Rudy Vallee, the megaphone-carrying crooner who became a star nearly 60 years ago with his tribute to fellow Yalies drinking down at Mory’s with their glasses raised on high, died Thursday evening at his Hollywood Hills home. He was 85.
Vallee died while watching the Statue of Liberty centennial ceremonies, said his wife, Eleanor.
“Rudy was watching the unveiling of the Statue of Liberty and he remarked: ‘I wish we could be there; you know how I love a party.’ Then he took a big breath, and he died,” she said.
Vallee had been in failing health for several months. He was hospitalized at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in February after a fall at his home. Doctors found a growth on his esophagus and operated, but the singer later developed pneumonia and suffered a stroke, according to his agent, Chris Harris.
But almost to the end, Vallee had proved durable, continuing to work well into his 70s. He had started as a saxophonist and band leader in the 1920s and, for the next two decades, was one of the nation’s most successful vaudeville and radio personalities.
And, never known for his reticence, he wrote not one but three autobiographies and in the 1970s fought a loud and nasty battle with city officials to get the name of the street in the Hollywood Hills on which he lived changed to Rue de Vallee.
“I’ll be front page news until the day I die,” said Vallee in a 1962 interview in which he denied that his starring role in Broadway’s “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” was a comeback. Vallee insisted he had never been gone.
In a sense, he was right. Through his career ups and downs, the man had a certain undeniable panache.
In his later life, he served as a reminder of the old Hollywood--the days of long sleek roadsters, tweeds and snap-brim hats, radio shows and plush nightclubs and glamorous people looking like glossy photographs.
His body had thickened a bit, but his eyes were alive and when he smiled, which was often, it was the familiar Vallee smile, consuming his face under a swatch of thinning but still very red hair.
Vallee was a spirited, hospitable, garrulous man—an American original.
He was born Hubert Prior Vallee in Island Pond, Vt., on July 28, 1901, of French-Irish parents. He took the first name Rudy in the 1920s from Rudy Wiedoeft, a saxophonist he liked.
Young Rudy’s first musical instrument—at the age of 4—was a drum, which he frequently banged on to alleviate the pain of the earaches that plagued him as a child. As he grew up, Rudy began to master the drums, piano and clarinet.
Vallee’s start in show business was on the ground floor. In 1917, he took a job as usher, janitor and operator of the hand-cranked projection machine at a movie theater in Westbrook, Me. A year later, he moved on to a job as head usher in a theater in Portland, where he taught himself to play the saxophone. By 1920, he was making a few dollars performing as a saxophonist in a local orchestra.
Vallee attended the University of Maine and, later, Yale. To pay his tuition and board, he began to play with dance bands in New York and Boston. He also occasionally sang with the bands, using a truncated megaphone.
The megaphone, of course, became his trademark, although at the time its use was not uncommon among singers. He and the megaphone became familiar sights in the 1920s and 1930s. With the megaphone in hand, and sometimes wearing a college sweater, he sang in a rich, somewhat nasal voice, that Yale drinking ditty, the “Whiffenpoof Song,” as well as “My Time is Your Time” and “I’m Just a Vagabond Lover.”
Vallee graduated from Yale in 1927 and, a year later, formed an eight-piece band at the new, exclusive Heigh-Ho Club in New York City. A local radio station began to broadcast live from the club, and Vallee was on his way to stardom.
The program was an immediate success. Vallee’s band was called, at first, the Yale Collegians, and later the Connecticut Yankees. Rudy’s greeting to his listeners, “Heigh-ho, everybody!” became his nationally known radio signature.
By 1929, Standard Brands had signed Vallee and his band for an hourlong weekly radio show to advertise Fleischmann’s Yeast. It became known as the “Fleischmann Hour” and in 1932 evolved into radio’s first variety show. Vallee was more than a singer and band leader; he also was a master of ceremonies, introducing other talent.
Vallee branched out in the 1930s, forming a talent agency and two music publishing companies. He began grinding out a long list of hit songs that included the University of Maine “Stein Song,” “Good Night Sweetheart,” “I Kiss Your Hand, Madame,” “Lover Come Back to Me,” “Springtime in the Rockies,” “Honey” and “Marie.”
Hollywood discovered Vallee when his first hit song led to the RKO production of “I’m Just a Vagabond Lover” in 1929. It was not an overwhelming cinematic success.
