seven or eight copies of it. But I found that my efforts were well reward by a much smoother program.
The boys often wondered why I was so exacting and apparently unreasonable in my demands that every program be well-nigh perfect. If a mistake was unavoidable, I said nothing, but if the offender was day-dreaming, stupid, or heedless, the resulting error was brought to his attention immediately after the broadcast, and if it was really noticeable he would probably hear about it the rest of the evening.
But today I think the boys appreciate what my high ideals have brought us. I read the fan mail; they did not, although I invited them to do so.
I began to see what was happening.
One of my boys suggested that we were on the air too many times a week, but he did not see my theory which was this: I believed that by being on the air as often as four or five times a week, which is unusual in radio circles, eventually nearly every radio fan would stumble across us when moving the dials, and that our odd quality of tone and style would hold their attention, and that by having each program completely varied and different, carefully chosen and rendered, we would not become monotonous if one listened in every time we were on. Our terrific success has shown my conclusions to be completely justified. Our fan mail increased daily and my letters, which nearly all complimented us in superlative terms, bore witness to the fact there was something in the nature of our music that was different and that held the attention.
The speck on the horizon had begun to loom larger.

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