- Historic Sites
June 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 4
I was older than the average undergraduate, and because ofthat and the fact that I had to work for my education, I think I got more out of it. I worked for a couple of years [1918-20] after high school as the head usher at the DeLuxe Strand Theatre in Portland, Maine, and it was there that I learned to play the saxophone. Anyone who could play the saxophone with a beautiful tone was regarded with awe, and so when I entered the University of Maine, I was a campus god, more popular than the football captain. My last two years at Yale were made possible by the money I made during the year I dropped out of college to play in an English orchestra at the Savoy Hotel in London, an offer made to me before I entered Yale. To give you a better idea of how much my formal education meant to me, in order to go back to Yale in the fall of 1925 I actually turned down a royal appointment to stay in England and teach the saxophone to His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales [now the Duke of Windsor).
Yale taught me some other valuable lessons, too. At a dance my senior year in the home of one of the professors —a dear friend—I said something rather stupid to him. It was overheard and interpreted as insulting by his son. A few years later the boy went to Harvard. One night, a little drunk, he hurled a large Florida grapefruit at me from the balcony of a Boston theatre. That might not sound like a lethal weapon, but if it had hit my saxophone. … The incident got reams of publicity all over the United States, and on the rest of that tour I’d break up the audience by singing “Oh Give Me Something to Remember You By” with a wastebasket over my head.
Do you want to talk about how hard you ve worked?
I’m still working hard, or at least as hard as the people who make the billings nowadays will let me. For more than twenty years I’ve been building my one-man act, in nightclubs, hotels, and supperclubs. Yet I can’t seem to get the message across that Rudy Vallée can and does hold audiences of all ages in his palm for ninety minutes of song and patter. That’s why all this nostalgia talk annoys me. I’m not a comic. I’m not a humorist. But I have the inherited gift from my dad of telling a story better than most, and I do a really diversified program that combines old and new songs and mucho humor. I still do the old favorites, like the “Maine Stein Song” and “My Time Is Your Time,” which has been my theme song down through the years. But I also do contemporary stuff, including a parody of myself singing “Winchester Cathedral” while holding my nose.
There’s another misconception about me, and that is that I used to sell a lot of records. Sheet music, yes, but not records. My recordings didn’t sell very well in the early days—Victor dropped me from its list in 1931—and my records still don’t sell. In 1963 I recorded a bunch of drinking songs on a long-playing Decca disc and only three copies were sold—two to the Guy Lombardo Fan Club and the other to the Smithsonian Institution. In nightclubs when Tom Jones sings, the girls throw their bras and room keys on the stage. When I perform they throw their support hose and hearing aids!
Do you want to talk about how hard you’ve worked?
Those early years, whether we were based in New York or dashing around the country on one-night stands, were a frenzied blur of activity. Actually it wasn’t hard physical work, but overlong hours from 10:30 in the morning to four the next morning. It was a time of nightmare cat naps anytime and anywhere the opportunity arose, in cabs, on a chair, in the stage wings—a time in which it was easy to be frightened about doing the wrong thing at the right time and vice versa. Often I couldn’t even risk a half-hour nap because of the threat of a type of laryngitis. My throat would tighten up if I tried to sleep. I remember one particularly horrendous period over a year and a half when we were playing the famous Paramount Theater in Brooklyn, five and sometimes six shows a day, seven days a week, from eleven in the morning to eleven at night, at which point we would rush in to New York to the Villa Vallée nightclub [now the Copacabana] and play until 4 A.M. And we still somehow managed the big Thursday “Fleischmann Hour,” our three regular radio broadcasts of dance music from the club, and recording dates, plus Sunday benefits.
Do you think radio was ever as powerful as television is today?
Of course not ! You were getting only one medium … sound. But up to 1925 there had never been anything like radio. It changed everyone’s world a little, and it came along at a crucial time [the Depression], when people desperately needed entertainment of any kind and communication. And, of course, it had no real competition, only the silent-movie theatre. Once the medium caught on, everything seemed to happen all at once. It started with a handful of people with crystal sets and the earphones in a mixing bowl so the whole family could listen. Then, suddenly, there was a loud-speaker in every living room, and there were national networks of stations, with large bare studios and remote hookups. Almost overnight! Incredible! The impact was simply beyond most people’s comprehension.