Fridays with Rudy: Vagabond Dreams Come True, pt. 1

Rudy Vallée only began performing on the radio in 1928, so the idea of penning a memoir in 1930, at the ripe old age of 29, might well be viewed as premature.

But modesty was never Vallée’s strong suit, so it’s perhaps not surprising that he was already itching to begin telling his story.

Here’s Chapter 1 from Vagabond Dreams Come True—enjoy!

TO MY MOTHER

AND THE MOTHERS OF
THE SEVEN BOYS WHO WORK WITH ME

Were it not for their faith in
us, and their great love, we
would never have succeeded

FOREWORD

IT SEEMS to me that everyone has given his or her theory as to just why I and the seven other boys work with me achieved such a sensational rise in what seemed to be such a short time. Since I am the pilot who guided the eight of us in our climb, I feel more qualified than any other person to speak; and, believing that I have, to some degree, the gift of analysis, I feel that my own theory is possibly more valuable to those who are really interested, than any of the other opinions that have been volunteered.

At this point, I want to make one thing very clear: I have myself written all that you will read here. I believe that I alone am capable of expressing myself on this particular subject. Although at this moment my schedule is one that keeps me on the jump from nine o’clock in the morning until four o’clock next morning—a nineteen-hour schedule that hardly permits of time to eat—I realize that this is my opportunity to really tell you something about our personalities, our early struggles and ambitions. I am beginning with zest and pleasure and only hope that you will find the result interesting.
Once more, let me repeat that this is my own sincere work.


CHAPTER 1

THE CALL OF THE SKYSCRAPERS

IT SEEMS that I have been “natural news” ever since I came into the spotlight. I have been called everything from a romantic sheik to a punk from Maine with a set of megaphones and a dripping voice. I have been supposed to have received orchids and bouquets during my theatre appearances. Furthermore I am supposed to have ignored these trophies and to have caused all flapperdom to become stirred as it has never been stirred before. I have been called a menace (in a humorous way of course). And one article in particular gave me quite a kick when it referred to me as the Vallée peril, which made me feel like the general of an invading army. However I realize that this is really an absurdity, for my appearance in person should remove whatever worry any husband might have over me.
But even discounting humorous exaggeration, it is evident that many people are sincerely interested in me and in my Connecticut Yankees, and I think that our admirers might welcome an authentic account of our career.
The eight of us met on a Monday afternoon in January, 1928.
I had graduated from Yale in June, 1927, and had followed my graduation with a second summer tour in vaudeville with the Yale Collegians, not as leader but as one of the three saxophonists.
The fall of 1927 found me in Boston, Massachusetts leading a society orchestra with which I had once played in Maine. But Boston did not keep me busy enough, opportunity seemed limited and these two facts, combined with sentimental reasons, caused me to transfer to New York City. The only hope I had of work was the practical assurance of at least one job a week with the orchestras that Vincent Lopez was sending out to various banquets, large meetings and fraternity affairs.
I might explain something which, I find, is not understood at all by the average layman. The big orchestra leaders, such as Whiteman, Lopez, Bernie, Olsen and the rest, find that their own individual bands are the means of bringing a great deal more work than can be performed under their personal leadership. It is quite obvious that, when people desire to give an affair at which they require a dance orchestra, one of the above names usually comes to their minds; and after phoning the office they find, of course, that the personal outfit of Paul Whiteman is either on tour or at some place where they play nightly. They are told, however, that the office supplies replicas of the original band called units and that these units may vary in size from three pieces to one hundred, at varying prices, depending upon whether there are star men in the outfit or just ordinary talent.
Thus springs up what is known as the Whiteman office, the Lopez office, the Bernie office, and this work to which they cater is called “outside” or “club” work. This work is sporadic, to be sure; that is, the work is seasonal, depending upon the seasons when debutantes come out, when marriages take place, when fraternal orders celebrate, when students are home for vacation, and when fraternities give their dances, during the football season. Thus, it is either feast or famine. However, most of the representative offices keep a certain number of men employed every week, and the advantage of club work is that sometimes three nights of hard club work pays more than seven nights of steady work. A club job is very hard while it lasts but it pays excellently, since the men usually play steadily from ten in the evening until the wee hours of the morning.

