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Rudy Vallee and the Raccoon Coat

Radio was getting into the "big time" with the invention of the speaker (instead of earphones). Every home in America with electricity, which was then almost fifty per cent of households, had at least a table model. If you could afford it, your living room sported its most important piece of furniture — a self-contained, four-foot tall, radio console with an electric Victrola on top for playing 78 rpm records through the same speaker.

You think you’ve seen couch potatoes flicking the channels on TV? That’s nothing! The popularity of radio revolutionized the entertainment business. It drove vaudeville out of existence until television, in its early days, reintroduced its own version via The Ed Sullivan Show. Even the new phenomena of "talking" pictures had trouble competing with radio. To compete with favorite radio shows, movie houses gave away prizes, using the number on your ticket stub as an entry for everything from sets of dishes, to a chance on an automobile. Still, most families remained huddled around the radio listening to their favorite shows, and for free!

image97.jpg (42357 bytes)I was six years old in 1929. That fall, stock market crash or no, grandpa presented me with a custom-made raccoon coat. Such coats were really in vogue, worn by all the young men at the Eastern universities and other colleges across the country.

The apartment above us was a penthouse, taking up the entire roof, and terraced on four sides. It was rented by Rudy Vallee, an up-and-coming young singer and band leader who had his own radio show for fifteen minutes Monday through Friday at six in the evening. This young fellow had made a name for himself with the Eastern college crowd when he was still attending Yale by fronting his orchestra and singing through a megaphone, which is like a bullhorn without the electricity. In those days, dance bands playing halls didn’t have microphones, so a megaphone was a must. It became his trademark in show business, along with his theme song, "My Time Is Your Time." In 1929, the adult Rudy Vallee still dressed like Joe College, wearing a raccoon coat, fedora with the crown pressed into a flat "pork pie," the front of the brim pushed up, and drove an open, two-seat convertible coupe with a rumble seat.

One early winter day, my mother announced we were going marketing and for me to get ready and wait for her in the lobby. As I stepped into the elevator, sporting my raccoon coat and cap with just a slight bit of a peak, there was Rudy Vallee, a giant of a man, at least six feet tall, also wearing his raccoon coat. He glared down at me with complete disdain and I stared him up and down with a little wonder that a grown-up would wear child’s clothing. Our eyes locked — his with resentment, mine with the innocence of my age. When we reached the ground floor and the door opened, he swept past me out of the elevator and through the lobby.

Time Out for Rhythm, Allen Jenkins, Rosemary Lane, Ann Miller, Rudy Vallee on Window Card, 1941
Time Out for Rhythm

Allen Jenkins, Rosemary Lane, Ann Miller, Rudy Vallee

Vallee’s popularity on radio grew until, a few years later, he had a one-hour format. He introduced acts that had evolved from vaudeville and burlesque. Among them was Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy (imagine a ventriloquist on radio) and Abbot and Costello, whose immortal "Who’s on first," was nationally heard for the first time on The Rudy Vallee Variety Hour.

Vallee eventually moved his show to California and segued into movies. Although he never became a major star, he was up near the top as a character lead. He’d become a wealthy man with an ego to match every dollar he made. Though he lacked a sense of humor, strangely enough he could play comedy well, probably with his inate musician’s timing and because he took it seriously, which is the secret of playing good comedy.

In the sixties, when Combat! was among the top ten shows, I did a great many personal appearances. I was asked by an ABC publicist if I would judge a beauty contest in Long Beach, about thirty miles down the coast. Rudy Vallee was also to judge. During an intermission, I walked out onto the shallow boardwalk for a breath of ocean air. Vallee stepped out, too, rested his hands on the railing and just stood there, saying nothing and looking straight ahead. We had all, of course, been introduced to each other before the judging started.

I’d been told by friends of mine that Vallee had two traits for which he could always be counted on. One was that he was the tightest man with a dollar ever seen, and, aside from his lack of humor, he was also a snob who spoke only to God or someone of importance who could do him some good in the business. Otherwise he just shook fans’ hands, smiled, and went on his way.

"Beautiful evening, isn’t it?" I asked. He turned his head partially to me, nodded slightly and uttered a quiet, "Uh hmmm." As he started to turn away I said, "We’ve met before, you know."

He turned back. "Really?" he said, "I can’t remember where."

"There’d be no way you could remember."

"Oh? How is that?" At least he had a little curiosity.

"When you were playing on the radio for George’s Blue White Diamonds in 1929…"

He looked closely at me, I was about forty-one, and he said, "Surely you don’t remember that!"

"I do," I admitted, "and you lived in Sunnyside, Long Island, in a penthouse apartment that boasted the first automatic elevator around."

Now I had his interest up. "How do you know that?" he asked, and I could tell he was not only interested, I mean, it was all about him. "Not only that," I continued, "but you wore a raccoon coat and drove an open coupe with a rumble seat." His manner had miraculously changed. He stepped a little closer from his distance of about fifteen feet.

"That’s amazing!" he exclaimed, warming considerably and getting prepared for someone to worship at his feet. "But how do you know all this? I was just getting established."

"I lived in an apartment just beneath yours," I said, and he hadn’t the least idea what was coming next. "One day we both got into the elevator, and we were both wearing our raccoon coats. Of course, I was only six at the time."

He looked at me for a long moment as his back stiffened slightly, I, with a pleasant smile on my face. "Hmmm," he said, "quite amusing," and he turned and walked off. We never spoke again.

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