Fridays with Rudy: Vagabond Dreams Come True, pt. 8

In Chapter Eight of Rudy Vallée’s 1930 memoir, Vagabond Dreams Come True, Rudy finally takes a break from pontificating about his theories of dance orchestra stewardship and relates tales of the early days of his band of eight in New York City.

Chapter VIII

Success—But Not Over Night

OUR first broadcast from The Heigh-Ho in February, 1928, brought about twelve letters.
WABC was a small station, with radius confined to New York but it was a station of beautiful quality and power and has since become the key station of the gigantic Columbia Broadcasting System.
None of our write-ups has ever given credit where it belonged; even at the risk of injuring feelings I must pay due tribute and express my gratitude to stations WABC and WOR and WMCA which were responsible for the tremendous outburst we received February, 1929, at Keith’s 81st Street Theatre in New York City. When we began at station WABC, our band was only a small speck on New York’s horizon. But the enthusiasm which my surprised eyes read in those first letters affected me like magic. Still, the full realization of our powers did not dawn on me until about a month of broadcasting had elapsed.
Station WABC had a schedule that was far from full and they needed us to fill three or four gaps a week, sometimes for half an hour, sometimes an hour. At first we had a definite schedule, then it would vary and at any moment during the evening we might expect a call from the studio to jump into the breach when some artist had failed to appear.
To make my programs more co-ordinated, like a well-oiled machine, I realized that each man must know exactly what was going to happen. Here, more than ever, we were handicapped because obviously the directions could not be spoken and since I was playing the saxophone I was not free to indicate the routine by pantomime. So I conceived the idea of giving each man a typewritten program of the numbers.
Since we were on the air as often as four or five times a week I realized too that every program must be different from the others, as much as possible, with repeats only when the number was very popular and frequently requested. I secured a hectograph, or duplicating machine, and a typewriter, and in my own home-made fashion, with two fingers, typed out the programs, staying in to do so while the boys went out to eat between dinner and supper sessions.
Sometimes I spend as much as one hour just deciding which would be the best tunes to play, typing out the program and duplicating seven or eight copies of it. But I found that my efforts were well reward by a much smoother program.
The boys often wondered why I was so exacting and apparently unreasonable in my demands that every program be well-nigh perfect. If a mistake was unavoidable, I said nothing, but if the offender was day-dreaming, stupid, or heedless, the resulting error was brought to his attention immediately after the broadcast, and if it was really noticeable he would probably hear about it the rest of the evening.
But today I think the boys appreciate what my high ideals have brought us. I read the fan mail; they did not, although I invited them to do so.
I began to see what was happening.
One of my boys suggested that we were on the air too many times a week, but he did not see my theory which was this: I believed that by being on the air as often as four or five times a week, which is unusual in radio circles, eventually nearly every radio fan would stumble across us when moving the dials, and that our odd quality of tone and style would hold their attention, and that by having each program completely varied and different, carefully chosen and rendered, we would not become monotonous if one listened in every time we were on. Our terrific success has shown my conclusions to be completely justified. Our fan mail increased daily and my letters, which nearly all complimented us in superlative terms, bore witness to the fact there was something in the nature of our music that was different and that held the attention.
The speck on the horizon had begun to loom larger.

