Fridays with Rudy: Vagabond Dreams Come True, pt. 6

In Chapter Six of Rudy Vallée’s 1930 memoir, Vagabond Dreams Come True, Rudy continues his tutelage on organizing and leading a dance orchestra in the 1930s (we can’t help but wonder how many of Rudy’s “lessons” would still apply today).

Rudy discusses the role showmanship, and especially clowning, plays in a successful orchestra’s performance. And it’s interesting to note from Rudy’s remarks that, even in 1930, most fans attending a live show by their favorite performers made it a practice to request the orchestra’s most popular hits. We wonder if they held up cigarette lighters when requesting an encore at show’s end?

P.S. If you read till the end, you’ll find a streaming recording of one of the songs Rudy discusses in this chapter, “You’ll Do It Someday, So Why Not Now?” (He cleans up the title a little in the book, calling it “You’ll Love Me Someday, So Why Not Now?”, but he’s not fooling us.)

Chapter VI

PAGING MR. BARNUM

Closely indentified with showmanship, in fact practically part of showmanship (and vice versa) is what the professional terms “hokum”; that is, something to amuse, to attract the eye and to tickle the sense of humor. Very few dance orchestras really use hokum at all, or at least to any extent, and most of those that do use it put it in either between dances or at intermission.

A few, however, were wise enough to realize that as the couples dance around there is very little to occupy their minds unless they are engaged in conversation. Usually I find that the fellow and girl do not converse as they dance; rather does the eye seek something to engage its attention. Of course one may watch the other couples, or those on the side-lines, or the orchestra.
I firmly believe that the dance orchestra will never be replaced by any form of mechanical music, regardless of how lifelike the mechanical orchestra may be; and the reason is not hard to find. The dancers want to watch the music being made and in turn enjoy being watched by the producers of the music. Put several couples in a room with a large orthophonic phonograph and see how quickly they become tired of dancing. Unless it is absolutely impossible to secure a dance orchestra composed of human beings, a crowd will not be content to dance to mechanical forms of music.
That is where hokum comes in. The band that can put on little skits and comedy numbers with props and apparatus while the crowd is dancing has a tremendous edge on dance orchestras that simply produce beautiful, rhythmic music. Such an orchestra may rightly be termed an entertaining orchestra because they engage the eye while they entice the feet to dance and soothe the mind with music.
After the success of our first comedy number I saw that we had the ingredients for a “hokum” band as well as a “sweet” band, and proceed to develop this side of our work.
My little violinist, De Vorzon, is a sort of buffoon. He has a personality that bubbles over and expresses itself in a dozen and one crazy antics and ideas, and as we play up to each other in our comedy numbers he reacts upon me and makes me quite a different individual for the moment.
Then my drummer, Toland, with his extreme size and happy-go-lucky personality, and Miller, my tenor sax, who has a mania for making almost as faces as Lon Chaney, have help make many a comedy number extremely laughable.
The germ of the idea is often mine and the subsequent outline I usually develop, but it is the little extemporaneous bits that the boys themselves think of, that top off or complete the comedy sketches which we present even while the crowd is dancing.
Our first comedy number was a tune which I had been playing for several years. It was an old college tune which had only been played by two bands, our own and the orchestra directed by the boy who wrote the tune. Years before I heard it with each word and or line capable of illustration in pantomime in songs at dances.
The first tune which gave me this idea was a number from one of the early editions of the “Scandals” called “The Gold Diggers.” In this number the word “dig” was illustrated by pantomime digging; the word “swim” by the movement of swimming; “Fifth Avenue” by five fingers of the hand held upright, etc.
Gestures done by one man alone are hardly noticed, but when done by the front line of the band in perfect unison they hold the audience quite spellbound, and it was nothing unusual for the crowd to stop dancing and gather around us during the course of such a chorus.

