- Historic Sites
June 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 4
One night in February, 1928, a technician from WABC , a pioneer radio station in New York City, finished adjusting his amplifying equipment in a nightclub at 35 East Fifty-third Street and signalled his readiness to the bandleader. The young man nodded and stepped to the microphone. Eight months out of Tale University, he was a self-taught saxophonist; his singing voice was thin and edged with nasal inflections that suggested his New England upbringing; he had himself never even listened to a radio. Nevertheless, he confidently cleared his throat, took a deep breath, and launched one of the most formidable legends m show business: “Heigh-ho, everybody—this is Rudy Vallée announcing and directing the Yale Collegians. …”
The broadcast was unsponsored and prompted a mere handful of Jan mail. The owner of the Heigh Ho Club, from which Vallée derived his lifelong show-business greeting, was in fact irritated by the intrusion of radio into his establishment. Upset by the type of clientele the broadcasts attracted to his posh nightclub, he soon fired the group, carefully instructing his maître d’ to make sure the musicians did not steal anything on their way out. But Hubert Prior Vallée, born in Island Pond, Vermont, on July 28, 1901, and raised in Westbrook, Maine, the son of a druggist, was not discouraged. He correctly gauged the potential impact of the new medium, and he and his six-man ensemble—renamed the Connecticut Yankees because of complaints from his fellow alumni —continued to explore the airwaves. The response was without precedent. One radio station that offered his photograph to its unseen listeners was swamped with fifty thousand requests the first week. And within ten months the name Rudy Vallée was known in every American family that owned even a crystal set.
The tremendous response to Vallée’s radio shows led to standing-room-only theatre performances and cross-country tours, and these public appearances, which often resembled the mob scene in Ben Hur , brought him to Hollywood in 1929 for the first of some fifty movies. During the 1930’s his NBC network variety program, “The Fleuchmann Hour,” was rated second in popularity to “Amos V Andy.” As America’s first sensationally popular crooner, Vallée became front-page news. His marriages and legal problems as well as his professional achievements were eagerly recorded by the press.
Vallée, who was abruptly discharged during World War i when the Navy discovered that he was only fifteen, spent the latter half of World War n in the Coast Guard, leading a popular band that performed in hospitals and at military bases, as well as at war-bond rallies. The postwar decline m radio and big bands propelled him into the nightclub circuit, with occasional summerstock assignments, to improve his stage presence (“There was something about my movie acting that failed to inspire confidence”). In 1961 he returned to the national limelight as the costar of the hit Broadway musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying .
Today Vallée, his hair trimmed with gray but still youthful m appearance and vitality at the age of seventy, continues as an active performer. When his one-man act is not on the road, he lives with his fourth wife, the former Eleanor Noms, whom he married in /949, in their Hollywood estate, Silver Tip, a magnificent neo-Spamsh colonial home built on a hilltop in 1930 by movie actress Ann Hording. Down a flight of stone steps, next to his bantam-sized, heated swimming pool, is Vallée’s three-story museum-playhouse-wme cellar, in which he fondly displays the memorabilia of his career—everything from a photograph of the old Star Theatre in his Maine hometown, where he was once employed to hand crank silent movies, to the famous megaphones he designed to project his singing, and 258 red-leather-bound volumes of newspaper clippings. There he was interviewed for AMERICAN HERITAGE not long ago.
I guess I haven’t thrown much away, and I enjoy all these mementos and will go on enjoying them. But after I’m gone, I don’t care whether all this stuff is preserved or burned. The fact is I hate all this goddamn talk about nostalgia. I know a lot of people like to sit around and reminisce about how great the so-called golden days were, but to me, that’s a lot of crap. The past is past, that’s all. Some things are different, certainly. For instance, comedy has to be much sharper today, because the public is more hep to what’s going on. And the living habits of people have changed. Nobody wants to drag themselves away from the television set and go out to a nightclub anymore. But the basic need to be entertained by good performers is no different. No audience, then and now, will tolerate bad performers, whether it’s on network television or in a sleazy basement nightclub in Saskatchewan. I know. I’ve played both extremes.
You ’ve been quoted to the effect that you have no one great talent, that your success was largely based on timing and luck. Is this just modesty talking?