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Vallee, Rudy (1901-1986)

Vallee, Rudy (1901-1986)

One of the most popular American singers in the 1920s and 1930s, Rudy Vallee became a sought-after supporting actor in Hollywood films, an important pioneer in radio variety shows, and much later a musical comedy star on Broadway.

Born Hubert Prior Vallée in Island Pond, Vermont, he was a self-taught drummer in his high school band. In 1919 he began a self-study of the clarinet and saxophone, frequently spending six to eight hours a day practicing, and within a year was performing publicly at the Strand Theater in Portland, Maine. After a year at the University of Maine, he transferred to Yale in the fall of 1922, where he earned tuition by playing his sax at country clubs and college dances. While playing with the Yale Collegians he began using a hand-held mega-phone to amplify his crooning, light-tone voice. The megaphone—similar to the ones used by cheerleaders—became his trademark and was soon copied by other vocalists.

In 1924 Vallee dropped out of Yale and went to London, where he played sax at the Savoy Hotel with Vincent Lopez and the Savoy Havana Band. Returning to Yale, he continued his studies and graduated with a Bachelor of Philosophy degree in 1925. Moving to New York City, Rudy formed a small band called The Connecticut Yankees, consisting of two violins, two saxophones, and a piano. The primary purpose of the orchestra was to accompany their leader's suave, but somewhat nasal vocals. An engagement at the Heigh-Ho Club in Manhattan in 1928 brought Vallee his first real fame. He was soon broadcasting on radio as many as 25 times a week, beginning each one with "Heigh-ho everyone, this is Rudy Vallee." His sudden success brought him engagements at New York's Paramount and Palace Theaters.

Rudy and the Connecticut Yankees went to Hollywood to film Vagabond Lover in 1929, returning immediately to New York for more radio work and regular appearances at Villa Vallee, a nightclub Rudy owned. He soon evolved a busy routine, starting with daily shows at the Paramount and other theaters, then nightly shows at the Villa Vallee, and three broadcasts, along with recording sessions and filming musical short subjects.

In 1929 Rudy also began broadcasting a weekly one-hour variety show on NBC radio. Stars such as Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Edgar Bergen, and Kate Smith made their debuts on Vallee's Fleischmann Hour and later became radio stars themselves. Other outstanding guests included George Gershwin, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Eddie Cantor, Red Skelton, and Fannie Brice. Vallee also invited black performers, rarely used on network shows, to appear, including Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Maxine Sullivan, and Fats Waller. At its peak, the show featured America's top stars. On December 13, 1934, for example, Vallee broadcast from the Radio City Music Hall, featuring announcer Jimmy Wallington, guests Henry Fonda and June Walker playing a scene from The Farmer Takes a Wife, and interviews with Cole Porter, Buck and Bubbles, William S. Hart, and Bea Lillie.

After ten years, Vallee ended his popular radio show. In 1942, he played the bumbling millionaire in one of director Preston Sturges' best films, Palm Beach Story, starring Claudette Colbert. When World War II began, Vallee joined the U.S. Coast Guard Service and led a forty-piece band on an extensive tour. He then returned to radio in 1944, broadcasting for two years with co-star Monty Woolley. Hollywood beckoned in 1947, and Vallee played light comedy and character roles in such films as Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, with Cary Grant and Myrna Loy; I Remember Mama, with Irene Dunne; Unforgettably Yours, with Rex Harrison; and The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend, with Betty Grable. From 1961-64, he played in the Broadway musical, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and his final film was the Hollywood version of that show in 1967.

—Benjamin Griffith

Further Reading:

Lackmann, Ron. Same Time … Same Station: A-Z Guide to Radio from Jack Benny to Howard Stern. New York, Facts on File, 1996.

Ragan, David. Who's Who in Hollywood, 1900-1976. New Rochelle, Arlington, 1976.

Quinlan, David. The Illustrated Directory of Film Stars. New York, Hippocrene, 1982.

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