My Dinner With Rudy - by John Sealander
"Christians," said Rudy, articulating with his spoon between mouthfuls of turkey soup. "I just can't buy it. . .I mean Mark said this, John said that, Luke said something else. After 2000
years, who knows what happened. What I mean is people can't quote me right. . .and I'm still alive."
I wasn't about to argue. Rudy Vallee was very much alive. It's didn't faze him that people like myself still confused him with Rudolph Valentino. It didn't even faze him that he was telling his story to four total stranger dinner guests from Texas. Rudy had an audience.
He also had, without a doubt, the best view in Los Angeles: an airborne panorama of the San Fernando Valley out the dining room window, and the rest of California from the roof terrace. The house was once Ann Harding's, but there was little doubt that it now belonged to Rudy. It was filled to overflowing with a lifetime of dinnertime conversation. The view was just a lot of real estate. But the memories. . .the memories were everything.
We listened as Rudy recounted a lifetime of poodles. Poodles who met untimely deaths. Poodles born on the road. Poodles given to the famous and not so famous. Sixty years of poodle tales, interwoven with stories of ex-wives and names we should have remembered, but didn't.
Rudy said he would have died for several of those poodles, but I hope not. The four or five that remained in the house were obnoxious in a manner that only animals raised in conspicuous wealth can approximate. They barked and yipped and left little stains on our Levi's. And Rudy was delighted. He gushed over his current favorite: a high strung gray animal with extra long legs that had an eerie resemblance to a miniature Irish Wolfhound. He cuddled and fondled the dogs like children. And of course they were.
The dogs stayed inside for dinner, since it was getting cold. But we ate outside on the terrace. Rudy's wife brought us all tennis sweaters to protect us from the 60 degree California evening. And for good measure, Rudy brought down a blue and white Madras sports jacket from upstairs. It was said he had dozens just like it, in a closet that ran the entire length of the house.
Rudy had been taking a nap when we arrived, but the combination of cool evening air and hot, family recipe turkey soup proved to be the magic elixir. The conversation changed suddenly from the weather, the view and Proposition 13 to Rudy himself. And that's where it stayed for the duration of the evening.
Rudy remembered. And who were we to question. We weren't even alive then. We heard about his days at Yale. About the Spanish teacher who would flunk everyone who didn't get a perfect score on the final. About the Yale glee club's early days. About his Saxophone. . .and how it was the genesis for everything that followed. We heard about the day Rudy saw Bing Crosby's first performance. And we certainly heard about his early recording days: the studios, the wax recordings, the musicians who became lifetime friends. This, you must remember, was all during the first course of Turkey Soup.
When the Sole Almandine, Baked Potatoes and Asparagus Tips arrived, Rudy remembered even more. He remembered he still had to get back in touch with the Readers Digest. There were still deals to be made. He told us about this idea of recording an album of his favorite songs (as opposed to an album of his greatest hits) and packaging the record with a book he planned to write explaining the story behind each song. He, of course remembered all the stories.
There were stories of live recordings made while he was singing to a lost lover in the front row who'd just left him for a sailor. Stories about his days directing the Coast Guard orchestra. And then there was Yale. The Wiff N' Poof Song was almost a book in itself. Rudy Vallee was a Stutz Bearcat, pennant waving, raccoon coat Yalie. The memories of Yale seemed more clearly etched in his memory than all his show business years combined. He remembered his teachers names, most of his classmates, and was probably one of the reasons why Yale was so well endowed.
Everyone liked the story behind the song idea. But what did we know? We'd never heard any of these songs. We had green Jello for dessert. Rudy had his without the whipped cream and went right on talking. He told us he was putting together a new show in his spare time and that he'd like to preview it for us after dinner. We were never asked whether we'd like to see this show. It was increasingly clear this was what we were here for. We finished our Jello, drank our coffee and watched the fog roll in. Rudy had been talking nonstop for well over an hour.
Every once in a while, Rudy's wife would remind him of an upcoming event, like the elephant they were supposed to ride in an upcoming Republican fund-raiser. But anything she said would only serve to remind him of another story.
In recent years I've managed to forget my first girlfriend's name, my first wife's birthday, my younger sister's age, why I majored in architecture in college and why I was am still producing television commercials. But then I never lived in a house with 35 tons of history to spur my memory.
As Rudy's latest wife, his housekeeper and the cook retired to other parts of the house, Rudy led the four of us to a small den-like room, just off the main entry hall. He'd set up an Ectagraphic slide projector on the coffee table. There were two big Sunn guitar amplifiers in each corner of the room. I saw a small theatrical spotlight with revolving gels, a portable cassette tape recorder, and in the middle of the room, a microphone on a stand with at least five different electrical switches attached to it with gaffer's tape.
Into the cassette recorder went a cassette of Rudy's all time favorite songs (his own of course). Out went the lights and - showtime. The music was loud and distorted. Rudy would sing along with himself when the songs were in a low enough key. Otherwise, he stood by the mike stand, advancing the slides on the projector with one of the gaff-taped switches. During the instrumental numbers, Rudy turned the small spotlight with the rotating colored gels on himself and began vigorously conducting an imaginary orchestra. The dim spotlight threw bizarre colored shadows on the wall behind him.
We listened to the Wiff N' Poof Song. The Coast Guard Orchestra played "Shangri-La" while Rudy showed faded slides of every mountain from the Maroon Bells to Everest. Standing in the spotlight, bathed on rotating colored lights with the music crackling through the two overdriven guitar amps behind him, Rudy totally forgot we were there. He was back on stage. He was back in the limelight again. Back on the bandstand. It didn't really matter that four slightly bewildered ad agency strangers were sitting in his den at eleven-thirty on a Monday evening, drinking coffee and nervously fidgeting. He wasn't seeing the four of us. . .he was seeing four thousand.
We clapped a little and asked polite questions when the lights finally came up. Rudy Vallee was in his eighties. I wondered if this was what it was going to be like for Eric Clapton or Mick Jagger. And I wondered even more about myself. Did everything in life ultimately just come down to this: finding someone, anyone, to talk to. . .just to validate the years you'd spent on this earth?
Rudy said it was getting late. And of course it was. But he insisted of giving us a tour of all his personal possessions anyway. We saw newspaper clippings. The cages the poodles traveled in. The Christmas Cards from the famous. The saxophone that started it all. The posters from the Broadway production of "How to Succeed in Business". The clothes he used to perform in. We watched in awe as Rudy performed a strange benediction on fifty years of dust that made up a life that had come to an end over twenty years ago.
We ended our tour and our visit in Rudy's garage. His car was a 1968 Dodge station wagon painted California highway patrol black and white, with flashing lights and a siren on the roof. There were Connecticut plates wired to the bottom of the California plates. Rudy hadn't driven in years.
It was 1:00AM when we said our good-byes. We gave Rudy a case of our client's potato chips when we left. For the life of me, I can't think of why.