Fridays with Rudy: Vagabond Dreams Come True, pt. 5

In Chapter Five of Rudy Vallée’s 1930 memoir, Vagabond Dreams Come True, Rudy discusses showmanship and his limited use of it.

He also goes out of his way to poo-poo phonograph records, which he insists few people cared to listen to because there was no visual element to the experience, and predicts that television (kind of cool, no, that he was making predictions about the impact of television in 1930?) will quickly outpace radio for the same reason: visual stimulation.

Chapter V


THE TERM showmanship is generally used with reference to someone in the theatrical or musical world but it is evident in practically every walk of life. The drugstore clerk who juggles the drinks, pouring the liquid from one glass high up to another glass lower down, is really showman. While he is trying to impress you with his cleverness he also makes the drink seem more attractive, or something that you are lucky to get if he juggles it right. Whenever someone tries, by exhibiting much physical activity, to attract attention and to captivate the admiration of others, this is showmanship; this is based on one positive fact: that the eye is about four times more efficient than the ear as a gateway to attention, memory and interest.

You have only to realize that the silent movie has been successful for many years, in fact has paid for the cathedrals that now show talking pictures, to understand the importance of satisfying the eye.
That is the reason so few people enjoy phonograph records; in fact it is really only orchestra and band musicians who are studying the parts and have only ear interest to be satisfied, that can sit and listen with complete attention to phonograph records.
This is one of the reasons that the makers of radio programs have the devil’s own time to keep the interest of their listeners: because there is no band or speaker to see, attention lags if the program becomes at all dull. Unquestionably television will add greatly to the attraction of the radio, because people must see that which is giving them something for the ear. That is why an attractive vocalist, either man or woman, with beauty of face or figure or eccentricity of pose and delivery will be twice as successful as a homely one with twice the vocal or speech-making ability.
Ted Lewis, to my mind, is the greatest showman in the theatrical game. He will tell you himself that from the standards of artistry he is not a great saxophonist or clarinetist, nor does he claim to have a beautiful voice. But he holds me and thousands of others actually spellbound by his inimitable wizardry of presentation. No one could sell his band, his number or himself in quite the same way as this magical fun-maker can. It is hard to say just what feature or features are most responsible for his success; perhaps it is just his joviality, or the pathos of his voice, or the fact that he is always on the move, juggling his hat and cane, and injecting into his act little comedy bits and byplays with the members of his orchestra. He has made a fortune and he can thank one thing, the fact that he was born with more sense of showmanship than a score of average men would have. I can think of dozens of others but none of them so well-known and quite so clearly a good example as the high-hatted tragedian of song.
Sometimes showmanship is used as a cloak to prevent the exposé of a great weakness. Many a trombonist, whose lips cannot produce the tone, makes up for the lack of what should be coming out of the end of the horn in actual music, by grandiose motions of his arm as he moves the slide, thereby earning the title among musicians of “Joe Motion,” meaning that he is only good for motion to conceal the fact that he is really unable to play his instrument. Likewise many another instrumentalist has secured an engagement and become a big hit in the eyes of his public by elaborate, graceful or even awkward motions and contortions that so catch and impress the eye that his weak musical delivery is forgotten. You yourself can probably recall the obvious and concrete example of the beautiful girl with no voice who becomes a tremendous sensation, or at least very popular, in musical comedy, admittedly due to the silent showmanship of the beauty.
I suppose the same trick of delighting the eye is responsible for the great popularity that eccentric dancing, of the type that one sees between the episodes of a musical comedy, is so popular. There is nothing that will bring great applause so completely as a dancer who knows some odd and hard steps. The eye seems to be so impressed with the unusual physical exertion that the hands feel they must applaud loudly.