“Show Me The Way To Go Home” was the next number that suggested itself to me as good material. The business of being tired and wanting to go to bed could be illustrated by drooping the head and closing the eyes; “I had a little drink about an hour ago,” by a mock quaffing of a cup or stein of beer and by looking at a watch; the line “Where ever I may roam,” by shading the eyes with the hand and looking into the distance; “O’er land or sea or foam,” by suggesting the waves of the ocean with one hand; “You’ll always hear me singing this song,” cupping the ear in an attitude of listening.ca
Both of these numbers, however, were just a little too moss-covered to be used by our Heigh-Ho Club band, so I dug up this old, but new, college song, “You’ll Love Me Some Day, So Why Not Now?”
On the line, “Think what you’re missing” we all assumed an attitude of thought. On “It’s a shame” we made a gesture of embarrassment and mortification. We illustrated “You Miss the Kissing” by blowing a kiss into the air. “In open spaces” we illustrated by the Indian gesture of shading the eyes from the sun. “Where men are men” we illustrated by bending the arm in a way to show the muscle. “A chicken never waits till she’s a hen” was illustrated by bringing the hand up, indicating growth, to different heights from the floor. On the word “vow” we raised our right hands in an attitude of taking a vow.
However listless our crowd may be, when we begin a number like this the faces brighten and turn toward the bandstand to watch the gestures we make as we sing the tune. But it remained for one of the greatest public dance hall orchestra leaders in the country to give me the idea to use props. (We now carry with us two hundred odd dollars worth of props in order to put over some of our best comedy numbers.) This band, which tours the New England states playing public dance halls, puts on practically a whole vaudeville show during the course of their numbers. They carry a special entertainer who sings and does practically whatever comes into his very clever head as he stands in front of the band. Meanwhile the band utilizes its props, among which are two big stuffed dummies which almost look like life-sized flappers. Two of the boys dance with these and do a comedy number built around “Oh How We Love The College Girls!” They also have a great assortment of props, for a wonderful chorus on “Crazy Words, Crazy Tune,” and many other numbers.
When I heard them go through some of their comedy numbers I realized the tremendous possibilities of such a thing, even in the most élite and fashionable night or supper clubs. Human nature is the same the world over; we all enjoy entertainment for the eye, even of the crazy and meaningless sort.
I have always made acknowledgement to Mal Hallett for having given me the idea of purchasing and using expensive props to put over a simple number. I paid five dollars to have a large wooden key made to use in our “Outside” number. The ripple of laughter which goes over either our theatre or supper club audiences when the key is first produced is worth many times its cost. We have expensive silk toppers and opera hats for various numbers; in fact I have a very clever artist who stands ready at all times to make up any sort of a hat, either in paper or cloth, when I might need it for some number.
Waring’s Pennsylvanians stand out in my mind as the greatest stage entertaining band in the world. Their neat, faultless attired combined with their immaculate appearance and youth, the West-Point-like precision of everything they do in action, combined with the beauty, rhythm and tone of their music puts them on a plane all by themselves. Anyone who has every seen their wonderful “Dancing Dominoes,” or “Dancing Tambourine,” or Wobally Walk” numbers (especially the first two), will never forget the wonderful effects they secure with the lighted dominoes and lighted tambourines in the dark. They are almost unbelievably excellent and their work is the result of a brilliant conception and patient practice. I believe that Fred Waring deserves every bit of the tremendous popularity he has achieved.
Much as I would have liked to produce entertainment of this sort in a supper club, I realized that I did not have enough men to really create such a wonderful picture, but I did develop fully the possibilities suggested to me by Mal Hallett and his band.
We carry five flash boxes, little metal boxes into which we put flash powder which is exploded by electric contact controlled by a switch far away. We use this for many comic effects—when the devil is coming up through the floor, or some fellow puts on a ridiculous hat, or, in the case of our Naval Medley, when one of the sailors spits out some supposedly bad liquor which is so strong it ignites when it touches the floor. I believe our Naval Melody is one of the best things we do. It is done with everyone wearing sailors’ hats, and we have a storm at sea, with lightning effects, the howl of the gale, a fog horn in the harbor, and of course, a comic passenger who answers the captain’s command to go to the life boats by appearing wearing a bathrobe and holding a hot water bottle in his hand. In this Naval Medley we play many would-be naval songs and some genuine naval chanteys that I learned while in the Navy, ending with the Naval Academy song, “Anchors A-Weigh.”
