Fridays with Rudy: Vagabond Dreams Come True, pt. 4

In Chapter Four of Rudy Vallée’s 1930 memoir, Vagabond Dreams Come True, Rudy offers more insights on the trials and tribulations of being a dance orchestra leader.

He discusses the impact that the then-new practice of “cutting in” had on the culture of dancing and shares a few thoughts about how an orchestra director can bring some “pep” to the program (here’s a hint: Tempo ain’t, in Vallée’s considered opinion, the answer.)

Chapter IV


TO BELIEVE in the myth of one hundred per cent satisfaction in entertainment is the quickest way to insanity. Nothing has ever turned out perfectly right, and in the field of dance music and stage work, to expect that it is possible to please everybody is a pipe dream. There will always be those extremists on either side of the great majority who can make life very tragic for the one who listens too closely to them.
I pay very little attention to those who with a sweeping gesture of dogmatic finality condemn our efforts as being terrible, or to the type that gushes always in superlatives and makes everything “just gorgeous,” “too wonderful,” or “too perfect.” Very rarely does anything merit these statements, for everything has some redeeming features as well as some bad ones.
Rather do I watch the vast majority, and when I see clearly indicated either by their applause or their silence, what they like or dislike, then do I change and not until then.
I have found from past experiment that my taste is pretty much average taste. By that I mean I have heard tunes and have picked them as being prospective hits, and the subsequent success of my choices has shown me that what I like I may safely predict will be enjoyed by this majority. If I were to listen to every suggestion—and it seems that everyone is only too anxious to offer them, especially in the matter of what to wear and what to play—I would have committed suicide long before this. Bearing in mind the universal truth that after all pretty nearly everything is a matter of taste, individual taste at that, scattered individual opinions should not make one unhappy. They roll off me like water off a duck’s back.
One management was the most conscientious I ever played for and placed such a close ear to earth, in the attempt to satisfy every patron who entered our supper club, that I was in perfect misery. It did not matter to them that in their attempt to secure the patronage of what they would term the aristocrat (although Heaven knows just what that species is!) they had antagonized a great many very fine people by making their establishment accessible only to the crowd they were catering to. But to those within our doors they certainly did attempt to give everything that their pennies had paid for.
They and I could never agree on certain various points, among them the length of the dance.
I go on the assumption that the crowd dancing on the floor is composed of happy couples. It is pretty safe to assume that in the majority of cases the man and girl dancing together came to the club together (except for certain parties where there is a courteous exchange of partners, so that every woman has danced with every man). But even that custom is losing out to the custom called “cutting in,” which has several advantages over any other form of interchange.
At the smartest country club and society affairs the cutting-in dance is the accepted mode. One of its disagreeable features is the fact that there are always plenty of those cheap stags who, rather than entertain a girl themselves, delight in coming and “cutting in” on every attractive woman they see, whether they have met her or not, thus having a good time as the expense of the other fellow.
Of course, at a more formal affair where the stags must be introduced before they cut in, it is not so bad. Although, if a dance couple is approached by a man, fairly sober and respectable in appearance, he is usually permitted to “cut in” by the couple that is dancing because each assumes that the other knows him. In any case, rather than cause a scene, the smart thing to do is to permit him to have his way. When young college men are home on vacation and are entertained by society, it is often announced that everyone may assume that all introductions have been taken care of and that everyone is free to cut in.
But to get back to our supper club.

