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 youve seen couch potatoes flicking the channels on TV?
Thats 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!
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 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 didnt 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 childs 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.
Vallees 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 "Whos
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.
Hed 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
musicians timing and because he took it seriously, which is the secret of playing
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.
Id 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, isnt 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, "Weve met before, you know."
He turned back. "Really?" he said, "I cant
"Thered 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 Georges Blue White
Diamonds in 1929
He looked closely at me, I was about forty-one, and he said,
"Surely you dont 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.