I had brought back from England several old tunes that no one else had. Among them was an unusual little song called “Georgie Porgie” that somehow seemed ideally suited to me, so much so that our fans called me “the Georgie Porgie boy” and letters poured in requesting it.
We created such a demand for this tune in New York that a big American publisher who held the American rights to it was forced to publish it here. But it never amounted to anything in the hands of other orchestra leaders, since it was a number that required a certain treatment, which they failed to give it.
This and several other tunes we alone played caused a great many people to tune in and tell others to do likewise, since these tunes were played by no other orchestra.
Thus we continued until Spring, 1928, building our reputation day by day, and receiving a tremendous increase in fan mail.
We had another outlet, of which I have spoken before, namely the Herbert Jewelry program over station WMCA, another small station which called us from our beds at noon on Sundays to broadcast at two o’clock from the Hotel McAlpin. Although this was a small station, it was the only one that dared to broadcast dance music on Sunday afternoons.
We performed on three Sundays for three programs and then lost the account. Mr. Herbert felt the amount he was paying us was too great (although today we receive over twenty times that amount for half the time) and went back to the orchestra he has been using before he gave us our chance. My boys were dismayed, and after listening to the wonderful orchestra he was using, gave up hope entirely.
Feeling that we had something that no other band possessed, I pleaded with them to work very hard with me at the Heigh-Ho Club. I asked Mr. Herbert to tune in on the club and hear us. And in about a month’s time I was very pleased to receive a letter from him, saying he wanted our band and would pay our price. So we renewed our Sunday afternoon broadcasts.
As I recall the first Herbert program, I chuckle as I think of our novel and original idea for opening the hour. I intended to electrify our listeners-in and in this succeeded, perhaps too well. That first Sunday when Mr. Herbert tuned in on the new band he had engaged, he heard twelve strokes of a clock, two shots and a police whistle. Then two of us impersonated a sergeant and an Irish cop; the idea was supposed to be an attempted burglary of the Herbert Jewelry store, with the sergeant boosting Mr. Herbert’s collection of blue white diamonds and saying that they were so tempting he did not blame anyone for attempting to break in.
The police, however, felt that the thing was too realistic and called up Mr. Herbert, requesting him to have no more such mention of the attractiveness of his alluring diamonds.
Nevertheless we had achieved an unusual result!
As at the Heigh-Ho Club, each boy had a typed program. Again I was fortunate in being allowed to announce my own numbers. I asked for and procured this privilege, due to the complicated nature of our programs; to me, the musical sequence was destroyed by necessary pauses during which a cold and matter-of-fact advertising announcement was made without music. Both Mr. Herbert and WMCA, which operated, granted me this privilege and I became both announcer and musical director. Norman Pierce, the very famous and gifted announcer, was courteous enough to make way for my amateurish efforts, for which I can always thank him. I gained much from my observation of his and other announcers’ methods when I had an opportunity to listen to them.
The Sunday afternoon program reached Philadelphia and also had a host of followers in New York territory; thus it was that we were reaching two tremendous audiences.
Late Spring, 1928, found our fame grown noticeably, but it remained at this stage and grew no larger over the summer as we did not broadcast from the Casino at Rye, New York. It did not, however, grow smaller, as I found that our admirers were very, very loyal and sincere.
Perhaps the most touching tributes I have ever received in our radio work were the many letters that bade us goodbye and wished us well as we went in June to the Casino at Rye to play for the Summer.
In the fall, Mr. Dickerman decided to shift our broadcast from the Heigh-Ho Club to station WOR, which was one of America’s great radio stations. I felt this was our great chance and more than ever did I insist upon the perfection of our programs. WOR had a tremendous area and was especially popular in New Jersey. We made new friends and my letters showed that all of our old ones were as loyal as ever. I was fortunate in having two or three odd, unusual and unpublished songs, such as “Deep Night,” “The Vagabond Lover,” and “Sweetheart of All My Dreams,” that no one else played.
We renewed our broadcast for Herbert and were on the air sometimes as often as seven or eight times a week. By November the situation was quite acute.
We were making a cheap record which I mentioned in our broadcasts and the sales of which were tremendous, indicating that we had a large following. No one was more aware of this following than I, since the increasing fan mail told me the story. The remarkable part of it was that each individual was unaware of the fact that there were thousands of others who were also enthusiastic about our work. Rather was A absolutely unaware of the fact that B, who was probably his neighbor, was just as great a fan as he of this little group of eight men whose music appealed to him. Each felt that he was unique in his admiration. And this, to me, was quite humorous, though nevertheless, very pleasant to read.
I hope I have now shown that we were not an overnight sensation, but that our popularity was the result of a steady hammering through the microphone, comparable to the steady attack made by Grant at Richmond. And now our radio career has reached a new peak with our wonderful contract to play for the Fleischmann Yeast Company one hour a week for fifty-two weeks at several thousand dollars per hour.
What was over night and instantaneous was the demonstration at the 81st Street Theatre, where for the first time each individual fan became actually aware of the fac that his neighbor was just as great a fan of ours. People who flocked into the lobby of the theatre believing they would probably be the only ones vitally interested, were surprised to find hundreds just like themselves.
Our subsequent vaudeville appearances only went to show that everywhere in the New York territory we had built up, through our radio programs, an army of admirers who were as loyal as the partisans of a baseball team!

Read Chapter 9

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2 thoughts on “Fridays with Rudy: Vagabond Dreams Come True, pt. 8

  1. I love hearing the old songs done in the style of the day they were written by the singers of the day such as “My Silent Love” by Gertrude Niesen.

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