In direct contrast to that, and to appease those who prefer the Army, we have our Army Medley in which we all wear steel helmets, and in place of the storm at sea we have an airplane attack. A blue light comes down from above and two of the boys search for the airplane while I imitate the noise of its motor on my saxophone, by sustaining a low note. We have pistol-shots, and our flash box explodes as would bombs when thrown to earth from an airplane. In this medley we play many of the songs that were popular during the war such as “Over There,” “Madelon,” “Pack Up Your Troubles,” “Oh, How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning,” “Oh, How I Miss You Dear Old Pal,” “Long, Long Trail,” “Tipperary,” “Hinky, Dinky Parley Voo,” and “My Buddy.” I end up by playing “Taps,” with a muted saxophone, sounding like a bugle in the distance, while the lights of the entire club gradually die down leaving only one blue light from above striking my steel helmet.
This always leaves the entire audience very subdued and quiet for the next two or three seconds. Of course as we play these different songs, especially on the brightest of nights, the week-end nights, Friday and Saturday, nearly everyone either hums, sings or whistles these tunes, which will never die in popular fancy. They are especially dear to the hearts of those who knew them during the dark days of 1914 to 1918.
We are particularly fortunate at the Villa Vallée in having a switchboard even larger and more elaborate than that of many of the best theatres. All in all, the Villa has something like two thousand lights on the stage and in the spacious part where the guests dance and dine. Our switchboard operator gives a different lighting effect for every number. A moonlight number and you have the feeling of a country lane in the moonlight. In the case of a warm passionate number, red is the predominating color, and so on.
Of course, our Army and Navy Medleys would not be half so striking if we were lacking in these wonderful lighting effects. But one of my greatest feelings of pleasure and happiness came at a country club where our lighting effects were very meagre, when Elsie Janis, who, of course, is so dear to all those who knew her overseas, stopped and applauded our airplane attack in the War Medley.
We have many other comedy skits; one in which I play the clarinet and alto saxophone, together, while in another, one of the violinists plays with his bow touching the four strings simultaneously. Then we have numbers in which we wear cat hats, devil hats, Scotch hats, and Hawaiian costumes.
If we did all our medleys and comedy numbers together, I have estimated that we could give almost a non-stop two hour show. Some of the numbers we rarely do. One of them we still receive requests for, and that is Cole Porter’s immortal “Let’s Do It,” in which I had five complete choruses to memorize, each one dealing with different nationalities, different insects, different birds, different forms of fish, and different animals. I know that anyone who has ever seen us do “Let’s Do It” has never forgotten it; when I had the extreme pleasure of presenting it before Cole Porter himself, he promptly wrote out some new lyrics for me.
I have noticed that there are nights when to do our comedy numbers seems almost impossible, night when the entire band seems a little out of sorts. However, I have found too, that it is absolutely essential that I be in the mood to do it, or the numbers invariably fall flat. There is very little doubt in my mind but that enthusiasm is very contagious and that when I am dispirited or unable to enter into the numbers with a zest the boys themselves find it difficult to be lively. I am fortunate in being blessed with good health and a super-abundance of vitality, and we have never let an evening pass without doing at least two or three, or even more, comedy numbers, depending upon the requests (which sometimes are entirely for songs or sweet numbers).
I smile when I recall my career as a magician at the Heigh-Ho Club. There was a tune called “Persian Rug,” which suggested the kind of thing a magician would have the orchestra play in a vaudeville theatre while he did his magic tricks. I gave the boys a great surprise one night when I produced handkerchiefs that changed color, and an egg that disappeared into a small red bag. I performed these things while they played “Persian Rug,” and the crowd danced around to watch the tricks. I have often wished I had more time to learn many sleight-of-hand tricks so that I might present them against that beautiful melody of “Persian Rug.”
At the Villa Valleacute;e it seems that those who come to see us want to hear the numbers they have heard on the air, and I can always tell when it is a radio fan asking for a number by the way he asks and the tune he asks for. As I do not want to disappoint anyone who has come to hear something that delighted them over the radio at home, I usually tabulate these requests so that I will be sure to play them before the people who asked me for them leave.
Nothing makes me happier than to have guests ask for tunes which I know they must have heard on the air. I know that the majority of our patrons are radio fans and some have come for miles and even hundreds of miles to see the band that was so pleasant when heard, and I know that they are pleasantly surprised when they found that this same band is just as entertaining to the eye as to the ear.

Rudy Vallée and His Yale Collegians — “You’ll Do It Someday”

Read Chapter 7

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