I came to New York in December, at a time when I knew someone would have to use me, since December and January are the busiest months for the here-and-there dance orchestras. I approached the two biggest offices that carry on club work, namely Markels’ and Meyer Davis’.
These two men had built up a tremendous amount of work and nearly all of society’s debutante parties, young collegiate affairs at vacation times, and so forth, were handled by the orchestras that these two offices sent to play.
I have always tried to attack my objective in unusual ways and this, which was the beginning of my career, was no exception.
People hunting vaudeville work utilize their scrapbooks to the fullest extent. However meagre the clippings may be, they carry a great deal of weight with the producer. Therefore I brought mine to the orchestra leaders.
I had kept a scrapbook since the time I was in the Navy, in 1917. There were those clippings which related to my proficiency as a projector of motion pictures and as head usher in a large theatre (during which period I had studied the clarinet and dropped it, fooled around a bi with the trumpet, dropped that, and finally, more in a spirit of jest than anything else, had taken up the saxophone). Then I kept all my clippings of my development from an amateur to a professional. I highly prized those that showed me as an artist at various affairs until I matriculated at the University of Maine, where my instrument brought me a campus popularity that made the year a very happy one in my memory; until the time I entered Yale, completely unknown but with a tryout engagement with a New Haven orchestra on the evening of the day Yale opened.
The book then carried me through my first two years at Yale, with clippings showing increasing recognition; but at Yale it was all work and no play; I was doing as much as my health could possibly stand, with classes, or preparation for them, all day, and then playing almost every evening with a New Haven orchestra, led by two Yale graduates who pursued business lives in the city during the day, Messrs. Bolton and Cipriano.
I realized that I was missing most of the fun on the campus and the evening lectures the famous men came to New Haven to give. Just before I entered Yale, I had been offered the opportunity to play in London at the Savoy Hotel at a very fine salary, but I rejected it for Yale, feeling that my college diploma meant more to me than anything else. It was my mother’s ambition to see me graduate from college.
However, I felt that I was not getting the most out of my college education, so it occurred to me that I would be wiser to take a year off from school and accept the London offer which I was still being urged to consider. I knew that if I saved I could come back with enough money to finish Yale without the extreme physical effort and expenditure of time which my routine demanded. At that time it was nothing unusual for me to leave New Haven at two or three o’clock in the afternoon to go to some city like Worcester, Massachusetts, five hours away, either by automobile or train, where we would play at some country club or golf club until two or three A.M. and arrive back in New Haven at six or seven, just as my more fortunate classmates were waking up from a delightful sleep before jumping into their showers and going off to chapel.
There is nothing I enjoy more than a comfortable bed and a good sleep and sometimes I did envy them, although I loved my work and really never grumbled.
After conferring with my registrar and friends of mine in the University, I found them unanimous in advising me to take a year off and play abroad, so I sailed with two Boston boys on the beautiful Olympic in September, 1924.
Naturally my London clippings were profuse and very professional. I was with a band of Englishmen, while the two Americans who sailed with me were put in other small bands that the Savoy used elsewhere. We gave big concerts, and made records; I have our programs and pictures of us in all these undertakings. It was a very happy year for me and I loved England. Nevertheless I worked very hard there, for besides my playing I taught two or three pupils a day, giving them from one and half hours to two hours each. (By my return to America, I lost an opportunity of teaching H. R. H. the Prince of Wales, as he had decided to take up the saxophone and would have started in the fall when I re-entered Yale. I was teaching for the firm that had supplied the Prince’s ukelele instructor and I would have received the royal diploma stating that I was, by royal appointment to teach him the saxophone. But I felt that my college degree was worth more to me than a royal diploma, and I wanted to surprise those who had predicted that I would never re-enter Yale.)
The scrapbook carried me back to my return to school the following fall, showing my increasing musical prominence, up to my leadership of the Yale football band in the fall of 1926 and subsequent graduation in 1927.
With no more than this book, which was quite a work of art, the story being all typed out, and with the clippings in chronological order and emphatic points properly emphasized I even went the vaudeville aspirant one better. I had kept phonograph records which I had made in London and I bought a portable talking machine with which to play them. What an appearance I must have presented as I entered the various offices with the big scrapbook, portable talking machine and folio of records!
Remarkable as it may seem, only one leader was impressed with all this array of talent, and that was Larry Siry, one of the great society orchestra leaders. He quickly engaged me for an affair at the end of that week.
Meanwhile the Lopez office had kept its word and I was one of twenty men at some affair nearly every week. My friend, George Wallace, who was office manager for Lopez, tried to interest Lopez in my book and records, but rather unsatisfactorily.