Personally, although I have always been aware of what showmanship was and the value of it, I have never made and do not make even today much of an attempt to practice it. All my life I have believed in conservation of energy. In fact, near the end of my schooling I seriously thought of becoming an efficiency expert to eliminate waste motion. Nothing, of course, could be so diametrically opposed to showmanship as conservation of energy and motion, because the showman capitalizes waste motion in order to impress his audience.
Notice concert pianists who raise their hands sometimes a foot or two from the keyboard to impress you. Nothing could be more detrimental to their playing, because obviously the fingers should be as close to the keys as possible to secure the best results. Take the violinist who allows his hair to come down in front of his eyes, who twists and turns and bends his knees, or who stands with legs apart and makes a great physical effort to reach a certain note. This is a very common type of showmanship.
When I first began playing I used as little effort as possible, keeping my fingers close to the keys, distorting the face as little as possible and keeping the horn close to the body.
Watch the showman saxophonist who takes his fingers two or three inches from the keys, throws his sax into the air as he blows, puffs his cheeks out, or who plays with one hand while the other hand is waved aloft.
I realized I was not a showman saxophonist as I played my instrument. But I did not care to be. I was striving to master the instrument itself and I bent every effort toward doing so. I continued this attitude during all he first years of my playing, even when I graduated and began leading my own band. Then as I stood before the boys who are with me today and realized that for the first time I had my own band and must put it over, I knew that I was confronted with the showmanship problem. I could have led, as many other saxophone leaders do, with much hopping around, moving of the saxophone and bodily shimmies, but at the risk of failing completely, I continued to play in an attitude of simple dignity.
Heaven knows the saxophone is abused enough by critics and even players, and the public has been led to believe long enough that it is a mongrel contraption with no place in our list of musical instruments. I am glad there are a few of us who have sought to dignify and beautify this gorgeous reed-voice of brass, and I can truthfully say that I have tried to do my share.
In defiance of all traditions of showmanship the quiet dignity of my band and myself has become, instead of a great failure, perhaps the reason that so many people enjoy our work and go home remarking about our appearance. I realized this might be so. I knew that nearly every band leader insisted on bodily movements on the part of all the boys, especially during so-called peppy tunes, and that our quiet attitude was a distinct reaction from all of these and could not fail to impress even the most pep-loving individual in our audience.
So although there are a few who write and implore me to show some personality (meaning to jump around and wave my arms) these letters are outnumbered by those who say that I am a relief from the jumping-jack orchestra conductor.
My megaphone and my closed eyes are believed by the wiseacres in the theatrical profession to be a part of my showmanship. But both were unpremeditated and very logical, as I will show.
My voice is not strong and is essentially adapted to the microphone where no effort is involved. Therefore, in order that it receive some impetus in the theatre, I have found a megaphone to be absolutely essential, especially when we consider that the great cathedrals of today, seating three and sometimes four thousand people, were not built for the natural reception of a soft voice like mine.
One of the main disadvantages of the megaphone is that it detracts from the visual effect by hiding the fact. The complaints I have heard on this score furnish another proof that the eye must see what is going on. This seems absurd when, after all, I am singing, and that singing is performed expressly for the ear. And yet the selfish eye must have its share of the entertainment and demands that it also have a share in everything that is going on. Instead of sitting back, relaxing and listening to the voice alone, which after all is the proper way to enjoy a vocal rendition, so many people feel very unhappy when they cannot see the face from which the sound is issuing.
I am looking forward to the day when I play musical comedy, as all musical comedy in New York is played in small theatres where the slightest whisper is audible to the back row.
I was happy while I was making my picture because the microphones were so arranged that I could sing normally and easily with a note being lost, and yet the selfish eye is not slighted during my part of he picture, but may see all, at the same time the ear is satisfied.
Of course showmanship may be exemplified in other ways. The arrangement of a well-balanced program with every number calculated to please someone in the average mixed audience—this is just as much as act of showmanship as is the presentation of the numbers.
I doubt if my boys can ever realize just the responsibility that has rested on my shoulders in our numerous auditions and tryouts. When I knew that mine it was to make or break the band. They have never realized just how fast I had to think sometimes when we have had fifteen minutes to impress a group of over-bored individuals whose interest would be completely lost by an unwise choice of tunes. I am very happy that we have never failed in any of our auditions.
We are superstitious about our auditions, having begun the first two or three with a tune well calculated to arrest the attention of those listening. This tune is “My Time Is Your Time.” Beginning it with clarinets in the low register brings a soothing sensation that is very agreeable and pleasant to hear.
Again in the presentation of our little comedy numbers, I have bowed to showmanship and have tried to present them in as genuine and spontaneous a way as possible. In fact, rather than present a comedy number artificially, forcing a smile from tired faces, I would omit it and just continue playing music.
Fortunately I have youth to work with, and it has been very rarely indeed that my boys have not felt like entering into the spirit of a number, for which I can be duly thankful.
I have neglected to mention a physical asset of showmanship which is worth a million dollars to the one who has it, and that is, a genuine smile. Many an individual with very little ability either vocally, instrumentally or otherwise, has had a smile which has been greatly responsible for the devotion of a large number of fans. Caricatures of the smiles of Harold Lloyd, Paul Ash, and numerous other persons will testify as to the wonderful drawing power of the smile.
You may object and say that this is personality, not showmanship. But showmanship is nothing more nor less than personality and each is bound up in the other; only that showmanship is possibly just a little-exaggerated personality.
People have often asked me to smile more frequently in my stage presentation work, but they forget that I am usually so tired, with only four or five hours sleep after twenty hours of steady mental and physical effort, that a smile would be unnatural and forced; and I have always preferred to be my natural self when in the spotlight, even at the risk o being termed blasé or tired-looking.
Fortunately, as a general thing, a smile with me comes spontaneously and naturally, and even when most tired I find smiling an easy thing to do.
I think there is nothing worse than an artificial stretching of the lips over the teeth into a forced smile. It is laughable indeed to watch some of the acts as they take their bows on the stage. The minute they are in the wings and lost to the sight of the audience their faces assume their natural expressions, usually serious and tired, and (when the applause is not up to their expectations) very angry. And then you see an almost unbelievable lightning transformation as they set an artificial smile upon their faces, in the flash of a second, to return for another bow.
No, I may be odd, but I prefer to take my bows with a natural expression, regardless of what it is, because I believe in the maxim, “Be Yourself!”

Read Chapter 6

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