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

Vaudeville

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!

We were a little shaky for the first show but by the second show we were in full command of ourselves, and the warmth and appreciation of the audiences did our hearts good. The head of the Keith office sought a contract for further Keith vaudeville, but i could not say anything definite as I did not know just how long we could stand two and three shows a day with a night club every night from 7:30 until 3 A.M. However, I tentatively accepted ten weeks at a figure that then seemed tremendous but today seems very insignificant. We were promised the goal of all vaudevillians, the Palace, in our second week, so after the first half of the week was completed, we moved to the Coliseum uptown at Washington Heights.
The audiences at the Coliseum were the most enthusiastic we have ever met and it seemed as though the house must come down under the terrific rain of applause that greeted the mention of our name and our appearance. If we ever “stopped the show” it was there. We remained there juyst long enough to give the manager gray hair by almost failing to appear at the time scheduled, due to our night club work. However, the Coliseum stands out in our memories as the scene of the greatest ovation we have ever received at any time or place, and I have often wished that we could have gone back there for a longer engagement.
Then came the Palace! We met on Sunday noon in the little, old-fashioned but clean dressing-rooms of the Palace. To the layman, the Palace means little or nothing, but to the dyed-in-the-wool vaudevillian it is the crowning achievement of all his vaudeville dreams, the acme, the goal, the fulfillment of all hope and the climax of his career! There are those who have toured “the sticks” in vaudeville for years before playing the Palace; and those who have died with spirits broken by their failure to appear at the Palace, and I suppose many a layman has wondered as I did just what the vaudeville actors mean by that phrase which they say with such a burst of price, “Why, I played the Palace!”
The theatre itself is just another theatre; in fact, as far as modern conveniences and comfort both for audience and actor go, the Palace would not even be considered third rate, but it has become a tradition, a myth, a fad if you will, and all the theatre’s shortcomings are forgotten in the mad scramble to appear before its footlights. Its stage-hands and doorman are the most complacent lot that we have struck anywhere. Their egotism, born of the fact that they work at the Palace, is almost laughable and yet we found them very wonderful and co-operative. I dare say the Palace stage-hands get the highest tips of any stage-hands in the city; they expect them and receive them.
And here we were, on a Sunday morning, rank amateurs booked to play the Palace. There was a certain air of disbelief and incredulity on the part of the doorman and stage-hands. Still they knew something had happened or we never would have been there. I came down in their little old rickety elevator run by Morey, one of the oddest characters we met anywhere, and to calm our nerves I went to he boys’ dressing-room and asked them to listen to two verses of the melody I had in mind for the verse of “Vagabond Lover,” because both verses were entirely my own work. About an hour later we found ourselves before that most blasé of all audiences, the most critical to be found anywhere, the Sunday afternoon Palace audience.
Before they raised the prices of the Sunday matinee, the first show on Sunday found in the audience every other vaudeville actor not working, and of course the Palace acts were on their toes, realizing that they had the hardest audience in the world to please. Most of the vaudevillians now come on Monday afternoon since the Sunday price is a little high for anyone who can wait until Monday, which it is much cheaper.
You cannot always gauge results by applause. There is a contagion in the air while you are playing that tells you whether or not you are pleasing your audiences. To me the applause is superfluous; the telepathic interchange of appreciation with which the air becomes charged, is sufficient for me. I cannot recollect whether or not we received big hands, but I do know that they kept us there for three weeks and would have kept us longer but that the other Keith houses were calling for us and there were only a few weeks left for us to go the rounds of the most important Keith houses in other sections of the city. Saturday night we found the coolest of all our audiences, but even their reception was gratifying. I was told that two very famous orchestra leaders, both of whom I admired tremendously, came to see us and could not comprehend the reason for this demonstration of applause. Had they really thought about the matter they would have realized that the applause we received on the stage was not so much a commendation of our actual stage work as it was an opportunity for our radio public to tell us just how much they appreciated our radio work, and that has always been my belief; we are a radio band first, last and always. Naturally I felt gratified and thrilled that these two men should take the trouble to come to see us, and it seemed incredible to me that they should have remembered that there is always room for another success and that there was no essential conflict between us.
We changed our show at the Palace almost completely, as we had plenty of numbers to present. Our audience there was composed largely of New Jersey people that our broadcast over Station WOR brought to us.
And then followed an engagement down at 14th Street. Here was the test. How would we fare down in that ghetto-like section? Its audiences were mainly composed of slavic and oriental people. They received us just as enthusiastically as did our audiences elsewhere.
Then came Flushing. While at the beautiful new Keith theatre there, I discovered that Flushing was the home of my idol, Rudy Wiedoeft, and twice I made him come out on the stage while I told the audience what he had done for us and how highly I regarded him.
Then came the Bronx, and the cordiality of the Bronx was perhaps as great as that received in the Coliseum. In fact, we were wonderfully received everywhere we went.
The E. F. Albee Theatre in Brooklyn has always been noted for cool reception, but even here we broke all records.
Our vaudeville tour came to an end at Proctor’s 86th Street Theatre. Here I had my first taste of the crowds at the stage door. Everyone seemed to want pictures, so I began having thousands o pictures printed to give away. I look back on these ten weeks of vaudeville as one of the happiest experiences of my life. For me it is proof of my belief that radio had built us up for appearances in vaudeville, and that an orchestra could be presented in a simple and dignified way without a great deal of moving, clowning, eccentric dancers or beautiful women to bolster it up, and yet go over. How we would have fared without our radio prelude is problematical. However, even in places where we were not radio favorites, our reception was very wonderful.
The ten weeks were enlivened by hard-breadth escapes from missing the show, and by one occasion at the Palace when two of the boys missed the show, leaving the six of us to pull the set through—we got a tremendous hand! (Imagine a six-piece orchestra at the Palace!) We improved in make-up and in stage technique and thus prepared ourselves for our appearance at the cross-roads of the world—the theatre that it had always been my goal to appear at once we had entered into showdom—the New York Paramount!

Read Chapter 11

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