I was commuting from New Jersey to New York daily and getting rather tired of the trip. One night I felt inspired to write some of the big leaders. Every office has a booker who, while being subject to the wishes of the leader, exercises his own judgment in selecting men for its engagements and who, whenever possible, gives his friends preference. One booker in particular was very discourteous and non-committal, refusing me completely.
At one of the biggest offices I secured a chance to play for its manager, and I suited him, but again the booker had too many saxophone friends of his own to employ, to give an outsider a break. However, I knew that another very successful orchestra director was doing quite a bit of outside work and felt that being very much the same type of man personally, I might fortune in his favor. But as it is quite unusual for dance musicians to write even to the mothers or sweethearts, let alone to orchestra leaders, I am told that this orchestra leader laughed and threw my letter in the waste basket.
In my letter to one office I went so far as to stress the fact that I would be of advantage to them on the engagements they played for Long Island society because I had graduated with so many sons of Long Island’s élite that the boys would usually welcome me and ask their mothers to have that same band for future affairs.
The office to which I wrote stressing my acquaintanceship with the sons of Long Island society could never see this, apparently. But in the Summer of 1929 I had the great satisfaction of playing for Mrs. Payson at the Payson-Whitney Estate, Little Neck, Long Island, at which engagement there were many former Yale friends of mine, including John Whitney, who was in the class of ’26 and who at intermission insisted that the guests sit around in a circle while I sang, and then introduced me to everyone. We secured many other engagements through that one.
One leader for whom I have the greatest admiration is Eddie Davis, who has been catering to New York society for years and who plays the violin beautifully. Eddie engaged me on the say-so of one of his saxophonists and liked me so well that I had just about agreed to to throw in my lot with his office and stay with him, and had accepted many engagements, when I received the Heigh-Ho Club offer.
There was one office with which I had the most pleasant relations. That was the Bernie office. This was carried on by one of Ben’s brothers, Herman.
Herman is really a most charming and likeable character, but my first impression of him left me quite disconcerted, as he was bundling into his great-coat just as I entered his office, and in a most discouraging way told me, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, but my bands are all intact!” I was very keenly disappointed. However, I left my scrapbook and the records with the girl, who was very civil to me, and went back a few days later, to receive much the same reply, but with Herman’s promise that he would try to listen to the records. The third time I cornered him at his desk and I impressed him well enough so that I finally got a hearing. He took me over to a rehearsal room where one of the Bernie outfits was rehearsing and called to his brother Dave, who plays the piano. We played a few choruses of some popular tunes and I seemed to suit Herman because he told me to drop in the next day. He gave me nine engagements.
One of these engagements was in Baltimore and Herman went with us personally. On the Pullman, he and I became very friendly. The party was for a young girl whose brother had been in my class at Yale, and they made me feel very much at home; Herman was quite happy that I was in the band.
I look back on my contact with Herman Bernie as one of the most pleasant and refreshing experiences in my early days in New York. It gave me a great deal of pleasure, a year and a half later, to be able to substitute for Ben Bernie himself at an affair at the Commodore, when he was away in Pittsburgh; and Herman came personally to the Lombardy, where I was playing at teas, to ask me if I could do this good turn for Ben.
About this time the Heigh-Ho Club job was offered me and although I was very well set with several of the leading offices and had many engagements ahead, I accepted it. We were to try out on Monday night, January 9, and the Sunday night preceding the tryout I was one of twenty musicians recruited from the Ben Bernie and Whiteman offices to play at the annual Jewish Theatrical Guild dinner at the Commodore, tendered to William Morris, Senior, its president. I played on a tenor saxophone, which I borrowed, as they did not need me on the alto saxophone, the instrument I usually played.
Some saxophone players will refuse an engagement rather than play a different size instrument than the one they are accustomed to; especially do they refuse to play the tenor saxophone as it is not a solo instrument like the alto, but I enjoyed playing the tenor just as much, if not more.
I think the greatest thrill of my life came when just a year from that date I received a long telegram from William Morris, Senior, asking us to be one of the star vaudeville acts as the annual Jewish Theatrical Guild dinner which was being tendered Eddie Cantor, its first vice-president. The orchestra was composed of practically the same men with whom I had played the tenor saxophone the previous year. I will never forget the sensation that came over me as we climbed out onto the stage following the wonderful introduction, to receive a tremendous ovation, when only a year before I had sat among the twenty-piece orchestra and applauded with the rest of the audience for the acts that came out one after another.
The following Monday afternoon I met the boys who had been so hastily recruited for the Heigh-Ho Club job. We gathered in a small room in Times Square. They eyed me somewhat disappointedly as I said to them:
“Let’s get to work!”

Read Chapter 2

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