A long continuous dance is perfect where the majority is “cutting in.” But even where there are no stags, but only evenly matched couples or parties of four or six people who exchange partners for one dance, I go under the assumption that the man is dancing with the girl he likes, and enjoys dancing with her, and that the feeling is reciprocal.
For that reason I assume, if I may judge from my own dancing experience, that the dance is a pleasure every minute, a fleeting moment of bliss that ends all too soon. The couples that do not enjoy dancing are, I believe, a negligible minority, and to sacrifice the length or type of dance for a small minority is to spoil the pleasure of those who are thoroughly enjoying themselves. There have been people selfish enough to ask me to prolong or shorten a dance just to please them, and depending on the time and place and physical condition of the band, I have tried to accede to their wishes. When, however, I am approached by a person who wishes to have the dance made shorter, due to the fact that he is not happy dancing with his present partner, I am very reluctant to acquiesce.
One manager tried to tell me that it is embarrassing for a man who is tired of dancing to suggest sitting down to the woman he was dancing with, or vice versa. I took issue with him on this point because I believe that there is very little false modesty in these situations.
I have generally found that the woman is the first to suggest sitting down; it is her privilege because, after all, a woman’s likes and dislikes are always to be considered first, and no man is going to be offended when a lady suggests, as she fans herself or breathes a little sigh of fatigue, that she would like to sit down. Neither should the woman feel hurt if the man remarks that he is tired, even though the dance may have just begun; although in the latter case, I really believe that the man should be somewhat of a martyr and continue, in spite of his fatigue, until he feels that she has had a reasonable share of dancing.
It has been suggested that a safe rule is to make the dances very short, with very short intermissions. But this rule cannot be followed too closely because often a man who takes a keen delight in dancing will have a partner who cares very little about it. She will seize the opportunity of the first intermission to get back to her seat, leaving the man quite vexed at the brevity of his dance with her. And so, while pleasing her, you antagonize him. And, after all, there is no reason why, at certain times, the woman should not also be somewhat of a martyr and give the man some pleasure, even though it costs her an effort.
When the length of the dance is increased, and there are fewer intermissions, a man of this type will be well satisfied at the end, and although the woman may be a little tired she will have given her partner much pleasure and happiness.
Of course with the young folks, the dance for them is always too short; they could dance forever, and if the music is good, they are always reluctant to return to their seats.
A wise orchestra leader studies his crowd, and finding that it is either a young crowd or a middle-aged crowd dancing, watches the length of his dances and punctuates them accordingly.
When to end the affair, if it is a society dance, is always quite a problem to the host. If he is a wise host, he will leave it to the discretion of the orchestra leader, providing that the orchestra leader impresses him as having good judgment.
For every hour of dancing over the agreed hour of termination the orchestra receives a very high recompense, due to union regulations. That is when the orchestra leader makes his real profit, and so it is naturally to his advantage to have the affair go over the scheduled time. But it is a foolish orchestra leader indeed who counsels a longer dance when his wisdom and foresight for future parties tells him that the party should end as per schedule.
This may require a little psychological explanation. Our fondest memories are of the things that were all too short and our greatest desire is for the unattainable. We never forget that which ends at its moment of greatest excitement or pleasure. And the dance that ends in the wee hours of the morning, with everyone happy and gay and wanting more, is the dance that is never forgotten; and the host or hostess of such a dance will always be credited with an affair that was a huge success. But the dance that is allowed to straggle on for a few unusually enthusiastic, and possibly “tight” individuals, until it dies a natural death, is the dance that is forgotten quickly. The dawn finds a few couples struggling along with tired and wan faces, and it requires a good hypocrite to say at the door, “Oh, Mrs. So-and-so, it was delightful!” or, “This is the best dance of the year!”
Of course, sometimes, an extra hour when it is really begged for by the majority, and especially when the majority is composed of young folks, may be absolutely essential to the success of the party. But it is a smart host, or hostess, who realizes that a party which ends in white heat will never be forgotten.
One of my most unhappy engagements was at a big country club where the manager, when sober, insisted that make the dances very short and cater to the elderly people, even though the younger folk outnumbered them four to one and due to the “cutting in,” wanted long dances. This selfsame manager would get very tight, “cut in” on some young attractive girl, and then give me orders never to stop!
The head of the household engages his cooks as cooks and leaves them to take care of the kitchen. Except for specifying the delicacies that will delight his taste, he does not tell the cook how to prepare them. Probably if he did, the cook would leave. It is just as exasperating for the manager or president of a club or gathering to tell the orchestra how to play, and there is nothing worse than playing for meddlesome persons.
I delight in playing the pieces that people ask me to play, and I dislike accepting anything for so doing. After all we are there to entertain the guests and very often suggestions from the crowd save me a lot of worry and wonder as to what they might like to hear.
However, there is a type of person whose requests can spoil things for almost everyone else; that is the person who asks for his particular, favorite tune, not twice during the course of the evening, but five and sometimes six or seven times. When it is the daughter of the host, I don’t mind, especially if the party is being given in her honor. But the remarkable thing is that usually the young person for whom the party is being given does not come near me all evening! It is generally someone who probably came to the party without even an invitation who takes it upon himself, or herself, to tell the orchestra just what it shall play and how many times to play it!
Of course, the orchestra leader is very much akin to a clerk or even the manager of a department store, whose slogan is, “The customer is always right.” It has been very difficult for me at times, to control my temper when an unreasonable person has done or said disagreeable and unreasonable things.
For instance, the slow type of dreamy music we play has come to be popular with many of the young folks, who have no trouble dancing to it, and is a fad even among the middle-aged. But the elderly type of person seems to have no success with this tempo. If they only knew that they dance to it easily, by continuing to dance as they would to a regular fox trot, they would have no trouble. But because we are playing slowly, they believe they too must dance strictly in accord with the obvious tempo, and barely move. Watching the younger crowd should make them realize that some of the young folks are dancing even faster to this type of music than to ordinary fox trot music.
It is not unusual for elderly people to come to me and very bitterly denounce the type of dance music we are playing, forgetting that when I play a waltz for them, I usually antagonize a lot of the younger folk. The latter, as a rule, do not care about waltzes and would rather just dance fox trots.
At the college fraternity dances at most of the smart Eastern colleges, the waltz is practically taboo, which is a tragic trend to me because I love waltzes, they are one of my best mediums of expression.
Then there are those who want only “hot” music; if everything is not jazzed up or pepped up, it’s dull and boring. These are usually the young folks who have had a few drinks. And then, conversely, there are those who like the sweet, dreamy music.
Either extreme is boring and monotonous. The clever orchestra leader is he who makes his program up of a few sweet soft tunes, with occasional vocal choruses among the instrumental, followed by a wild peppy tune, played ever so softly, because pep is not volume and loud raucous notes have never delighted the ear of anyone.
I have played a certain note barbaric in quality on my saxophone very softly, and have watched its effect upon a crowd, the livening up of young legs and feet.
I once knew of a dance hall where the clarinet was forbidden, due to the fact that it seemed to have a degenerating effect upon the dancing of a certain of young person who went there, especially when it was played in Oriental fashion against tom-tom beats.
So I am firmly convinced that it is not the volume that makes for pep but rather the type of music and the style of the rendition, and I have come to believe that a happy medium in length of dance, selection of tunes, volume and tempo will lead to success as a dance orchestra director. All these things are decided by the director himself, and he is especially responsible fo the tempo at which the band plays. One of Paul Whiteman’s attributes is his marvelous tempo, which his men follow by watching very closely the movements of his knee.
I no longer worry about the loose odds and ends, and the extremists, who would give me gray hair if I listen to them.
You can’t please everybody!

Read Chapter 5

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