“When I saw the premiere, I thought I was ruined for life,” Vallee said later. He wasn’t.
Vallee became a popular Hollywood crooner in such films as “Sweet Music” (1935); “Gold Diggers in Paris” (1938); “Second Fiddle” (1939); “Time Out for Rhythm” (1941); “Too Many Blondes” (1941) and “The Palm Beach Story” (1942).
The war intervened in Vallee’s Hollywood career. He joined the Coast Guard in 1943 and was named bandmaster of the 11th Naval District Coast Guard band in Wilmington, Calif., playing at war bond rallies.
After the war there were more movies, such as “People Are Funny” in 1946 and “The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer” in 1947. Vallee began to develop a reputation as one of Hollywood’s finer light comedians.
His later films included “I Remember Mama” (1947); “The Admiral Was a Lady” (1950) and “The Helen Morgan Story” (1957).
Perhaps his biggest success in films came with one of his later movies, “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” in 1967.
It was a reprise of his role in the 1961 Broadway play of the same name. He played the pompous, incompetent business tycoon J. B. Biggley in the Abe Burrows-Frank Loesser musical comedy. The play and movie, as well as Vallee’s performance, were hits, and the play marked Vallee’s return to Broadway after a 25-year absence.
Vallee remained busy—and somewhat controversial—well into the 1970s.
His effort to have the name of his street changed so angered some of his neighbors that he called his opponents “a bunch of disgruntled pukes” and added: “They’re all complaining because they are jealous.”
Vallee stayed busy as the decade progressed. He did a concert tour of the nation’s campuses in a two-hour, one-man show. He starred at the St. Louis Municipal Opera with Don Ameche and Dorothy Lamour. He performed in summer theater in 1973 in “Once Upon a Mattress,” a musical in which he pantomimed a character called King Septimus the Silent in which he neither spoke nor sang until the final scene.
In 1975 he was back on stage in Los Angeles, reprising his “How to Succeed” role. Later in the year, he returned to the University of Maine with his one-man show. He continued to perform the show in the 1980s.
With 60 years of show business chalked up, Vallee began to slow down a bit and spend more time in his pink villa high in the Hollywood Hills. His home of 40 years was one of those old movie star places, built by Ann Harding, a screen beauty of the 1930s who put in a private tennis court and movie theater.
Vallee turned the old theater into a museum of Vallee memorabilia. “I never throw anything away,” he told an interviewer a few years ago.
Dusty metal shelves and files contained all the music he ever sang, discs of radio shows and tapes of nightclub openings and all his old radio scripts.
There were old newspapers and magazines, a Rudy Vallee marionette made 50 years ago, a shelf of megaphones and a special corner with a framed picture of the young Vallee and his saxophonist idol, Rudy Wiedoeft, next to a photo of Vallee’s father.
Vallee remained outspoken to the last—and somewhat critical of the changes he saw going on around him in show business, saying this about popular music in a 1981 interview with U.S. News & World Report:
“The popular songs that were written in the 1920s and ‘30s, ‘40s and early ‘50s were written by veterans—mostly men who’d had experience in life. How can you write a lyric if you haven’t really lived life?
“The kids of today have taken over the music business—most of them very young. Simply because they write and jot down a few notes, they have the idea that they can write songs.
“Composers now just don’t have the depth of inspiration for melody. Most of the lyrics of the pop songs you hear today are repetitious. They’re almost nursery rhymes, as if written by children--which they are.”
He said about movies:
“It’s too bad that there aren’t as many light comedies around in the movies as there were when I was making pictures like ‘The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer.’ The boys are just not writing them. Many writers are more serious now than they used to be, and that’s showing up in all phases of entertainment.”
Vallee said these things more in sadness than in anger. His real anger was reserved for those who counted him out too soon.
It happened several times, he told another interviewer in 1975. First, in 1961 when he almost didn’t get the part of J. B. Biggley in “How to Succeed.” The second was a few years later when others were considered for the film version and then, in the early 1970s, in a revival of the play.
“Too old!” he shouted angrily. “They had me an octogenarian with one foot in the grave—ready for an old man’s home. And I was the only person that never missed one damn show in three solid years (on Broadway).”
Vallee was president of the American Federation of Actors in the 1930s and, later, was a member of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, the American Federation of Musicians, the Screen Actors Guild, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the American Legion.
Vallee married his fourth wife, Eleanor Kathleen Norris Vallee, in 1949.